Koyasan: No, Not Goodbye, But See You Again

Note: Yep, this part of my Japan trip is not written in the usual #FantasticoPlatonica style. I need more words to describe my experience in Koyasan. And this post is long. Veeery long.

If you ask me which place I love the most in Japan, it’s Koyasan. I know for Indonesian traveler, Koyasan is not as popular as Mount Fuji and Kyoto temples or any other destination in Japan. And me and my brother almost missed it too.

Koyasan is a name of the mountains in Wakayama prefecture to the south of Osaka, primarily known as the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. And in 2004, UNESCO designated Mt. Koya as a World Heritage Site.

I was really curious about Okunoin, the mausoleum of Kukai and the largest Buddhist cemetery in Japan. This sacred place has astounding views of mossy tombstones and gigantic cedar trees.

I wanted to visit Koyasan as a day trip from Osaka, but I thought our schedule will be too tight. And then I read about a unique accommodation, shukubo (temple lodging).

Wow. I surely don’t want to miss this exciting opportunity to spend a night in a temple!

 

Around 50+ temples in Koyasan offer shukubo (temple lodging) for pilgrims and tourists. But the travel bible Lonely Planet somehow made it look very complicated to stay at a temple.

I need to call or send fax to the Koyasan tourist association to make reservation. Call? Fax? But my Japanese language is limited to hiragana, katakana and several basic kanji, how can I write something as difficult as shukubo reservation?

So I decided to drop Koyasan from my itinerary. (Well, back then I completely didn’t think that maybe I can send a fax in English instead)

I already finalized my itinerary and told my brother about our schedule in Japan. After going through the long details and explanations about the places, he asked me one simple question: why are you cancelling the shukubo? Well, I have to admit that I gave up too easily about it.

So I returned to the internet and after a few minutes browsing (that was quick!), I managed to find the official English website of Koyasan. I was very happy when I read that they accept reservation through e-mail, until I realized the needs of credit card. As I’ve already mentioned before, I’m not a fan of credit cards.

Gloomily, I checked all the information in the website and stumbled upon the list of the temples that offer shukubo. I clicked every link to website of the temples and continue torturing myself by seeing the beautiful scenery that I will miss in Koyasan.

My torture ended when I found charming temple websites with English on their reservation page. I chose Ekoin because I can contact the temple directly by reservation form, and has a perfect location near to Okunoin, the #1 place in my must-see list.

They also displayed many beautiful photos and detailed information about the activities after we arrived, complete with the tempting shiny orange button of ‘BOOK NOW’.

The most interesting part is the room price. I thought that ryokan that rated their room price with total numbers of tatami is already interesting enough, but this temple rate their room by the content of the meals!

At first, I would go with the lowest price (10,000 JPY), since their lowest price is already 3 times higher than the rest of my other accommodation. The other prices are 12.000 JPY and 15,000 JPY.

Yes, shukubo was my most expensive accommodation in Japan. But this could be a once in a lifetime experience, so yeah.

I almost booked the 10,000 JPY meal, but.. but.. there’s a cute, little barrel-like thing in the 15,000 JPY meal! I really want to know what’s inside. A soup maybe? And that little barrel is only available in 15,000 JPY room price. Argh.

So I tried to persuade my brother about the cuteness of the tiny barrel, and we agreed to ignore the 5,000 JPY difference for the sake of that little barrel.

On the next day, I received the confirmation letter of my reservation. I felt excited and weird at the same time because I never heard anything about temple lodging before. Seriously, it felt like I was going to spend a night in Borobudur Temple.

Well, the journey to Koyasan was not easy either. Koyasan is in Kansai area, and in order to join the meditation class at 4.30 PM, I need to take the first bus at 7 AM in the morning from Mt. Fuji to Shinjuku, Tokyo, which is in Kanto area.

I spent 2 hours in the bus yawning and thinking about the best way to survive this long day without getting lost.

We took the shinkansen to Osaka and get off at Namba station. And boy that Namba station is HUGE. I need to move to Namba Nankai railway, and I just can’t find the station.

We walked outside, disoriented, tired, sleepy, desperately need lunch, and got crammed by the young people along the Namba area while dragging our luggages.

After a long, frustrating walk, we finally found the Namba Nankai station. I visited the tourist information center and the staff gave me the Koyasan map. She also told me the place to buy Koyasan World Heritage Pass.

