Koya-san: Temple Living with a Nice Price Tag
Trip Start Mar 22, 2009
43Trip End May 03, 2009
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Where I stayed
Like Nara, Koya-san also has a central business area, but Koya-san's is much smaller than Nara's and the business is pretty much selling souvenirs and pilgrimage accessories. You can see the word omiyage (souvenir) within a stone's throw in any given direction. Nankai station in Namba sells a useful combination ticket called the Koyasan Free Sabic (or 'service' in English) that covers the entire trip including the train to Gokurabashi, where you catch a cable car up the mountain and then a bus to Koya-san village
The whole subway-train-cable car-bus combo in the early morning had left me exhausted--it's a 2.5 hour affair from Osaka, but once I got dropped off at Shojoshin-in, where I was lodging, all that vehicular uncertainty was almost worth it. The area surrounding the temple was unexpectedly beautiful among the massive cypresses in the adjoining cemetery. Though there are hostels and hotel accommodation, the thing to do at Koya-san is to spend the night in a temple.
I will tell you the price wasn't cheap for temple lodging, but it came with a huge single Japanese style room, a balcony overlooking a pond and two awesome vegetarian meals. Oh, also a yukata (think bathrobe that you can go out in), which offered a child-like game of dress up for dinner and walking around town. But like the name suggests temple lodging was hardcore--icy corridors and bitingly cold interiors (though you had gas heaters in the rooms and electronic toilets in the halls)
There are probably 3 main sights in Koya-san: Kongobuji (the seat of the Shingon sect), Garan (a large religious complex) and Oko no in (Kukai's mausoleum and Buddhist cemetery). Firstly, it was about 20 F degrees colder up in Koya than in Osaka and I froze for the entire 3 hours I was out visiting the sites. It was invigorating for the first few minutes (unlike Osaka, the air doesn't smell vaguely of gasoline), but then it quickly saps the will to live from you.
Kongobuji was very nice--I was expecting a small shrine but it was really a mansion for living in
Garan was less impressive to me, though it was much larger than Kongobuji. There's a large pagoda (Kompo Daito) that has been repainted rather garish and then some Buddhas. Overall, nothing I didn't see at Nara. However, I did catch the ringing of the enormous bell, which made a cavernous, hollow 'bong'. I haven't heard something reverberate that sharply since I dropped my crucible of limiting reagent in organic chem lab and it shattered to bits along with my dreams of a short and sweet experiment. Anyway, the sound of bells (pilgrims also wear tinkling bells) and the smell of incense in the air will probably be what I take away most from here.
Finally, Oku no in was the best experience for me. This is a totally unique site for Koya-san--just miles of Buddhist funereal statuary jutting haphazardly from every conceivable spot of land
Regardless of myths, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the bone chilling cold wandering the avenues of tombs before reaching Kukai's mausoleum (sorry, no photos allowed), where pilgrims in white and tinkling walking sticks were praying. Nearby is Toro-do, a hall filled with lanterns donated by Buddhists to commemorate Kukai's passing. I think the official number is over 16,000 and counting--they're mostly lit now by incandescent bulbs, likely to avoid fire hazards, but they must be an awesome sight at night.
After a much needed warm bath--traditionally, you wash on a stool with buckets of warm water and then soak in a tub of hot water when clean, I had a glorious dinner, not only because I was starving but because it was probably one of the most fulfilling meals I've had for a while. The cuisine here is Shojin ryori, a vegetarian style of food that doesn't have onions or garlic
Since Shojoshin-in is right next to Oku no in, I decided to brave the cold and went for a short stroll in Oku no in in the dark with the yukata and haori. The grounds were entirely quiet and the path was lit by the rows of dim stone lanterns. Very spooky; I must've jumped a mile high when I came upon a group of tourists from the hostel. But that broke the tension and I spend the rest of the time taking photos and walking around blind. It was only 9:30 when l got back to the temple (the gates close at 10), and then off to sleep early so I can get up for morning prayers with the monks (6:30 AM) tomorrow. All in all, a real relaxing jaunt away from the cities.
Tomorrow: Prayers, somewhere other than Osaka, then Osaka again.