Arriving in Japan this past summer in July, I had already anticipated a very humid and hot experience. After spending a couple of days in Osaka visiting an old friend, I made my way to Koya-san (Mount Koya). It was a pleasant break away from the hot and humid city where I felt like I was roasting in an oven. I was very fortunate to have my friend who was familiar with interpreting the local transit rail lines. For someone who had learned very basic Hiragana and Katagana — I found that figuring out the right trains to take and their schedules to be quite challenging. Thankfully despite the obstacles, I met so many friendly local Japanese people who were willing to assist me and point me in the right direction (or on to the right train!).
Though the navigational understanding of the train system is a bit challenging, I was immediately taken with the efficiency. I never encountered any delays. The trip to Mount Koya involved a long train ride to Gokurakubashi Station but it was worth having the opportunity to see the landscape evolve from a highly dense urban environment into the lush green country side. I was surprised to see how untouched much of the mountainous regions were.
After reaching Gokurakubashi Station (it is literally at the end of the line), I ended up hopping on to a cable car that took a handful of visitors up to Koya-san. It took very little time to climb the mountain and soon afterwards, we would hop on to a bus to reach the town centre of Koya-san.
The buses were also a bit of a challenge for me too given that they primarily identified stops in Japanese and payment for bus fare was also tricky for foreigners. There is a specific slot for exact fare, and a slot to obtain change — which I often mixed up. Fortunately the bus drivers were very patient with my inability to follow instructions!
Eventually I stepped off the bus into the middle of town. It was quite bit cooler than it was in the city — no wonder why everyone kept thinking of The architecture and detailed designs of the temples and small buildings along the main street amazed me. I think I just stood there looking around for a while before I began walking back and forth along the main street of the town looking for the monastery that I would be staying at for one night before I began the Kumano Kodo trek.
Eventually I saw an opportunity to visit Okuno-in before I made my way to the monastery. As I approached this ancient cemetery, I saw buses full of tourists. This was a hauntingly beautiful path that people often used for larger hiking and trekking route. It was unfortunately also a major breeding ground for mosquitoes and I was immediately gifted with a few itchy bites as I stopped to take some photographs.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the Okuno-in cemetery are the jizo statues that are lined all along different tombstones or even just the path. They are supposed to watch over people and people often leave a form of tribute. I eventually found them throughout the Kumano Kodo trail as well.
I was uncertain about why the jizo statues were decorated in certain situations but it was nonetheless beautiful to see the practice in person.
After spending time immersed in Okuno-in, I reluctantly left the ancient grounds to see the temples in the area. The temples were often filled with visitors, tourists, and people so I would only drop by and take a look around before moving on to the next temple. Kongōbu-ji in particular was very busy, but I believe it is the main temple in the area.
Eventually I’d make my way ahead of the crowds and enjoy some tranquil moments wandering around the larger structures in the sacred area like Danjo-Garan. Personally speaking, as much as I was impressed by the size of other structures, I preferred the earth-like nature and feel of Kongōbu-ji.
Whilst walking around in awe of the natural beauty of the area and the structures built within the environment — heavy rainfall began and I quickly walked to Saizenin where I was staying. I wasn’t sure where I would be staying but when I first saw the entrance, I questioned whether I was walking into the right place! Fortunately I was and I was immediately greeted by a very kind woman who offered me shelter from the rain as well as a towel to dry myself off.
After signing into the monastery, I was led to my room and wow, I was impressed. I thought it would be rather tranquil but plain. Instead it turned out to be elegantly designed but minimalist room with tatami flooring. I was informed when dinner would take place and at what times the baths would be open so I decided to rest a little given I was still a little jet lagged from just arriving in Japan two days prior. When the rain stopped, I decided to step out before dinner time to see a bit more of the area nearby. This led me towards the Daimon Gate and some of the bluest flowers I’ve ever encountered.
Moments later, a monk arrived and arranged my dinner and indicated to me that it was best to be seated towards the window and enjoying the view when eating dinner. As anticipated, this was a vegetarian meal and there was interesting mix of dishes composed of vegetables, broth, rice, tofu, as well as some fruit.
After dinner, they removed the dishes and tray and immediately set up the traditional futon (kakebuton) which was very comfortable. More comfortable than my standard camping mat, I was grateful to have the opportunity to have a restful sleep in the cool environment before making my way to Takijiri where I would begin my Kumano Kodo trek.
The next morning, I woke up early to join the other folks staying overnight at the monastery to partake in the morning chant ceremony. I didn’t fully understand what was taking place but the room was beautiful and the ceremony and the rhythms of the chant very fascinating. At a certain point, the folks including myself — one by one — were invited to participate (which I believe may be to perform a small ritual involving our own prayers).
After the morning chant, we were served a traditional breakfast and then I proceeded to pack up and make my way to begin my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trek. More on this later!