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Published: March 30th 2018
The main gate to Jokiin.
Before embarking on this trip, I suspected (correctly, as it turned out), that Kyoto would be overrun with tourists. I knew I wanted to experience a culturally significant site without too many tourists, and I also wanted to experience shokubo
(temple lodging). Scanning through the blogs on this site, I found that pretty much everyone who had blogged about Mt. Koya (commonly called Koyasan) had a positive experience there. I decided to investigate further. From my initial research, I learned that Koyasan is the spiritual center for Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, and that it has over 120 temples, with a significant number of them offering lodging. The cheaper lodgings seemed to already be fully booked. After some research, I settled on Jokiin, which appeared to be centrally located and had very good reviews. The price was a little steep at USD257 including dinner and breakfast, but it still wasn’t among the priciest ones by far. I took a deep breath and booked a room.
We left Kyoto at 8.30am on the rapid express train to Osaka. It only took about 30 minutes to get to Osaka Station. There, we transferred to a subway line to get to Namba (we kept
This was one of the few places women were allowed to stay. It is on the outskirts of the main town.
thinking of Nambia
. ugh) station, where Nankai, a private railway company, operates from. We each bought a two day pass which included return train journeys and unlimited bus rides within Koya, all operated by Nankai. We calculated that our cost saving with this pass would only be minimal.
Prior to October 2017, getting to Koyasan used to be faster and more straightforward. A typhoon damaged part of the railway line, so the train now terminates at Hashimoto, and passengers bound for Koyasan are transferred to a bus. The hourlong bus journey took us up winding mountain roads before depositing us at a station. There, we transferred to a local bus to get to Jokiin. We arrived a little past noon. The journey from Kyoto took over three hours in all.
At Jokiin, we looked for a reception area but found none. We asked a passing worker for help, at which time he opened a sliding door and a friendly woman came out, took our bags, and told us to return at 3pm. As we had a few hours to kill, we walked into town, ate some lunch, looked at some of the temples, and then found a nice
This is the main stupa on the site. Inside, there is a beautiful altar with golden Buddha statues.
hiking trail through pine forests. The short trail ended at Nyonindo. Up until the middle of the Edo period, women were not allowed into the sacred part of Koyasan; they could not go beyond certain points on the outskirts of town. Nyonindo was one of the places where women could stay.
After looking at Nyonindo, we walked downhill back towards the center of town, explored a few more temples, and checked in for our stay at Jokiin. When we got there, the reception door was open, and a different woman checked us in, showed us around, and explained the schedule of events. After checking in, we walked to the nearby Danjo Garan complex, a big, imposing complex with several stupas, halls, and other structures. As Koyasan is at high altitude, it was cold. After Danjo Garan, we headed back to Jokiin. Arriving back at Jokiin, we saw two monks chanting on a balcony next to the reception area. This was oddly reminiscent of my stay at a convent in Ruteng, Indonesia
where I returned after a day of sightseeing to the sound of singing nuns.
As I have mentioned before, shokubo
lodging includes dinner. At Jokiin, all meals are shojin ryori
(Buddhist vegan, no onions
Our two-tray meal. There are additional pictures after the main text with more detailed descriptions of the items on the trays.
and garlic), supposedly prepared by the monks. When reserving the room, I was given a choice of a one-, two-, or three-tray meal. I chose the two-tray meal and hoped it would be enough. Our meal was served to us in our room by a guy I suspected wasn't actually a monk, as his head wasn't shaved (he wore a head covering, though) and he wasn't present at the prayer ceremony the next morning. I was pleased when he didn't offer us alcohol; I'd read about guests at other lodgings being offered alcohol with their meals, and I thought that was odd for a Buddhist vegan meal. The meal was beautifully presented, delicious, and very filling. I suspect many meat eaters would willingly give up meat if they could eat like this every day. We sat on cushions on the tatami mat floor to eat our meal.
After dinner, a monk came and set up our mattresses on the floor. We chilled a little, then went to the on site onsen
. Public bathing is the only option at many of the lodgings, so anyone wanting a shokubo
experience should be comfortable with that. Jokiin did have one shower room
The lantern-lined ceiling of the room where the morning prayer ceremony was held.
but it was only available for use in the morning.
After a comfortable sleep, we woke up early and got ready for the 6am morning prayer ceremony. It was cold and there was frost on the vegetation. We went into a beautiful, lantern-lined room and sat in silence as the head priest and four monks chanted for about 30 minutes. Halfway while the chanting was going on, one monk distributed information sheets inviting guests to come up to the altar and offer incense. The sheets also gave instructions on how to do it. After the chanting was done, the priest, who introduced himself as Kato, gave us a short history in English of Koyasan and Jokiin, told us about Shingon Buddhism, and explained the features of the altar. He then guided us on a walk around the altar. I only had my iPhone with me; I took a few pictures, but I wanted better quality shots, so I went back to my room to grab my camera only to find the prayer room door shut when I returned.
Our next activity was breakfast in a communal room. There were about 20 guests in all. While we were eating,
This was the breakfast served in the communal dining room. We sat on cushions on the tatami mat floor. On this tray is a cold tofu patty, soup, pickles, mountain vegetables, beans, and nori. Not on the tray: rice (which you scoop into the covered bowl on the bottom left) and sliced fruit.
our bedding was cleared from our rooms. The message was unspoken but clear - they didn't want us hanging around before check in time and after breakfast. Part of me couldn't help but wonder if the temples opened themselves to travelers out of economic necessity. I also wondered whether, with only five monks (that I was aware of) on site, they had enough resources to prepare the meals themselves, or if the meals were catered. I also wondered how having to cater to guests impacted their daily routines and religious activities, and what their routines would be if they didn’t operate a lodging.
After breakfast, we checked out and left our bags at reception and walked to Okunoin, a cemetary on the eastern end of town. The cemetary was beautiful, green, and peaceful. We strolled around, checked out the shrines, tombstones, and statues. One of the more interesting things we saw were structures (I'm not sure if they were actual graves) with corporate logos on them, including Panasonic and Nissan. Do they bury their retirees here? I even heard Japanese visitors sniggering as they walked past these structures.
After Okunoin, we walked out to the main road, hailed
a bus back to the center of town, ate some lunch, collected our bags, and then made our way back to Osaka and onward to Nagoya.
I really enjoyed Koyasan. It is a beautiful and atmospheric place, and it seemed to attract mostly younger, independent travelers seeking to immerse themselves in this spiritual place. We didn't see any large groups of tourists. I suspect this place isn't on the main tourist trail because it takes some effort to get there, and also because there aren't large hotels or restaurants that can handle large tour groups. I hope it stays this way.
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