Me again. Apologies for the profusion of words and pictures. I hope you'll agree, though, the photos at least are worth the time...
We’re slowly ticking off ‘must-see’ places in Japan. This one is…Koya-san, an area of some beauty, relevance and reverence on the top of a mountain in Wakayama Prefecture. It was established in 816 by Kobadaishi, a Japanese fellow who studied Buddhism in China and subsequently brought it back. Since then, Koya-san has developed into perhaps the pre-eminent Buddhist site in the country. There are hundreds of temples and shrines, and other than a few bits, appears relatively untouched by the modernity and industrialisation that blights/lights the rest of Japan. It’s an incredibly tranquil place. To get there, it takes about 90 minutes by fast train from Osaka, followed by a cable car on rails to drag you to the top. Pilgrims and the misdirected/hyperactive can climb ‘a pied’, but that’s a mug’s game.
A popular thing to do here is stay at a temple, and quite an industry has sprung up around it. Until relatively recently, this was an ascetic affair, but thankfully/cynically, the facilities have been spruced up to almost modern hotel standards to attract
more people. It’s considerably cheaper than staying at a good ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), but the difference is minimal. Also, all the staff are monks, it’s strictly vegetarian and you get the chance to have morning prayers. We stayed at Ichi-jo-in, which came highly recommended and it’s a recommendation that I’ll gladly pass on. The staff were brilliant, the food was top-notch...no complaints.
Friends of mine who’d been to Koya-san raved about the cemetery and having now seen it for myself, I’ll have a jolly good rave, too. It’s almost unnervingly special, and very, very old. It transpires that being buried here is fortuitous and provides guaranteed release from the birth and death cycle. Over half a million (mostly) time-eaten, moss-adorned graves are scattered through a section of ancient forest over about a two mile stretch. Many big names are buried up here, and Mitsu was amazed when we came across the lynchpins of the last thousand years of Japan’s history. Imagine Canute, Bill the Conqueror, Thomas a Becket, Drake, all the Richards, Henrys, Georges, Cromwell, the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill, all interned in the same place.
Once we'd checked in, we had time to avail
ourselves of the onsen-style bathing facilities and were served dinner. I wasn’t into tofu until recently, and if you’re not a fan, supper will be very boring. They had tofu sashimi, normal tofu, special local tofu…as well as veggies, tempura and soup. Ichi-jo-in is well-known for the standard and volume of food, and we were both stuffed by the end, requiring a nap to get over it. Then it was lights out early, wake-up call at six for prayers.
Prayers…hard to describe. Other than the language (obviously!), it’s similar to other Buddhist rites I’ve seen/taken part in. There’s a lot of hypnotic, mellow chanting, lights, incense and stuff. I’m not being glib, it’s just hard to describe, and other than the burning thighs from kneeling for too long, it was a positive, contemplative experience. Post prayers, brekkie was presented, and a mighty fine one it was, too. Suitably spiritually and victually fortified, it was off and out again.
We struck it lucky with our timing, in that one of the temples was holding one of their annual ceremonies that day. We hot-footed it over to one of the main areas to be greeted by ranks of monks and
nuns and a colourful procession punctuated with cymbals and conch-blowing. Really quite something. As the ceremony outside drew to a close (it continued inside for some time), we wandered semi-aimlessly around the woods. So many temples, it’s really a world apart. Highlights included; Kongubuji Temple, which is the Japanese headquarters for the Shingon Sect of Buddhism (the largest school outside Tibetan Buddhism); the Konpon Daito, a massive pagoda; the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, possibly the most famous person in Japanese History. Ieyasu was the man who cajoled/bullied Japan into one entity, and started a dynasty which lasted from the early 1600s to 1867. (James Clavell’s novel Shogun is based around his ascent to power- or some of you might remember Richard Chamberlain in the TV series!!)
That’s about it, really. Arriving back in Osaka was a bit of a culture shock…bright lights, big city, busy-busy. Koya-san is fantastic.
For information, the official website is excellent: http://www.shukubo.jp/eng/index.html
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