Friday, April 8, 2011

07/04/11 - 08/04/11 Koyasan, Monks, Pocky and Osaka

These last two days have really blurred together... Probably the lack of sleep talking.

Anyhow, after our brilliant previous day in Nara, we only had a short while in the morning to enjoy some more of Nara before we headed off to our next destination. As such, after our breakfast (once again, traditional Japanese, so it was a bit of a mixed bag), we headed out to see some more of Nara park.

Today we were off to see Todai-ji Temple, and the gigantic Buddha statue that resides within it. The building that encloses this Buddha is the world's largest wooden structure, and to say that it is large is an understatement. It is gargantuan. It fills your vision from a good hundred metres away. Much like most historical buildings in Japan, the structure had been burnt down and rebuilt several times throughout its lifespan, and as such the current version of it was only about 300 years old. Remarkably, the current version is only two-thirds the size of the original! It must have been truly gobsmacking to see the original structure in its heyday.

Inside, it is just as impressive, as the hall contains a massive statue of Buddha, as well as other buddhist-related spiritual deities. Much like most of the Buddhist stuff that I have seen on my trips through Asia, words fail to encapsulate the grandness of their scale and the sense of calm one gets when in their presence.

Soon after, we headed back out into Nara park. There, the deer were waiting. We bought one last bunch of deer biscuits and gave them a feed. Now we had noticed that the deer's manners were pretty much inversely proportioned to the tourist concentration of the area. The ones that hung around the major tourist sites, such as Todai-ji, were very rude, pushy, and would actually bite you or knock their heads against you if you weren't careful. Conversely, the deer in the quieter, foresty regions of the park were far more placid, and even occasionally shyed away from deer biscuits, as Emma and I discovered when we were leaving the park through a lesser-known exit.

Then, it was off on another confusing array of trains to our next destination - this time, it way Koyasan, a mountain in southern Kansai, famous for its Buddhist temple lodgings, and the Oku-no-in graveyard. It sounds slightly creepy to head a good two hours out of the way to visit a graveyard, but when you see it, you understand why. More on this in a little while.

Anyway, after catching a train to the base of the mountain, we boarded a cable car, that took us up a *very* steep slope. It was an interesting experience for me, as it was my first cable car ride. Not to say that I didn't trust the engineering behind the vehicle, but it does make you uneasy when you are being slowly hauled along the side of a mountain at about a 75-degree angle. Then, a quick bus ride later, and we were at our temple lodging, Eko-in.

There was another group of tourists with us, who judging by their accents, were Aussies as well. Further observation led me to believe that they were in fact Queenslanders, as they had Jetstar tickets on their bags, and those flights to Japan depart from the Gold Coast or Cairns. They seemed nice enough, but they were obviously a different type of tourist to us - they had come for the alcohol and parties. Not really my scene to be honest, but if we had all gone to the pub together, I wouldn't have minded. Not that there are any pubs on Koyasan...

Anyways, back to the blog. After being shown to our room by a very friendly monk, we set out to explore Oku-no-in. This place was incredible. A 2km path lined with hundreds of thousands of lanterns, monuments and mausoleums, set within a massive cedar forest. These stone monuments varied in age from the fairly recent, with their polished granite sheen, all the way to the moss-covered, truly ancient tombstones, with some being nearly a thousand years old. The headstones varied from tombs of Samurai warriors, all the way through to shrines of pest-control companies, devoted to all of the insects they had exterminated. There were also shrines for modern-day soldiers, both Japanese and other nations. I'm not entirely sure how I felt about those. Still, the air was cool, and at most times, not a sound could be heard.

Ok, yes it is slightly creepy to think that this is a place where people's remains are scattered, but being there really was a worthwhile experience. It gave you time to ponder the fragility of life, religion, and ultimately universal tollerance and acceptance.

At the end of the path of Oku-no-in lies the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Inside... well, as I whispered to Emma when we were standing inside "I have no idea how I am going to describe this in my blog..."

It was the most breathtaking room I had ever been in. Thousands upon thousands of lanterns hung from the roof, each projecting their faint yellow glow onto the dark timber floors below. In the center of the room, golden Buddhist monuments, with two large lamps behind them. These lamps are said to have been burning for over a thousand years. At each side of the room, monks chanted in unison. The atmosphere all of this created is indescribable. Utterly, utterly indescribable. This experience for me, was worth the whole trip to Japan.

