Saturday, August 5, 2017

Kansai Diaries, Day 1½ : West Side of Koya Town

November 23, 2016
Wednesday
Noon

I walk out of Chuo Shokudo San Bou with my stomach full of veggies, ready to start exploring the town of Koya. But first, I go to the Koyasan Shukubo Association (Tourist Information) Central Office around the corner to rent an audio guide (500 yen). Since I am staying the night in town, they tell me I could return the audio guide the following morning in the same office or in any of the two tourist information centers near Okunoin. (Day trippers have to return the audio guide on the same day, before the offices close at 430PM.)

I switch on my audio guide and listen to a short introduction about Koyasan as I walk westward to my first stop: Kongobuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The town of Koya

Kongobuji
金剛峯寺
830AM to 5PM (last entry at 430PM)
Admission fee: 500 yen (400 yen if with Koyasan World Heritage Ticket 20% discount coupon)

Kongobuji is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. I enter the temple grounds through its main gate which is the oldest building (1593) in Kongobuji. In the past only royalty and the chief priests could pass through this gate. Today, everyone can pretend they are royalty.

Kongobuji's main gate

Inside the temple grounds, to the left of the gate, I see a small lonely building surrounded by trees. This is the kyozo (1679), a storage for all the temple's important articles. There is moss growing on its roof. It is closed. I wonder if it's musty inside.

 Kyozo (Scripture Storehouse)

To the right of the gate, the audio guide tells me, is the shoro or bell tower. I can't see the bell because it is a bell tower with walls, a type that is called hakamagoshi. I wonder if its bell is still being rung and when?

 Shoro (Bell Tower)

And directly in front of me, Kongobuji with its thick thatch roof...and, strangely, wooden buckets on the roof. I learn that these buckets are called tensuioke or rain barrels... you know, in case of fire.

The temple has two entrances. The main entrance, like the main gate, is only for royalty and for the chief priests. This is fenced off: no entry! I and the other visitors enter through the smaller entrance and pay the admission fee. The temple is quite big and I walk slowly from room to room, listening to my audio guide and following the map of Kongobuji on the brochure that came with it.

Kongobuji

First a spacious room with paintings of pine trees and cranes on its golden fusuma (sliding doors). This room is the Ohirama or the Main Hall where important ceremonies are held. Also in this room is the Jibutsuma, an altar where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddishm, is enshrined. The altar also has memorial tablets for past emperors of Japan and Chief Abbots of Kongobuji.

After the main hall, I admire six more smaller rooms with painted sliding doors; one room's fusuma is painted with plum trees, the other with willow trees, others with sceneries.

 Ohirama (Main Hall)

 Jibutsuma

Moving on to spot #10 on my map, the Shin Betsuden. But before I enter, I am given a tray of green tea and rice cracker. I follow my fellow visitors into Shin Betsuden and sit on the side. Since I can't understand a word of what the monk is saying, I just munch on the cracker and drink my tea, then slowly tiptoe away once I'm done.

 Shin Betsuden (New Temple Annex)


I move further west in the temple and a very large and beautiful rock garden stops me in my tracks. Banryutei Rock Garden, measuring 2,340 square meters, is the largest rock garden in Japan. I try to imagine two dragons emerging from a blanket of clouds...because that is what this rock garden is supposed to represent.

 Banryutei Rock Garden

I visit a few more rooms in the temple: the golden room called Shoin Jodan no Ma where Koyasan's major ceremonies are held; Okushoin, which used to be the resting area of the Imperial Family; Chigonoma, or the page room, where guards of the emperor stayed; Tsuchimuro, a room that was built coated with soil and a fireplace in the center; and, lastly, the huge kitchen where one can cook up a storm and feed up to 2000 people.

Shoin Jodan no Ma

 Tsuchimuro (Earth Room)

Kitchen

Garan
壇場伽藍
Garan Grounds: Open all day / Free admission
Kondo Hall / Konpon Daito Pagoda:
830AM to 5PM
200 yen each (160 yen each if with Koyasan World Heritage Ticket 20% discount coupon)
Note: The fee is dropped in an unmanned box, so prepare the exact amount.

I leave Kongobuji and go to Koyasan's central temple complex called Garan. This is one of two of Koyasan's most sacred sites (the other is Okunoin, which is on the east side of town, near where I am staying). Garan is the first site Kobo Daishi built when he first started the monastery on Mt Koya.

