Day 8 – Koyasan

Today marks one week since we left Sydney. We’re almost halfway through, aww.

When riding an escalator in Tokyo, just as we do in Sydney, you stand on the left, and walk on the right. For that matter, wherever we went in Kanto, it was the same – Gotemba, Matusmoto, Yokohama – stand on the left, and walk on the right. Stairs are anyone’s game, even despite the way there’s always arrows on the ground pointing at which side is down and which is up, but escalators are always stand on the left, and walk on the right. In Osaka, however, it’s the reverse – people stand on the right, and walk on the left. This got me wondering: why? They still drive on the left in Osaka, trains pass each other on the left, and the escalators themselves are always on the left of the on-coming one. And more than that, why is there a public consensus as to which side you should stand on at all? For the most part, there’s no signs up to tell people which side they should stand on, they just do it. It’s taking us quite a while to get used to the habit of moving over to the right if we want to stand.

Anyway, today we visited Koyasan. It’s a town in the Kii mountain range, to the south of Osaka, considered the home of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. It was apparently placed there because the eight mountain peaks look like a lotus flower… somehow. In terms of trains, it’s serviced exclusively by the Nankai private line, which runs out of Namba station, which itself is one private subway ride from our hotel, so we spent today exclusively on the private railways. The Nankai line has a special ticket (called the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket) which covers the return trains to Gokurakubashi station, the cable-car from there to Koyasan station, unlimited bus travel in town, and discounts to four of the pay-for-entry temples, which is a pretty impressive deal.

Unfortunately, after we’d boarded the Nankai train, I discovered I’d dropped my face towel again, and it could be any time since I left the hotel. James usually powers ahead in front of me, so he’s not behind to see if I drop it, and being a towel it’s quite easy for it to slither off my shoulder or camera bag without noticing. Guess I’m onto my second replacement towel, boo. Gonna have to remember to keep it trapped under my backpack strap.

Anyway, once we’d left Osaka, the trip up to Koyasan was spectacular. The train wound (screechingly!) through mountain valleys and tiny towns perched on the sides of steep slopes. The houses were almost exclusively traditional Japanese style, or at most Western-influenced Japanese style. It was difficult to photograph, but boy was it fun to watch. There was only a single track in many places – and sometimes even the stations had only one platform – meaning occasionally we had to wait in a station for the downward-moving train to pass, but the view was worth it anyway.

The train ran to Gokurakubashi station, at the foot of the mountain, and a cable-car ran the rest of the way. It rose through maybe four hundred metres of altitude at an angle of maybe sixty degrees, and was quite impressive. Once at the top, it’s a short bus ride into town, and the road itself was a puny little thing winding along the side of a mountain. Once in town, the awe continued with the architecture there – fully half the buildings are temples, including temples that act as guest houses for pilgrims and interested visitors.

We decided to start the day in Oku-no-In, a huge cemetery-temple that comprises pretty much the entire eastern half of the town. Among towering ancient cedar trees, almost-as-ancient gravestones and markers were scattered everywhere. A little bit of mist would have made the atmosphere ideal, but we were lucky enough to have a sunny day – and at an altitude of 867, the weather was a positively balmy 27°C or so. I was still having a great deal of fun there. Lots of side paths lead off from the main route, leading to more grave markers hidden in the trees, but James wouldn’t let me follow all of them, boo. If there’s any downside, it’d be that the roadway is far too close to the entry path – the traffic noise was a bit intrusive. Oh, and the mosquitoes.

At the end of the path was the Lantern Temple, a huge building filled with hundreds of lanterns – so many, in fact, that there’s another building nearby just to hold the overflow. James and I wandered around for a while taking photos, then headed back to the centre of town for lunch. We had beef bowls from a place with an English menu (but ordering from a non-English-speaking waiter, hah) then headed over to the western side of town to see some temples. We had a look in the courtyard of one of the guest house temples, and it looked like a great place to stay. We then walked to the Kongobu-ji temple, which is one of the temples our ticket gave us a discount for.

It was seriously quite impressive (and how many times have I used “impressive” in this one post?). We wandered through the areas we were allowed to access in our socked feet – shoes were to be taken off in the entry and left in the cubbyholes there. Just like Matsumoto Castle, I found it an interesting experience walking through an ancient building in just socks. We hung around there until closing, taking photos and stuff. We spent the remaining time wandering around the Danjo Garan area, which includes a whole bunch of buildings, including a two-level pagoda that was seriously so large that I had to stand right back just to take a panoramic photo of it. I’ll try to get that uploaded at some point.

With the sun setting, we decided to head back to the hotel. The view was even more impressive on the way home, and even more difficult to photograph, what with the fading light. Then, as we passed Kawachinagano, James and I spotted a natsu matsuri in progress. I’ve been wanting to get to a natsu matsuri (summer festival) at least once during the trip in Japan, and I was really sorely tempted to get off. Trouble is, we already had our ticket back to Namba station. Also, in the time it took me to decide, the train moved off. I’ll be really disappointed if that turns out to be our closest approach the whole trip. I’d even seen them setting up for it on the trip out.

Once back at Nishinakajima-Minamigata, the closest private-line station to our hotel, we tried to find the okonomiyaki place for dinner. Trouble is, I’d left the local map back at the hotel, we didn’t manage to find it by wandering. We did find some sort of basement restaurant, where every dish costed 299 yen (pre-tax). We had to take our shoes off at the door (in a restaurant? another new first for us) and the place was a maze of booths. Ordering was done on a touch-screen at the table, and James just had to play with all the buttons. Everything had pictures, and some of the names I could read, but even then most things turned out to be a surprise. I made another attempt at a buying a tamago-yaki, and managed to get it this time – albeit one with curry – and James ordered what turned out to be a nabe hotpot. We had parfaits for dessert – mango for me, and green tea for James.

Tomorrow we’re off to Nara for the day. The world’s largest wooden building is there.

Today’s photo count: five hundred and sixty. That’s what happens when you’re having fun. =)

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