As you wind on the train from Osaka up towards Koyasan, a mountainous Buddhist sanctuary for around 1,200 years, the stations get smaller, the tracks begin to meander and the Japanese umbrella pines become more dense. There are lush green views opening between the track-side trees, allowing you to peer down on little villages with sloped brick roofs. By the time you reach the funicular railway towards the end of your journey, it’s easy to comprehend why this area is considered sacred. It draws you further up into the peaks…
This was to be my first stay in a Ryokan – a traditional Japanese travellers inn. Through the wooden lantern-flanked gate I walked, past the manicured garden of auburn and green and the broom-swirled pebbles, under the curved roof, shoes off, slippers on…
STAY: Koyasan Fukuchiin is an inn, a temple (or shukubo – meaning temple lodgings in Japanese), an onsen (Japanese bathhouse) and more. Traditional Japanese rooms feature tatami mats, low dining tables and sliding shoji doors. It’s customary to wear the provided summer kimono yukata on the grounds. The building wraps around multiple gardens, visible as you stroll the hallways, and furnished communal rooms are many, filled with warrior artifacts, kabuki masks, gold lanterns, and artworks of villages and wayward ships. Being a temple also, you can wake early and witness monks performing their morning chanting ritual. Or you can attend a script class where you copy the sacred Buddhist sutras.
The food at Fukuchiin is shojin-ryori, traditional vegetarian Buddhist fare, and is served in your room. I opted for an early sitting so I could go out exploring as the sun went down. And for a whole number of trays full of largely unidentifiable food, it was quite delicious (except for some kind of sloppy clear gelatin something with tiny wild mushrooms that the monks can totally keep).
Standouts were the tempura vegetables, which were served with a green seasoning powder I committed to searching out in my travels (and found in a gourmet food store in Takayama), always delicious miso soup, a white frothy pudding (see I really don’t have any idea what I was eating), seaweed-based salad and a milky tofu dish heated with a small burner for breakfast. It was all served on an eclectic assortment of little dishes, and with hot tea.
Although evening was near arriving, I went exploring because the mountains made me think of hiking and how I wanted to find a lofty view so I could take the area in, maybe see a sunset. I was recommended by a hotel worker who spoke a little English a small trail further up toward the Nyonindo bus stop. Beside a large, serene Buddha statue, I found a little such path, with a sign that read Women’s Pilgrimage Trail. Perfect, I thought, and began to ascend the narrow path. A little further on there was another sign, this time with a picture of a bear surrounded by lots of exclamation marks. Not so perfect. Walking into the wilderness alone at sundown in an area with bears is against my general rule of trying to stay alive, so I descended back towards Fukuchiin. Perhaps a soak in the onsen?
Yes, you are required to be fully naked in an onsen, so I was preparing for my public nudity debut. I was (not really) ready to be naked, exposed, self-consious, nervously averting my eyes, when I entered the onsen change room. I slipped off my slippers and my yukata and slid the door to enter. It was empty. I had the sauna and outdoor hot-spring all to myself.
Waking not long after dawn (sun up at 4:30am!) to a few crooked limbs from the tatami sleep, and a half-open equally crooked yukata, I changed and made my way to the prayer room for 6am. I was welcomed with the warm smile of a young monk in navy blue robes, who motioned for me to rub incense on my hands. I knelt down amongst the visitors gathering in the room. In a separate, but visible chamber, the monks began to chant…
Koyasan is at an elevation of around 900m and is surrounded by eight low peaks, making it reminiscent of the centre of a lotus flower. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has been a Buddhist place of practice since the year 816, when monk Kobo Daishi Kukai was granted it from the Emperor as an area of Shingon Buddhist training. You can wander from temple to impressive temple, some of which were the most immense structures. I spent some time in the overwhelming Oko-no-in cemetery (individual post coming soon), littered with Buddhist statues wearing bibs and moss covered tombs.
After the miscellaneous Buddhist fare of the last day and night, I licked my lips and ordered pancakes with butter and syrup. The Australian couple opposite saw the fluffy simplicity on my plate and the lady ordered some of her own. They were travellers from Queensland who I’d passed at the hotel and in the cemetery. They had just been to Hawaii (loved) and Vegas (get me out of here) before arriving for a couple of weeks in Japan. I was envious of their double night stay in Koyasan, and after a quick chat (it was nice to speak English) I rushed off to the station, jumped the funicular, and started my descent back down the lush mountains toward Kyoto.
Do you like the look of Koyasan or Fukuchiin or have you stayed somewhere similar? Tell me about it below!
Want more? Check out my Wanderlust on Bondi Beach Radio Japan Special featuring interviews from this trip as well as loads of great Japanese tunes!