Chumon

The temple complex has a gate (Chumon), but I enter on the east side of the complex where it is nearer to Kongobuji.

The pathway that leads to the east side of Garan

On my right I see a small red and white pagoda called Toto or East Pagoda, followed by three faded wooden buildings of different shapes and sizes: Sanmaido, Daiedo, and Aizendo. All these are closed.

Toto (East Pagoda)

Sanmaido

Daiedo

Konpon Daito (left) and Aizendo (right)

Opposite the Aizendo is another wooden building called Fudo-do. This is the oldest building in Koyasan, built in 1198. While I look at Fudo-do and wonder what's inside (this, too, is closed), I hear a chorus of voices, a captivating chant, and I hurry away to find the source.

Fudo-do

The enchanting sound comes from a group of monks gathered in front of Konpon Daito and I catch the last lulling notes as I reach them.


Construction of the Konpon Daito started in the year 816 and was finished 71 years later. The pagoda is about 50 meters high and inside are Buddhist images and statues. Another building I enter is the Kondo or the main hall. This is where many ceremonies and rituals take place. (Taking photographs inside these two buildings is not allowed.)

 Konpon Daito (Great Pagoda)

Near these two buildings is a pine tree (Sanko no Matsu) where I notice a lot of people are gathered, some bent at the hip, looking at the ground.

Legend has it that before Kobo Daishi returned to Japan from China, he threw his Buddhist ceremonial tool (called a sankosho) to the east and prayed that it would show him where to build his monastery. It is said that he discovered his sankosho stuck in this pine tree, a type that has three needles.

So why are my fellow visitors looking at the ground? They are looking for pine needles to keep as a lucky charm. Out of curiosity, I look at the ground too to see if the pine needles really come in threes. (I see a few.)

Kujaku-do, Junteido, Miedo, Konpon Daito, Sanko no Matsu (surrounded by a red fence)

I explore the rest of the temple grounds and see more wooden buildings (all closed to the public) such as the Miedo or the Great Portrait Hall, which contains a 9th century portrait of Kobo Diashi and can only be viewed by the public once a year; Saito or the West Pagoda; and the Rokkaku Kyozo, a beautiful hexagonal building that is said to house Buddhist scriptures written in gold ink on blue paper.

 Saito (West Pagoda)

Rokkaku Kyuzu

There are handles on the base of the Rokkaku Kyuzu and I watch as two people strain their muscles trying to rotate the base. One rotates the base once he has finished reading the scriptures, but I am guessing these two are just curious how to rotate it. I want to give it a go but I feel I'd look funny doing it alone. I abandon the idea and give the temple complex a 360-degree look before I leave and proceed west to the edge of town.

Daimon
大門

I know I am at the edge of town when I reach a two-storey, 25-meter tall gate. This great gate, Daimon, marks the entrance to Koyasan and the end of the 23.5-kilometer Choishi Michi Trail, one of the six pilgrimage trails in the Kii Mountain Range that are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The great gate is flanked by two Nio (guardians of Buddha). The Nio in Koyasan's Daimon are considered to be the second largest in Japan; the largest ones are in Todaiji in Nara.

 Daimon

A Nio

Now that I have reached the west end of town, I rest my legs and sit on a bench facing the magnificent gate and enjoy the cool late November mountain air. It is quiet, disturbed only by the sound of a car passing the road that bends around the gate.

Two persons emerge from a small red torii off to my left and I remember it is the hiking trail the guesthouse staff recommended to take if I wanted a short hike (less than an hour). I glance at my watch and see that there is still plenty of time to reach the peak of Mt Bentendake before it gets dark.


I start my hike. The ground is completely covered with brown leaves. Every step I make makes a crunching noise as leaves and twigs break under my big feet. I meet only one person and he is on his way down. I continue on. It's just me and nature. Trees, leaves, bushes, an occasional faded red torii. And then I see a sign. Upon closer inspection, it warns me that bears have been spotted in the area and not to hike alone and to cover my face if I were attacked by a bear. I take a photo of the sign and send it to my family WhatsApp group with the caption "to proceed or to go back?" I go on following the trail.

Beware of Bears!

I am a few hundred meters further up the mountain when I receive my sister's frantic reply: Go back!!! Her message bops some sense into me and I stop, look around, and think: I am alone. I do not seen anyone ahead of me nor is there anyone hiking behind me. I don't have a bell to "scare" the bears. No one knows I'm here except my family and they are thousands of miles away...and maybe that guy who was on his way down, if he even had a good look at my face. Plus I am hungry. I want to feed myself and not be fed to the bears. I take a big gulp of fresh air and one last look up the lonely path, then turn around and go back down to civilization to look for food.



