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Recalling Summer, Part One: Koyasan and Osaka

September 14, 2012

First of all, I’d like to apologize for the LONG period of time in which this blog was silent. My summer activities really caught up to me, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit down and write everything out! Luckily I managed to jot down some of the important things in my notebook, so I’ll be consulting that as I write the next few posts.

At the beginning of August, I went on a week-long trip to Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto with Becky, Kris, Jess, and a high school friend of Jess’s named Julie. It was an amazing trip, and there is so much to share! Therefore, my retelling of the trip will be broken up into multiple posts. I hope you’ll forgive me!

On August 2nd, Jess, Julie and I left Koga at around 6:00 PM and took the train to Shinjuku and spent forever looking for Sweets Paradise, which is an all-you-can-eat restaurant famous for its amazing array of cakes. We eventually found it and went in, but the three of us were told that they were closing in a half hour and had to start cleaning up the food after 15 minutes, would that be okay? Our answer: No problem. We proceeded to stuff ourselves silly with pizza, pasta, and loads of cakes!

We met Becky in Shinjuku station and walked over to where our overnight bus to Osaka would be leaving from. Once we found it, we had to wait for Kris before checking in. At 11:50 we got on the bus and left Shinjuku. Ten minutes later, it became August 3rd and I  officially turned twenty-four.

We arrived at Osaka station at 8:00 AM. The five of us needed a moment to recollect ourselves after spending eight hours on a bus, so we headed into a café to refuel. We poked around the station area for a bit, and then made our way to Nanba, where we caught the Nankai train line toward 高野山 (Kouyasan), which was the first stop in our tour in Kansai.

Kouyasan is a series of mountains in Wakayama Prefecture, and there actually is no single mountain called Kouyasan. The area was settled in 819 by the monk Kukai and is the hub of the 真言 (Shingon) sect of Buddhism, and oversees the religious affairs of 3600 branch temples nationwide. The original monastery has grown into the town of Koya, which is home to 120 temples as well as a university specializing in religious studies.

During this leg of the trip, Kris was unfortunate enough to be elected to carry some pineapple that we had brought on the bus, thinking that we would probably eat it overnight. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and as he was carrying the bag with the pineapple, some of the juice leaked out all over his pants. We didn’t really have anything for him to clean himself up with, but a Japanese woman sitting nearby had seen what happened and handed him a moist towelette to use. Then, a man sitting behind Kris said something and his hand suddenly appeared next to Kris’s head (surprising him in the process). In his hand? Another moist towelette for Kris to use! I was fortunate enough to have my camera at that time, and so I got a pretty priceless picture!

The rest of our two-hour train trip was pretty uneventful after that, and we contented ourselves to watching the scenery melt from big city scapes to small rural towns as we wound our way up into the mountains. I’ve been to Kouyasan once before, back when I studied abroad in Kyoto, so I was really looking forward to revisiting the beautiful landscape!

Since the train actually doesn’t go all the way to the top of the mountain, we had to take a cable car to get to the top of Kouyasan. After reaching the station, we then had to board a bus in order to get into the town of Kouyasan. We rode for about twenty minutes, and then began the search for the temple we were supposed to stay at. That’s right! We got to spend the night in a Buddhist temple!

The temple is called 大明王院 (Daimeiouin), and the setting was absolutely amazing. We rang the bell, and a monk in plain clothes met us at the door and showed us to our rooms. They had set aside two rooms for us, one for the ladies and one for Kris, but we were able to push the sliding doors aside in order to make it one giant room. I was especially excited because they were traditional Japanese rooms, complete with 畳 (tatami) mats, and we somehow managed to score rooms that overlooked the garden. Believe me, that’s quite a feat because those are the rooms that tend to cost much more to reserve. However, we found out that we were the only guests that night, so we were fortunate enough to be moved into the rooms next to the garden. Immediately as we set our things down, five cameras were whipped out of nowhere and we all started taking pictures.

Photography in the room

Our guide returned to the room with tea and cakes for us, as well as information we needed to know regarding staying in the temple. For example, since there was only one bath area, men and women had to use it at different scheduled times. We took advantage of the time we had before dinner to use the special indoor bath to clean off the grime we accumulated over our travels. Once we were all clean, we donned the 浴衣 (yukata), the cotton summer kimono, the monks left for us and went into a separate room to eat our dinner.

Dinner was absolutely amazing. Since we were staying in a Buddhist temple, it was pretty clear we would be eating what the monks eat. That meant that our whole meal was vegetarian!

Everything you see here.

We had rice, tempura, soup, veggies cooked in so many different ways, and a specialty food of 高野山 — 高野豆腐 (Kouya doufu). 高野豆腐 is a tofu  that is specially prepared by freezing it first. There was so much food, and it took us two hours to eat all of it. Well, it took two hours for the others to eat it — I wasn’t able to finish mine! After dinner we went back into our room in a semi-comatose state. All of the exhaustion from several hours of travel finally caught up to me, and I didn’t last past 9:30.

The next morning (August 4th) we woke up at 6:45 and quickly dressed in order to attend a 7:00 ceremony. We were surprised when we entered the room only to discover that the monk who we had met the night before was no longer in plainclothes, but in splendid robes that signified that he was the head monk. None of us had a clue! We sat in small chairs lined along the back of the room, and the ceremony was soon under way. It’s really hard to describe all of the sights, smells, and sounds I experienced, so I won’t really try. I can say that the whole thing lasted about an hour, but it felt a fair bit shorter than that.

Breakfast was waiting for us when we were finished, and once again I wasn’t able to finish everything. We had some time before we planned to go out, so I went back to our room to relax and digest. It was so peaceful to sit in the room, next to the garden. The breeze was blowing, wind chimes were ringing, and the sun was shining. In addition, since we were at the top of a mountain, the air was cool and dry. It was one of those perfect moments.

