There was a quiet excitement and sense of mystery as we travelled towards the secluded temple town of Koyasan, taking smaller and smaller trains through rural areas and up into the mountains. It began wending up a high mountain line, past tiny train platforms bulging with tree roots and overgrown with rich green creepers, some seemingly forgotten stations covered in leaves, being swallowed by the forest.
When we boarded the funicular, the whole world somehow …changed angle. Stylised like a vintage tram with a classic red and white racing-stripe paint job, it had big glass windows, and chrome touches on the tiny headlamps. The parallelogramic carriage had a sloping forward cabin, a sharply angled rear, and the interior looked less like a train and more like a staircase with seats. It was pulling itself up a stomach-lurching 45-degree angle, through an ancient forest powdered with snow.
When we arrived at the staircase-shaped station, the angles went back to normal. We flashed our ticket booklet (which we bought in Namba station, Osaka, and covered the multiple transport methods to get us this far) to a smiling bus driver. As the route wandered along the mountain road, a host of cedars, firs, hinoki cypress, and pine sentinels blotted out the sun, creating a mystical, ice-cold feeling of sanctuary beneath the treetops. Temples with wooden gates and paper ornaments began appearing, many of which are available as guest houses (one of Koyasan’s key experiences). Of the 7000 inhabitants of Koyasan, nearly half are monks. Visitors disembarked along the way to greet the monks who would host them during their stay.
By the time our stop arrived at the terminus, it was late afternoon. We found our accommodation, a capsule hostel on the edge of town. Unlike the high-tech plastic capsules of the cities, here we found a long, low timber building with a common table and cushions close to a steaming teapot, and a row of squarish, white-painted wooden capsules. There was a noticeable Nordic vibe. With light fading, we wanted to investigate (as legend goes) a monk who has been meditating for nearly a thousand years. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism (and one of Japan’s most important religious figures) is supposedly found in Okunoin, his mausoleum, fifteen minutes walk away.
Sometimes cemeteries can be beautiful places. I found it to be true of Pére Lachaise in Paris, and the same is true of Koyasan, Japan’s largest cemetery. Stone lanterns with flickering candles lined the way through the stone-paved forest, under the watch of almighty evergreens with thick trunks, grown wild with moss. Inbetween the trees were the tombstones, over 200,000 in all, worn by the weather and patterned green with centuries of moss, clustered together in rows upon rows, or interspersed with Buddha statues (wearing red beanies and bibs). Light snow dusted everything, and a ghostly chill hung in the air. I took a picture. My metal camera was ice cold, so I hurried it back into my jacket pocket. We walked to Mizumuke Jizo, a row of statues next to a trickling stream of water. People were using wooden ladles to throw water over the statues, to pray for deceased family members. A chill crept up my body when I looked at the cold water splashing.
The town itself was a small row of houses, shops and monastaries collected along a cute and compact main road. We sat down for a slice of cake and cup of tea, warming our hands on the mugs. We visited some souvenir shops, where smiling Koya-kun, Koyasan’s adorable town mascot monk, was everywhere. As night fell, the temperature dropped quickly. With very infrequent buses, we marched back towards the hostel. Even with our winter coats, beanies and scarves, we shivered and our teeth chattered, our hands and cheeks pink and sore. We passed the cemetery entrance again, and found that a spooky mist had wandered in, wrapping the trees and tombs in ghostly shrouds. Restaurants were few in this small town, but we found a small diner serving hot plates of pork katsudon to warm our bellies.
In the morning, we awoke in our capsules to discover a bright and clear winter morning. Without wasting any daylight, we set out to explore Koyasan’s temple and pagoda complex. The air was fresh and freezing, but the sun was out and I kept my hands warm with a hot can of vending machine coffee. First stop along the way was Kongobuji temple, a large wooden temple complex with sweeping tiled roofs and raked zen gardens. Ice had formed overnight, turning tree-lined ponds into smooth, crystallised mirrors. I noticed a delightful pattern of frost on the ground, sparkling white in the shadow of a fence, whilst all around the ground had melted as the morning sun moved across the sky. Inside, we changed into slippers, and wandered the creaking floorboards, admiring painted paper sliding doors and grand wooden halls.
A large temple complex was nearby. Guide in hand, we noted that many of the temples were reconstructions, with most (if not all) suffering damage or destruction due to fire over the centuries, from lightning strikes, candle accidents, or saboteurs. Many had been rebuilt multiple times. We passed a long wooden hall glittering with golden lanterns, and a snow-covered roof, another a towering vermillion giant with a round base and a dramatic sweeping roof, and a small pagoda with a large wooden wheel around its circumference, like a belt, with metre-long handles to push it around the temple.
We admired the grand gate Daimon, our last sight before we needed to return. As we sat on the train, winding down the mountain, we felt relaxed and inspired, and looked forward to exploring a different side of Japan – the mega-city of Osaka!