Filling my stomach was more important than visiting these other places in the west side of town:
  • Koyasan Reihokan Museum 霊宝館 – a museum of Kongobuji's sacred relics, Buddhist images, and icons. Open from 830AM to 530PM (5PM from November to April). Admission fee is 600 yen (480 yen if with Koyasan World Heritage Ticket 20% discount coupon).
  • Tokugawa Clan Mausoleum 徳川家霊台





Japan
Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
Tokyo Accommodation: Shinjuku Airbnb
Tokyo: Memorable Tokyo Eats
Tokyo: Odaiba
Tokyo: Doing Touristy Things in Tokyo
Toyama: A Hamlet Called Ainokura
Kyoto Accommodation: K's House Hostel Kyoto
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Wisdom from the Road: On exits #2
Kyoto: By the Thousands (Kyoto Imperial Palace, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove)
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Turning Japanese
Kyoto: Braving the Crowds at these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji)
Hyogo, Japanecdote: If Only I Could Speak Nihongo
Hyogo: Day Trip to Himeji: Himeji Castle and Shoshazan Engyoji Temple
Hyogo, Japanecdote: Am I an Alien?
Hiroshima: Strolling and Snacking in Miyajima
Hiroshima: Remembering the Past in Hiroshima
Osaka, Japanecdote: How to Lose Friends
Osaka Accommodation: Osaka Airbnb
Osaka, Japanecdote: Where is Bentencho Station?
Osaka: Osaka Adlaw, Osaka Ako sa Osaka
Osaka, Japanecdote: Learn From Your Mistakes

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan
Wakayama: Day 1½ : West Side of Koya Town (you're here!)
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Kansai Diaries, Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan

November 23, 2016
Wednesday

I wake up before my alarm rings. Soon I am at the ground floor of Hotel Raizan, depositing my bag in their luggage storage area. I have a quick breakfast with what they have for sale: cereal, milk, and yogurt. And I say goodbye to my bag and to the receptionist and trace my way back to where I had come from last night, Nankai Shin-Imamiya Station, to start my journey to the town of Koya in the prefecture of Wakayama, where I will be staying for a night.

Going to the Town of Koya:
  • At Nankai Shin-Imamiya Station I get on the Express train to Hashimoto. (See train timetable.)
  • In Hashimoto, I transfer to a train bound for Gokurakubashi.
  • From Gokurakubashi, I take a 5-minute cable car ride on an inclined tram/cable car to Koyasan Station.
  • And finally, I get on a bus bound for the town of Koya. (See bus timetable.)
 A station along the Koya Line

 Tram/Cable Car to Koyasan Station

Inside the tram/cable car

The entire trip, from Shin-Imamiya Station to Koya town, takes about two hours and I pay for each leg of the trip by showing my Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. There are faster trains—Rapid Express and Limited Express—that will shave off 10 to 20 minutes from the travel time. The Rapid Express operates every hour from 9AM to 1PM. The Limited Express is more frequent but is not covered by my Koyasan World Heritage Ticket.

The Koyasan World Heritage Ticket also includes 2 days of unlimited bus rides (Nankai Rinkan Bus) around the town of Koya.

Sleeping in the Town of Koya:

Koyasan (Mt Koya) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism established 1200 years ago by Kukai or Kobo Daishi, a Buddhist priest. He established a monastery in Koyasan. And over the years, a temple town developed around it. Many temples around Koya offer pilgrims and travelers a place to stay (a night in a temple with breakfast and dinner costs at least 9,700 yen). While on the trip planning stage I was tempted to stay in a temple lodging, but in the end I had to admit defeat and find a cheaper alternative.

I get off at the last bus stop and walk east, away from the town center, for about 5 minutes, to the only non-temple accommodation I could find that was within my budget: Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu.


The guesthouse, grey on the outside but all white inside, is small with just 8 capsules and 3 bedrooms. All the bedrooms and capsules share toilets and shower rooms. I am assigned a bottom capsule. The capsule has a futon, pillow, blanket, lamp, power outlets, coat hooks, hangers, and a window. (A bath towel can be rented for 100 yen.) The capsule door can be locked from the inside. The capsule is rather small but is surprisingly comfy.