Still in disoriented state, I can’t find the train that goes to Koyasan. After asking the very kind station staff, who was helping me pressing the correct buttons in the all-in-Japanese-language limited express train ticket vending machine, we finally secured our seat and took a quick rest at the train, happily eating gyoza and buns for our lunch.

There were only 4 people I saw in the car. The machinist, me, my brother and another man in the back seat. The scenery changed dramatically from buildings into rice fields and finally into beautiful thick forests.

Just before we arrived at Gokurakubashi station, there was an audio guide telling us about the history of Koyasan and its founder, Kobo Daishi.

I’ve read about Kobo Daishi when I searched about the history of Japanese language on the internet, and I found out that Kobo Daishi is the person who is said to invent the kana syllabary and the iroha poem.

At the Gokurakubashi station, we need to change to a unique-shaped cable car.

At the Koyasan station, the buses already waiting for us and the man who turned out to be the bus driver asked me about my destination.

In the bus, I tried to re-orientate myself by reading the Koyasan map carefully. This is my first time riding a city bus in Japan, and similar to the buses in Australia, I need to press the stop button when I’m ready to get off.

Well, here in Indonesia of course we don’t have such nifty button to press if we need to get off. All we need is our mouth shouting “STOP” loudly to the driver with our hand knocking on the window to make the bus stopped. Not convenient.

I was still trying to figure out which bus stop to get off when the bus suddenly stopped. I didn’t hear the familiar “tomarimasu” so I wonder why the bus stopped. And then the driver stared at me, and said “Here!”.

Um, “here” what?

I stared blankly at him, and then turning my head right and left, looking outside the window, not knowing what to do. And then the driver talked again, “Here! Ekoin!” My brain needed a full minute to correctly processed what just happened.

Oh. So the bus driver really was talking to me. Embarassing Moment #1.

I was so embarassed. The bus stopped without me pressing the stop button, and to make the driver thinking about my destination where I should be the one who knew where to stop. Shameful.

At the bus stop, I didn’t know where to go. Go forward? Backward? I can’t read anything. I already prepared myself to match the kanji of Ekoin with every kanji in front of the buildings.

But then, to my surprise, after few steps from the bus stop, I found a wooden block with “Ekoin” written in latin letters. Thank goodness for their consideration and kindness writing Ekoin in romaji! That wooden block really saved my poor legs from another aimless walk.

I went to the lobby and no one was around. I was looking at the pond in the beautiful garden (yes, I’m a Japanese garden aficionado),

when a young monk greeted me and asked for my name and my passport. He was saying a few words in Japanese which I didn’t understand at all.

I just smiled and followed him until he realized that I was following him around. He didn’t say anything, but from the gestures of his hand, it seems that I shouldn’t have followed him around and wait patiently at the lobby.

Oh. Embarassing Moment #2.

Wow. In less than an hour I already embarassed myself twice. I just hope that I won’t do any other stupid disrespectful behaviour because that is the last thing I want to do as a gaijin.

After waiting for a few minutes, the monk (I didn’t dare to see his face due to my Embarassing Moment #2) gave another gesture to follow him. This time I knew that I should follow him because my brother already followed him around.

But then we both faced another problem. The temple has wooden floor, and we didn’t know whether it’s appropriate to drag our luggages around.

Finally our common sense kicked in. We assumed that it will cause a very loud noise and damaged the wood if we dragged our heavy luggages. So we just carried it in order to avoid Embarassing Moment #3.

The monk from my Embarassing Moment #2 left us at the front desk, and we met another friendly young monk who spoke a very good English.

He showed us the shower and I wonder if he can read my mind about our luggage dilemma because he carried, not dragged, both of our luggages.

He showed us the toilet and our room. The room was big, and he was right, it was too big for me and my brother. It was a very luxurious room compared to our other accommodation!

The monk explained everything in details. He also offered the hand-copying sutra activity and explained about the morning service and the Goma fire ritual in the next morning.

…and then he offered a night tour to Okunoin.

Oh no, I didn’t see this coming.

I didn’t prepare my legs for another 1.9 km walk (4 km round trip) today, I thought after dinner I could just lay around, locking myself in the futon until the next morning.

