Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Official Start - daytrip to Koyasan

On Saturday we headed into central Osaka to purchase some essentials. This gave us a chance to experience the city's impressive public transport system - hey Bristol - this is how you move thousands of people around a city without causing gridlock. The city is a network of underground and overground rail systems and the prices are reasonable. This no doubts also explains that whilst, as you would expect, there was a reasonable amount of traffic in Osaka, we didn't see a traffic jam.

It's not difficult to get around Osaka by rail
Our priority is to buy a map to navigate ourselves to Wakayama. I had read in Lonely Planet about a big bookstore with an English section and we were heading for that. Unfortunately after setting off I realised that I had omitted to make a note of the name of the bookstore or the address. We were, therefore, rather in the dark. All I could remember was that it was somewhere near Osaka station. Because of our lack of details, finding the bookstore took some time - but eventually we found it. The store, Junkudo, had Lonely Planet guides and maps of Osaka itself in English . However there were no regional maps in English. We bought two maps in Japanese and decided we would have to just hope for the best. By checking google maps I could highlight the route. It would test my insistence on eschewing any sort of GPS system anyway.

Our map

Coffee bar, Osaka

Back near our hostel at Tennōji we called into a izakaya for a drink and a snack. It had picture menus so we pointed to some items: squid, scampi and a meat dish. Mick bit into one of the scampi. It was hard in the middle. Obviously we had been mistaken. He asked the waiter what we had ordered.
'Chicken bone' he replied. Sure enough, it was deep fried chicken cartilage which was quite nice once we got used to the idea.

Street at Tennōji
The next day we took the train up to Mount Koya or Koyasan. The train journey is superb, snaking up the mountain on a single track, through high cedar covered mountains wreathed in mist. The final section is too steep for trains, passengers are transferred to a cable car for the last 330 metre climb. The total elevation is 867 metres. By the time we reached the top it was raining heavily and we borrowed two umbrellas from outside one of the information points. Communal umbrellas are common here, you simply take one from the stand, use it for the day and then return it to one of the umbrella points. Very useful.
Cable car

Koyasan is the official start of the 88 temple pilgrimage, and is the most important centre of Shingon Buddhism. It was here that Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism and often referred to as the father of Japanese culture, established the monastery and community at Koyasan. We started at Okunoin and the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. This is the largest  cemetery in Japan and despite - or perhaps because of - the cloud and rain, it was an atmospheric place, with gleaming wet granite monuments stretching away amongst tall Japanese cedars. The hall of lamps in front of Kobo Daishi's mausoleum is magnificent, a huge building lit by thousands of lamps. Quite a few henro pilgrims were here, some in ones and twos and some in led groups, recognisable by their white tunics. I tried to ask one of them about it but the language barrier prevented anything more than a shared greeting and a couple of bows.

After Okunoin we walked back down to look at some of the other temples, of which Koyasan has many, over one hundred in total, finishing at Danjo Garan and the Great Stupa, built on the site where Koyasan was founded. Magnificent as it was, by now we had been soaking wet for many hours and I was starting to feel cold. the rain showed no signs of abating as we headed back down the mountain on the cable car and caught the train back to Osaka.

Statues outside mausoleum, Okunoin

Jizo bosatsu - protector of children
Jizo bosatsu

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