Koyasan – Japan’s sacred mountain

June 22, 2015

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So we got a bit carried away with the excitement of arriving in Korea and forgot to mention one of the best experiences that we had in Japan. Koyasan is a sacred Buddhist mountain, built on top of a plateau, about two and a half hours from Osaka.

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You can get there really easily on the JR line, it is quite funny because you have to change at a certain station where you swap onto a tiny, local train which reminded us of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London, if you’ve never seen it think of the kind of trains you get to shuttle you between terminals at the airport. We then wound our way up a mountainous region, in and out of tunnels, and over forested ravines on metal bridges with no sides.

When we reached Gokurakubashi, the end of the line, we had to change again but this time it was to a funicular railway that rises up a  steep incline from the altitude of 500-1000m in about 5 minutes. I don’t know if you can get the steepness here but this was at the top.

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Once you’re at the top, you need to get a bus into the main area of the town. It is an absolutely massive and sprawling place and technically you’re not allowed to walk from the station. This reminds me of a good tip: When you reach Shin-Imamiya station on the Osaka loop line, make sure you come out of the barriers and into the main ticket concourse, then there is a ticket window to your right that will give you a ticket for all of the trains, cable cars, buses, and a discount to some entrance fees whilst you’re in Koyasan. That was really useful.

We took the bus to the furthest point and planned to work our way back to the train station, that ended up being a good plan for us. The furthest point turned out to be the most awe inspiring actually, it is called Okuno-in and is a shrine complex dedicated to Dakeyama Hokine and a graveyard for basically anybody that has ever been ‘anybody’ in Buddhist Japan.

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This place was incredibly atmospheric, set in an ancient forest with thousand year old trees rising up out of sight everywhere and moss covering the Buddhist graves and memorials.

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This is an example of how big some of the trees are, Pete is not a small fella. No offence Pete.

Every single grave seemed to be for a daimyo, which is the word for an historic feudal lord in Japan who was subordinate only to the shogun who was hand picked to rule Japan by the emperor, or someone from their circle of influence.

There were lots of incredibly carved rock and metallic figures in the cemetery

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Here people pray by throwing water on the deities.

There were a lot of carvings of the buddha, ancient and green, so old that they have weathered into a smooth and unrecognisable block.

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They were impressive stacked up in a pyramid shape.

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We stumbled on this lantern hall in the shrine complex at the end of the walk through the cemetery.

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It is pretty indescribable how the low light made everything so relaxing and atmospheric.

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Beautifully carved inscriptions were in the doors of the lanterns

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Mesmerising place.

So after that we wandered around the impressive Okuno-in main shrine, the air was smoky and scented with incense and filled with people chanting repetitive mantras. The clink of people donating money with their prayers gave a modern, metallic interest to an obsorbant ancient practise. In the main hall we observed the monks singing their prayers and they seemed to be singing from their throats. A deep voice was textured with higher harmonic overtones which seemed to wisp through the air as if from nowhere in particular. Pete took a recording of this which he’ll put up later on.

It is a very popular place with people walking all around the cemetery, some in traditional dress visiting their religious site, others like us, clearly tourists on a day trip.

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When we had strolled up and down the cemetery we found a little restaurant and had some pork katsu curry, it was pretty strange as it was Hawaiian themed amongst the ancient Buddhism.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the other temples and their gardens. One amazing thing that we didn’t have time to do in Koyasan is stay in the temples with the monks, apparently it is a really good opportunity to observe their daily routines.

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There were some really amazing examples of buddhist architecture here too.

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The craftsmanship in these temples was spectacular as always, the examples of wood carving in particular were so impressive.

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There were thousands of tiny buddha statues.

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In one of the gardens, there were rocks aligned to make it look like a dragon in a sea of clouds. Can you see it?

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There were some really incredible paintings, we weren’t supposed to take a picture but we couldn’t help ourselves. These were some of the best screen paintings we’d ever seen.

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Amazing to see the kind of dress that was popular in the period that these depict, which is centred around the Tang dynasty in China (AD 618–690 & 705–907), they were painted sometime around the 16th century.

Apparently the fashion in the capital at the time, Chang’an – now Xi’an, which was also the most populous city in the world with a million people, was heavily influenced by central Asian dress that travelled across the silk road and further through the diplomatic ties between China and Japan. Fascinating.

We had enough time for Sophie to pretend to be a mushroom like toad in Nintendo Mario, before heading back to Osaka, really tired but amazed.

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Just kidding, it’s supposed to be a person with the traditional buddhist hat of the area.