BUT! Going to Okunoin at night? And many people said that Okunoin is best viewed in the night? Refusing the night tour offer might be the stupidest thing I ever did in my trip to Japan.

And so, ignoring the painful writhe from my poor legs, I reserved the night tour and got extremely excited about it already.

After another explanation about the places in the temple and about the singing heater, the monk asked me if we have any question.

Actually, my mind was full with LOTS of random questions, such as:

  • Do you have many guests from Indonesia?
  • Is there any place we cannot enter or take photos?
  • Can we take photos of the monks? Can we take photos together with the monks? (Well, the miko in Shinto shrines didn’t want to be photographed, maybe the same rule applied here too?)
  • Can we walk around the garden outside our room at night?
  • Why are the monks here don’t wear orange robes like here in Indonesia?
  • Do the monks also sleep in the temple and eat the same syojin ryori set like in the pictures everyday?
  • Is the toilet open for 24 hours?

In the end, I didn’t ask him any of the question above because I thought those questions were silly. I will forever regret my useless shyness. I really should’ve asked him. Until now, I’m still curious.

Well, the next thing I know, my uncooperative mouth finally blurted out a question. A funny one. Is there any dresscode for the meditation session?

Well, I saw in the photo that we need to wear some kind of robes and I don’t know if it’s available or maybe we can wear our usual clothes.

I don’t know if the friendly monk considered my question as funny, but he explained that it’s better if we don’t wear any tight jeans because it will limit the movement of our legs.

His answer led me to another questions: Why can’t we wear any tight jeans? Does the meditation requires lots of leg flexibility? And so on. I never really did a meditation before, so I don’t know what will happened.

But then I hold myself not to blurted out yet another stupid question and just see it by myself. The monk said it was easy to teach but maybe hard to do. So let’s just try it.

I checked the room and somehow, different from any other tatami room I’ve stayed, the tatami didn’t have a strong scent. Maybe the other places use some kind of tatami-scent spray? Erm, is that kind of spray even exist?

Ekoin doesn’t have non-smoking room and at first, as a non-smoker, I was afraid if the room has a strong smoke scent. But the room smelled nice without any smoke scent at all.

After unpacking some essential items, me and my brother took a sip of green tea and reading the well-written guest information book.

I took the chance to explore around the garden with a geta. I was very excited with this footwear because I never tried it before, but I’ve seen it a lot in pictures.

I walked around the garden and then I came into conclusion that geta is the most perfect footwear to walk around the Japanese gardens and temples.

I remembered when I walked on pebbles in the gardens and temples, my sandals sunk underneath the pebbles and it was really hard to walk. With geta, I can easily walk on those pebbles. Ha!

I forgot that my poor legs need to adapt with this exquisite footwear. After a few steps of unnecessary slippery path-climbing (with geta, yeah I guess I was that excited), I almost tripped and slammed my head to a nearby rock. My brother panicked a bit when I swung my arms several times until I finally regained my balance.

I didn’t aware that there was another guest staring at me from the window and gave out a great laugh.

I laughed back awkwardly, running back into my room, and wondered was there any other guests or monks who witnessed my dangerous, clumsy near-death movement, and feared that they may confiscate my lovely geta.

Yeah. Embarassing Moment #3.

And then, me and my brother walked to the meditation room, and the room was already packed with other guests. The monk from my Embarassing Moment #2 showed us the meditation pose and the English-speaking monk translated his words.

The monks also explained a bit about Shingon Buddhism, which I cannot help but remembered about the spiritual novel ‘Supernova: Partikel’ written by Dee.

I suddenly remembered that Ekoin has the same symbol with the ‘Earth’ symbol in the front cover of Supernova: Partikel novel.

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The story is about a girl named Zarah, and she’s in a journey looking for her lost father. Her father believed about inner space travel and human can actually go to outer space and make contacts with other life forms in space by meditation, not by modern technology.

The monk also explained that the goal of the meditation is we become one with the universe. If I look at it that way, and since Dee is a Buddhist, maybe this could be the inspiration behind the Supernova: Partikel story? I had that sudden urge to discuss about it with the monk and Dee.

And then the monks left us to do the meditation. This is one of the moment when silence can be so loud. And after all the rush I had since morning, I felt so relaxed.

The monks also told us not to fully closed our eyes, because we need to see the outer world, not just our inner self. Maybe this is the reason of Daibutsu’s half gaze in Nara?

