Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Japan Day 6: Koyasan

You know what sucks, forgetting to buy allergy medicine when you're allergic to your pets. I think I've sneezed about 20 times in the last two minutes. Anyway . . .

Of everywhere I went in Japan, Koyasan was my favorite place. It was entirely fantastic. Many people stay overnight in one of the 110 temples in this small town, but we weren't staying and therefore only had the day. It wasn't quite enough time to see everything I would have liked to see but we did get to see quite a lot.

We got up early in the morning and caught the train there. For a change the ride was through countryside and small towns rather than cities and suburbs. At times we were going through tunnels under mountains, at times along the sides of mountains, looking over small valley towns. At least in this part of the country the mountains are rolling and soft looking, never above the tree line, and falling into successive ridges like folds of cloth. Most of the trees look to be deciduous and the forest are positively filled with Maples. In November the mountains probably look as though they're on fire. When the train passed through towns we saw gardens and rice paddies and tiny small town stations. It was an utterly picturesque ride.

At the end of the train line we had to switch to a cable car. It's not like any cable car I'd ever seen. It's built at the same angle as the tracks with broad, shallow steps inside like you'd find inside a theater. The backs of the seats are so straight it feels as though they are angled forward and the people sitting across from you are very close indeed. The ride takes about ten minutes and you end up on the decidedly chill top of a mountain. A bus then takes you down into the center of town--which is, happily, slightly warmer.

When we got to Koyasan, the first place we went was the Tokugawa Mausoleums. They're not actually particularly exciting because all the decoration is on the inside of the fenced portion in the picture below and you have to kind of peer through the slats.
The buildings within the fence are beautifully decorated and quite lavish, it's just not possible to really look closely at them or see them from the angles you'd really want to. Still, it's clear that these were constructed as memorials to important people. Anything with that much gold decor generally is.

After the slight disappointment of the mausoleum we headed to Okunoin, which is on the Eastern edge of the town, to see Koyasan's very old graveyard full of important people. Since we didn't get the audio guide we didn't know which important people those were or where they were. Didn't really matter though--it was interesting to see an old Japanese graveyard, mostly because it was beautiful.

The older section of the graveyard was filled with old growth Cedars and monuments that were entirely unlike any I'd ever seen in a Western graveyard. It would actually be really interesting to know the meaning and symbolism but even without knowing that it was a lovely place to spend time, as older graveyards so often seem to be. Only problem was that there were hordes of mosquitoes.
There was a large number of these groups.
One of several mausoleums.

Leaving Okunoin and the mosquitoes behind we walked to Kongobuji temple, which is the principal monastery and was my favorite of the temples I saw in Japan. When we entered the huge building we had to put our shoes in little cubbies--at many of the temples you visit you can't go inside so you get to keep your shoes--and then put on the slippers they provide.
My veiny old lady feet.

When we paid for our admission we were told that there was a tea service at the end of a long hall, so we went there first. The tea room was covered with tatami mats so we put our sandals on shelves just outside the door and went in bare-footed. Inside we were given a tray with slightly bitter tea and a cookie that was rather sweet. We sat on the floor and a monk came in and told us something or other than chanted a bit, while we sat there pretending we had any idea what was going on.

After the tea service we walked around the tea room to see the biggest rock garden in Japan. If I'm remembering correctly, the design is supposed to represent two dragons emerging from the clouds.
After seeing the rock garden we checked out the real highlight of the temple: its beautifully painted sliding doors. Some depict the founding of Koyasan in the 9th century, others the seasons, and so on and so forth. They were really fantastic. No pictures were allowed, and I've had no luck finding any online, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Walking on from Kongobuji, we went to see the Konpon Daito, which has lots of Buddhas inside and then walked around the grounds there, which are full of interesting buildings.

After leaving the area of the Konpon Daito we finally reached the West end of the town, marked by a giant gate called the Daimon. As we approached the sun was setting and visible directly through the center of the gate.

As it became truly dark, we took a bus up to the cable car and then, after waiting some time, the cable car back to the train to Osaka.

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