Unfortunately, it was now getting dark, so we had to rush back to our lodging for the night. We were served dinner at exactly 5:30pm, and it was a traditional Buddhist dinner. This meant no meat, no onion and no garlic - essentially nothing that would corrupt the senses. The food wasn't actually that bad. Lots of tofu, some of which was on rival with a good dish-sponge for taste and texture, but on the whole it was pretty good.

Later, as Emma was closing the door to our outside area for the night, she slipped and put a hole in the door (it was made of paper). I laughed. She tried to fix it by dabbing it with water and trying to re-seal it. I reckon she got away with it... you could only notice it if you were looking for holes.

I then went for a chocolate run to a local store. On this run, I discovered the wonders of "Pocky" - small straw-like biscuit sticks dipped in chocolate. If you haven't eaten them before, do so. They're cheap, tasty and are fun to eat.

The next morning, at the bright and early hour of 6:30am, we attended our lodging's two ceremonies. The first was a Buddhist morning ceremony, which involved sitting in revered silence, listening to a senior monk chant from his scriptures. The second was the fire ceremony, and involved burning various pieces of wood, liquids and plants. Unfortunately, the significance of both of these services was completely lost on me, as they weren't explained in the slightest. Still, I'm sure if I could speak Japanese, that they would have explained it to me in great detail.

Now, as some of you may be aware, athletically, I'm an incredibly inflexible person. I can't touch my toes, and I have never been able to. I struggle to sit cross legged. Yes, I know I need to excersise more. Why am I mentioning this? Well, the position we had to sit in during these ceremonies was incredibly uncomfortable for me. So much so that my legs fell asleep during both of them. At the end of each ceremony, we had to stand up, walk in front of the Buddha and bow, before slowly walking off. Try doing this when you can't feel your feet. Thankfully I didn't have a Mr. Bean - style disaster where I knocked over everything and caused irreperable cultural offence, but it was a struggle on my behalf. I need to join a gym...

Emma and I then sat around in our lodging for a few hours, surfing the internet. Yes, they have internet in a Buddhist temple on top of a mountain. Moreover, the connection we were using is about eight times faster than the one I have in Australia! Internet envy...

Then, we headed back down the mountain through the complex network of buses, cable cars and trains to Osaka. It was with a heavy heart that I left the more rural areas of Japan. I had always wanted to see the amazing fields of greenery so often depicted in the Studio Ghibli films such as "My Neighbour Totoro" and "Spirited Away", and I felt so lucky to have seen them, even if they were just glimpses, as I knew that they wouldn't be around forever.

Thankfully, our hotel is actually on top of the train station where our train terminated. And boy is it fancy. It's a five star hotel and it sure means it! Everybody we saw in the lobby was dressed in business suits, carrying designer labelled luggage. To say that we stuck out like a sore thumb was an understatement! Still, the room was cheap to book, and it is very nice. Obviously where they get you is the various services the hotel offers. For example, a cup of coffee delivered to your room will cost you around $17 Aussie. Furthermore, any sort of meal will cost you in excess of $40, and they have some courses in the main restaurants which are 60,000 - 70,000 yen per person. To put that in perspective, my entire spending money for this holiday was just over 100,000 yen. Looks like we won't be getting room service...

After spending a while relaxing in our room, Emma and I headed downstairs into the massive shopping complex to have a look around. We discovered several levels down an entire level which was a market-style delicatessen. It had hundreds of different vendors, selling any food you can possibly imagine. Every ingredient for anything Japanese (and other cultures, too!), you could buy from these vendors. Emma and I spent a good hour just walking around, just baffled by the sheer range of foodstuffs on offer. The desserts section was particularly fantastic.

Then, we headed out for dinner. We decided to go to that old favourite, Bubba Gump's. Yes, we tracked one down in Osaka to dine on tasty, tasty shrimp for one last time in the forseeable future. I felt a slight twinge of guilt that somewhere in Osaka, an Udon Noodle bar was going out of business because we didn't eat there, but when presented with the opportunity to dine on my classic "firewall of shrimp", how could I say no?

And then, catching the last train of the day, we made it back to our hotel in time for some well deserved rest. I've been up since 6:30am. I'm on holiday. This isn't meant to happen. I need sleep.

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