I let my mind roam freely thinking about every great things that happened since I came to Japan and about my Embarassing Moments, but I also can’t help noticing the people in front of me scratching their faces, trying to steady their position and I even heard loud hungry noise from someone’s stomach. Maybe this is what the monk said about seeing your inner self and watching the outer world. And we can also do this Ajikan meditation at home.

After the meditation session, we went back to our room and waited for our syojin ryori dinner, a traditional vegetarian Buddhist meal. Another young monk came in with 4 stack of food trays and prepared the table for us.

Syojin ryori is like an art. I was a bit skeptical at first, but it turned out to be awesome. The food, the plates, everything. They have colorful round plates, square plates and asymmetrical plates. The food ranged from the good ol’ orange, the local specialty goma tofu, tempura, into something I never saw before.

While some people say syojin ryori is plain, but for me, the taste is superb. I never knew vegetarian food could be this good. It was a complete set to tease my tastebuds: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Not to mention complete textures: crunchy, soft, wet, dry, cold and hot.

Hold on. Where’s that cute little barrel? Well, maybe they’ll serve it on breakfast.

I had a little problem with the miso soup: I can’t open the lid. I asked my brother to open it for me, but he can’t do it either. And then we decided to leave it alone. We don’t want to spill the soup on the tatami and cause a mess in our room.

After we finished our dinner, we need to make phone call to the monks to inform them that we have finished our dinner.

Less than 30 seconds after I made the call, I heard the dashing footsteps and the monk who gave us the food returned and took care of the plates.

I just sat there awkwardly, wanted to tell him that the food was extremely delicious and thinking about the correct phrase in Japanese language. Should I say ‘gochisousama deshita‘ or maybe I can just say ‘the meal is very good’?

In the end I didn’t say any of the phrases above, but instead: ‘I can’t open the miso soup.’

Yes. That was the moment when I knew that my mouth is an ultimate traitor. Bad, bad mouth.

How can I criticized the food when I meant to praise him about it?! So what if I can’t open the soup? I already ate half of my brother’s soup and the soup tasted so good! I am such a cruel person.

I was afraid that maybe I upset him, but then, to my surprise, the monk gave out a wide smile and laughed. He also tried to open the miso soup and after a little effort he managed to open it. I’m pretty sure he used some kind of special maneuver to open the lid.

He asked me if I still wanted to eat the soup but I just smiled and shook my head. I don’t know if he realized it or not, but I already wanted to disappear beneath the tatami for causing yet another Embarassing Moment #4.

After a while, the monks from my Embarassing Moment #2 and Embarassing Moment #4 came back and prepared the futon for us.

Again, I think the monks can read my mind.

My first encounter with futon is the night before I stayed at Koyasan. It was at Kawaguchi-ko, near Mt. Fuji. They put the futon in the cupboard and we were expected to lay the futon by ourselves.

I seriously don’t know how to prepare a futon. There was no manual guide around about the anatomy of a futon or about the correct way to arrange one. So I just snuck the mattress under the quilt, and then sleep on the quilt and use the linen as a blanket.

To my horror, the monks showed me that my way to prepare a futon was totally wrong and disastrous. Their expert hands moved so quickly like a futon magistrate ready to judge me for my act of setting a futon in such shameful manner.

Me and my brother dropped our jaw, realizing our big mistake, and deeply thanked the monks for preparing our futon and for showing us the proper way to set up a futon.

When they finally left, my brother looked at me and laughed like a maniac. I can’t blame him because I have to admit that my futon last night was horrible.

I rolled myself on the futon, letting my skin memorized the warm feel of futon and tatami before I can never touch this wonderful bed again.

And then my brother said that it was time to do the Okunoin night tour. Yay!

We waited outside with other guests, and the monk told us to bring an umbrella because it might be raining soon.

We started our night tour right from the entrance, and the monk told us about the bridges in Okunoin. The path was illuminated by lanterns, which hold a special meaning behind the pattern of the moon and the sun.

He explained many things about Shingon Buddhism in general, the coexistence of Shinto and Buddhism (which explained why there are many torii in a Buddhist cemetery), and the tombs of famous people in Japan.

He also mentioned a few legends in Okunoin such as if you can’t see your reflection in a well or fall from the stairs, you will be dead within 3 years. You can also know whether you are a bad person or good person by lifting the Miroku Stone.