It's amazingly cozy inside the capsule

There is a bar and a common lounge where guests can mingle and eat. The bar serves breakfast (not included in the room rate), dinner, and drinks. There is free coffee and tea.

600 yen breakfast at Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu

Once I had finished inspecting my capsule and dumping my bag there, the guesthouse staff sits me down at the lounge and gives tips (in a very humorous way, I should mention) on what to see (a lot!) and where to eat (he gives me seven restaurant options and writes down the restaurant names in romaji and not in Japanese) in town.

Eating in the Town of Koya:

I take his advice and go to the center of town to find Chuo Shokudo San Bou, a restaurant that serves shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine). I surprise myself by finding it without asking anyone even if the only sign outside is this: 中央食堂 さんぼう. I step inside and find there is a short queue of Japanese customers and I take it as a sign that the food must be good. Soon the line of hungry customers grows and extends outside the door. While waiting, I look over the menu and skip the udon selection (650 to 950 yen) and study the nine vegetarian set meal options (1100 to 2200 yen).

Lunch hour at Chuo Shokudo San Bou

I decide on the mugi daizu (barley and soy bean) rice set for 1100 yen. The meal is served on bowls and plates on a wooden tray. I especially like the goma tofu (sesame tofu, a specialty in Koyasan) and the mashed I-don't-know-what (on the oval plate on the left of the photo below). I walk out of the restaurant full (but my stomach doesn't feel heavy) and satisfied.

Mugi daizu (barley and soy bean) rice set

For dinner, I choose another one of the restaurants the guesthouse staff recommended and try Shunsai Kameya, just a few houses from Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu. I again congratulate myself when I find it even with only this sign outside: 旬菜かめや. In the restaurant, there is just me and a Japanese family. I am guessing business is slow tonight because it's a weekday and the restaurant is located far from the town center.

 Shunsai Kameya 旬菜かめや

There are seven dinner sets (1100 to 1500 yen) to choose from. I decide on the vegetarian tempura set 1200 yen (+8% tax) with 5 kinds of vegetable tempura on a bowl of rice, a bowl of udon, and a cube of goma tofu (sesame tofu). A tasty, healthy dinner. (Oh, I  managed to be vegetarian for a day! Haha!)

Vegetarian tempura set






Japan
Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
Tokyo Accommodation: Shinjuku Airbnb
Tokyo: Memorable Tokyo Eats
Tokyo: Odaiba
Tokyo: Doing Touristy Things in Tokyo
Toyama: A Hamlet Called Ainokura
Kyoto Accommodation: K's House Hostel Kyoto
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Wisdom from the Road: On exits #2
Kyoto: By the Thousands (Kyoto Imperial Palace, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove)
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Turning Japanese
Kyoto: Braving the Crowds at these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji)
Hyogo, Japanecdote: If Only I Could Speak Nihongo
Hyogo: Day Trip to Himeji: Himeji Castle and Shoshazan Engyoji Temple
Hyogo, Japanecdote: Am I an Alien?
Hiroshima: Strolling and Snacking in Miyajima
Hiroshima: Remembering the Past in Hiroshima
Osaka, Japanecdote: How to Lose Friends
Osaka Accommodation: Osaka Airbnb
Osaka, Japanecdote: Where is Bentencho Station?
Osaka: Osaka Adlaw, Osaka Ako sa Osaka
Osaka, Japanecdote: Learn From Your Mistakes

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan (you're here!)
Wakayama: Day 1½: West Side of Koya Town
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Wisdom from the Road #54

On worrying
Worry is a misuse of the imagination. - Dan Zadra

I invited a friend to go on a boating trip in June. Her reply, "Won't it rain? Wouldn't the waves be huge? It's the rainy season already." (So you mean to say you will never go to sea during the rainy season which is half of the year? Anyway, I don't think the Coast Guard would allow boats to sail if it's dangerous.)

Another friend a few days before a trip: "Weather's not good these days. Look at the sky! What if it rains during my trip?" (The weather in one place won't necessarily be the same in another far away place. But bring an umbrella just in case.)

My mother: "What? You hitched a ride with a stranger? Again? What if something happened to you?" (I know mothers can't help but worry about their kids, no matter how grown up their kids are. Thank you, God, for keeping me safe.)

An officemate: "What if A happens to me? What if B happens to me? What if C happens to me?" (Pray none of those happens.)

You and your worries are the only ones stopping you.



For more lessons from the road, please visit Go Learn.