I had heard that while difficult to get to, it was possible to go to the top of a mountain in Japan and stay in a Buddhist monastery overnight. After just a day in the big, crowded city of Osaka, I was ready to head back to my type of happy place, the forest and the mountains. Saying Mount Koya is difficult to get to, well, that’s true. From Osaka it took over 4 hours: 2 subways, 2 trains, a funicular, a bus, and a 7 minute walk. I CANNOT believe I didn’t get lost. I am directionally challenged by nature and so moved along very slowly, checking and double checking a variety of online sources and reading every sign 3 times. Plus, the Japanese people were unbelievably kind and helpful. One subway employee pulled out his iPad and a huge binder of maps to Google my hotel and cross check that I was taking the most efficient route. Can you imagine that happening in New York? Ha. In another station, a man came along and grabbed my bag and carried it down a flight of stairs for me and disappeared before I could even say thank you. An employee ran after me when I started for the stairs with my suitcase as there was an elevator hiding around the corner. The worry on his face (that I might strain myself carrying my bag) was so cute! Strangers on the train would practice their few words of English on me and then giggle and hide behind their hands.
Mount Koya is a world away from Osaka. It is rugged and steep and covered in dense forests of cedar and bamboo. The time of the cherry blossoms had mostly ended but the azaleas and iris were in full bloom and you could smell the perfume in the air. There is a small town there and over 100 temples. I wished I had booked several days rather than just one. I stayed at the monastery called Zofukuin. The heavy wooden gates were pushed open wide in welcome and a monk stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs to greet me. The old wooden floorboards creak and squeak as you walk across them giving the name in Japanese of “nightingale floors”. My room was the old fashioned style, covered in tatami mats, a futon to sleep on the floor, sliding doors, and rice paper in the windows. Dinner was served at 5:30, breakfast at 7 after the 6:30am morning prayers, and other than that, I was free to do as I pleased.
The first thing I pleased was a soak in the onsen-the Japanese baths. Japan is a place of rules and customs and the baths are no different. No shoes inside. You are given a pair of slippers. But then you take those slippers off and put on a special bathroom pair of slippers. And then you take those off and sit on a low wooden stool and scrub yourself from head to toe and rinse. Long hair must be tied up. Finally you are ready to soak in the steaming hot onsen. The onsen is not for bathing or cleaning yourself in, it’s just for soaking.
Much refreshed, I was ready to go explore. The little streets are just so picturesque. The history there is mind boggling. This little town and some of the temples were built starting in 826. Not 1826. 826. Temple after temple beckoned to me, one shiny and red, the next subdued, all natural wood, but incredible architecture, the next with a reflecting pond, yet another with scary statues. I walked and looked and was endlessly amazed and fascinated until I reached the edge of town marked by the enormous Daimon Gate, built in the 11th century. Beyond the gate the mountains stretch out, range after range, turning blue and bluer off into the distance. I wanted to follow a little path that went so mysteriously off into the forest, but it was time for dinner and it would be no good to keep the monks waiting.
I had heard there was an ancient graveyard that was worth walking around in the dark. That’s not a recommendation you hear every day, so I figured it was worth investigating. After dinner I grabbed a jacket and scooted out the gates as the sun was setting. The graveyard was set in a forest of enormous cedar trees like dark, silent sentries. The head stones were covered in moss and crumbling with age. Every so often a stone lantern put off a soft yellow glow, keeping it from being impossibly dark. It brought to mind fairies and goblins and stories from long, long ago.
I found my way back to the monastery, feeling completely safe in the dark, tiptoed across the creaky floors, slid the door shut behind me, slipped into the futon, and fell into a deep and happy sleep.