In the innermost area of Okunoin, we also visited Torodo, the lantern hall, and Gobyo, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The monk asked us to pray and make one wish.

I deeply wished that every monk in Koyasan will be blessed throughout their lives. The monk also chanted a sutra that has a very beautiful meaning while we were making our wish.

After a few walk from Gobyo, the monk said the night tour is over (wait! I want more!), and after a long walk in the cold night accompanied by my screaming legs, I finally got back to the temple.

I really wanted to take a bath, but I’m not used with a public bath. I’m so embarassed about the idea of taking a bath together with other people, even if they’re females too.

So I tried to timed my bath. I decided to take a bath 30 minutes before the closing hour, 10 PM. But then, the whole place was still packed with other guests. Luckily, no one was in the bathroom so I took my bath in peace.

After the shower, I challenged myself by trying to use the bathtub. In Fujisan, I can only managed to put my legs. In Koyasan, surprisingly I can endure the hot water a lot more. I can almost hear the sound of joy from my poor legs being healed by the hot water. Yes, I am now officially a fan of Japanese hot springs.

I still want to spend more time in the hot spring, but I felt dizzy already so I left the bathtub to dry my hair. And everyone was already gone. Yay!

But then I realized that I passed the bath time. It’s already 10.20 PM! I felt guilty and apologized to the monk I met in the front desk. He was so nice and said it was no problem because the bath schedule is actually not that tight, but still, I already felt like an ignorant guest who disrupted their time management.

I had a wonderful, dreamless sleep, until the singing heater decided to start a concert in the middle of the night.

The room was dimly lit, I guess I stepped on my brother’s leg while trying to find the STOP button. I pressed whatever button I can press until the heater stopped screaming.

At 6 AM we woke up and prepared for the morning service.

Another young monk greeted us in the main hall. We had a chance to join them in their morning service. The room was full of pretty lanterns and candles. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the best spot for taking pictures.

And then we moved to another temple for the Goma fire ritual. This ritual was really hypnotizing and amazing to watch! The monk from my previous Embarassing Moment #2 was creating the fire while the other monk was chanting the sutra.

After the rituals, the oh-so-comfortable futon in my room already gone and my breakfast was waiting in the table. There was one particular food I like, if I’m not mistaken, the food name is ganmodoki.

I still can’t find that mini-barrel, but I no longer think about it anymore.

After another delicious meal, we packed our things and ready to check out and take a stroll around Koyasan.

Before that, we finished our hand-copying sutra while making one wish. We need to wrote down our wish, and my wish was pretty simple: I wish I can go back to Japan, with my whole family.

We kept our luggages in the front desk and then we went to the bus stop. We want to visit the Daimon, but in weekend, the bus to Daimon are rare. The problem is, we can’t wait too long in Koyasan because we need to go back to Osaka.

So I decided to visit Okunoin once again and took more photos of the cedar trees and the tombs.

I consciously dropped every other sightseeing spots in Koyasan, including the famous Kongobu-ji. This way, I have more reasons to go back to Japan and Koyasan, hopefully in spring or winter.

Koyasan is the only sightseeing spot that wasn’t packed with school kids. When I went to Nikko, Kyoto temples, Nara, Kenrokuen, etc., school kids were everywhere.

And oh, this guy here is my favorite “monk”! His name is Kouya-kun (thank goodness I can read hiragana). He is everywhere in Koyasan and I almost died from cute overload each time I see this super kawaii mascot monk.

Koya-kun

I haven’t met any monk wearing clothes exactly like Koya-kun in Koyasan. Usually they wore the same clothes and footwear, but none of them wore the hat like Koya-kun.

But I met one monk standing near the fountain in front of Nara station with clothes exactly the same like Koya-kun.

Just right before we took the bus to the Koyasan Station, (I hoped that I won’t met the driver from my Embarassing Moment #1), I visited Karukayado Hall near the bus stop that showed a tragic story of a father and his son. I also bought Jizo souvenir.

And that is the end of my trip to Koyasan, my best experience in Japan.

I definitely want go back to Koyasan if I had the chance to visit Japan again, so when the monk said “goodbye”, I replied him with “see you again”, hoping that my wish in the hand-copying sutra will come true :)

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