Monday, March 2, 2015

Day 11: Koyasan

If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? What if that tree is centuries old, and the still, moss-covered forest is the Okunoin, final resting place of the Kobo Daishi and two hundred thousand faithful followers of his brand of Buddhism, and also the most holy place in the mountain town of Koyasan?

Mindy stumbled upon the town of Koyasan when first researching ryokan opportunities in Japan. (A ryokan is a traditional Japanese lodging.  "Real" ryokans are extremely elegant, beautiful tributes to the best of Japanese cuisine, art, and tradition.  Unfortunately, some places brand themselves as ryokan when they are really just crappy hostels. We already made that mistake at the Tani house in Kyoto.) The town of Koyasan was originally founded by Kobo Daishi as a monastic retreat for a new (at the time - in the year 800) brand of Buddhism that believed enlightenment could be attained in this life. (Buddhism in Japan had previously held that enlightenment could only be achieved through multiple rebirths.) What really brought us here was the Okunoin - an ancient burial ground nestled amongst majestic cedars, winding through a mountain path. So quiet; so calming; so awe-inspiring!

As Okunoin was our primary destination, we were a little worried that our lodgings would be a long trek.  Turned out that we are staying about as close as we possibly can - at least while still alive.

(The gate is to Shojoshin-in, our lodging.  The trees to the right are the entrance to Okunoin.)

As close as we were, we only had the chance to scratch at the surface of the beauty that is there.  We had 20 minutes, as dinner at our ryokan - the active monastery Shojoshin-in - is served promptly at 5:30pm.  We had read that these places are pretty strict on time and such, and that's by Japanese standards already!

A fine demonstration of Shojin Ryori (Buddhist cuisine) - strictly vegan, and showcasing the five elements required for a complete meal: grilled food, pickled food, deep-fried food, tofu, and soup. Of course, eaten in the traditional Japanese style, in a room of tatami mats and decorated wall panels. Excellent!

Our room was also in the traditional Japanese style (no options about that, here), with an amazing view:

To round out my traditional Japanese experience, I put on my yukata and took part in my first - potential - communal bath. 

Not sure I would have gone in had anyone else been there.  For the record, the etiquette is that you shower before going into the bath, at which point it's basically a clean version of any public hot tub.  Except that you go in naked.  And it's not very roomy. And you might have just watched someone shower before joining you in the tub...

What a day of contrasts! Woke up this morning in the most luxurious hotel in Otsu (admittedly, that's not the highest attainment of hospitality), and now I'm settling in for an evening in remote Koyasan. Parting ways with Tristan and Lindsay (his girlfriend) along the way at the Otsu train station, we traveled by train, subway, train, cable car, and bus to get to where we are now.  The views from the train, once we had escaped the hustle and bustle of Osaka, were a mere introduction to the beauty that awaited us here.


I don't meant to detract from the natural beauty I have tried to portray, but humour me, while I hope to humour you:

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