We left our bags back at the temple and began the walk to 奥の院 (Okunoin), which is a Buddhist temple famous for its expansive graveyard, which ends at a mausoleum built in the honor of Kukai, a monk famous for creating the Shingon sect of Buddhism. When he died, his disciples erected the mausoleum next to a river. Leading to this main mausoleum from the road is a 2 km path lined with cedar trees and more that 200,000 grave stones. The oldest stones date back to the Heian period (794-1185), and stones marking graves of military commanders to commoners can be found. There’s a section with a newer graveyard that has some pretty spectacular markers — a coffee cup and a spaceship among them. It was really fun to see it again, especially since it was raining when I had visited before.

Cedars and headstones

After Okunoin, we began walking toward 大門 (Daimon), which literally means “big gate.” And boy is it a big gate, standing at 25.1 meters (82.35 feet)! At Daimon we hiked .9 km up the mountainside to reach a small shrine. It was quite the uphill hike, which meant it was quite the downhill hike as well since we had to go back the way we came! It made for a nice bout of exercise. However, since we decided to take the little side trip to the shrine, we ended up missing the last bus into town and so we had to walk back to the temple. We retrieved our luggage and got on the bus to get to the cable car station. We had two minutes to get on the cable car, so we had to hurry a bit but we made it in time.

We got on the train and began the journey back to Osaka. Watching the world around the train go dark as we descended the mountain was beautiful. Somehow our conversation turned to talking about scary movies, both American and Japanese. Part way through the trip back, the train stopped at a station. Now, that doesn’t sound very new or exciting, but the train had stopped, as in it wasn’t continuing on. The conductor used the intercom to ask for our patience as they figured out what was wrong with the train, and I noticed some men running up and down the platform with flashlights in hand.

It took some time, but it was eventually decided that this train wouldn’t start up running anytime soon. All of the passengers on the train had to hike down in the dark from the station to the road, where taxis would pick us up and transport us to the next station. From there we would be able to board a working train to continue our trip. This kind of event rarely happens in Japan, so this was quite the experience. How perfect, considering we were just discussing scary movies!

Somehow there was a silent unanimous decision to get the foreigners and those in a hurry into the taxis first, so Becky and Jess were put in one taxi with some Korean girls while Kris, Julie, and I were packed away in the next one that arrived. Our driver must have grown up in the area, because he was whipping down the mountain roads with no problem. We reached the station in no time at all, and boarded the train that was waiting for us. There was a slight problem, however — even though they should have arrived at the station before we did, Becky and Jess were nowhere to be seen. It turned out that their taxi driver had never been in the area before, so he got lost! Luckily they made it in time to get on the train before it was time to go.

The whole ordeal overall delayed us about two hours, so we decided to call our hostel in Osaka to let them know that we were late. It took several tries, but we eventually managed to connect with the hostel manager and let him know that we were running behind schedule. Luckily for us, the hostel was walking distance away from the station. As we stood outside, our general consensus upon first impression was that our hostel seemed a bit sketchy. However, once we got inside we were pleasantly surprised with the overall ambiance of the place. Masa, the man who owns and runs the hostel, also speaks very good English. Apparently he studied in England for six months and then was in Australia for a year. He was very nice, and really did well in answering our questions.

The next morning at around 6:00 Kris popped into our room to say goodbye before heading to the airport to begin his month-long trek in Southeast Asia. The remaining four of us went back to sleep for a short while, but then we got ready for the day and we were out the door by 10:00. Our first stop of the day was 大阪城 (Osaka jo), better known as Osaka Castle. I had never gone during my study abroad, so it was very interesting for me. The weather was extremely hot, so we invested in some かき氷 (kakigo’ori), some shaved ice, to beat the heat.

Osaka Castle, in all its glory.

After finishing up at the castle, we decided to go to the Umeda Sky Building, which is home of the Floating Garden Observatory. It’s one of the tallest buildings in Osaka, at 173 meters (567.585 feet). To get to the rooftop, you have to take a glass elevator from the 3rd floor to the 35th floor, and then from there an escalator encased in a glass tube to the 39th floor. Then you take an escalator to the 40th floor, which is an enclosed observatory. From there you can climb a flight of stairs to the rooftop, also known as the Lumi Sky Walk. The view from the rooftop has been selected as one of Japan’s one hundred most famous sunsets. Unfortunately, we weren’t there at the right time!

The whole experience was wonderful for my fear of heights, let me tell you! I am proud to say that I made it all the way to the top of the building (though I was only able to stay out for a little more than five minutes), and I have the photo to prove it.

Proof. I must admit that I did only last about seven minutes up top before retreating downstairs.

Once we were back on solid ground, we set up to fulfill Julie’s dream to see a particular church designed by a famous Japanese architect. After taking the train for forty five minutes and walking another twenty, we soon found out that we had just missed the church’s closing time and even though there were some people remaining inside the building, they wouldn’t let us in– even for a brief look. So much for Christianity in Japan! Julie took what photographs she could, and we began the trip back to Osaka.

It was dinnertime once we reached the area around our hostel, so we decided to enjoy one of the specialties of the Kansai area, which is お好み焼き (okonomiyaki). お好み焼き is made of a batter containing cabbage, water, flour, and eggs and then you choose what you want to add to the batter. You cook it on a griddle like a pancake, cut it with a spatula and enjoy! More traditional additives are pork and squid, but nowadays you can ask for things like corn.

I think I’ll leave the post there for now. Stay tuned for our adventures in Nara and Kyoto!

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