October 9, 2007

Nara


Our latest adventure took us to Nara, Japan's ancient capital. I have been to Nara twice before, once with my parents and once with a good friend. While I have seen most of the big sights I still wanted to take James there.


Flashback to before the trip:

Me (calling the youth hostel): "So you are all full on Saturday night"
Hostel: "Yes, that's right, we have such and such sports camp and there isn't any room...
Me (turning to James): Hmm, the hostel is full, what about camping? I found a campsite that says it is only a 30 minute train ride from Nara OR Kyoto and a 20 minute walk to the campsite...
James: Sure, we have a great tent we might as well use it!

It sure seemed like a great idea at the time. It was cheap and seemed convenient! Maybe we could use this place for a Kyoto trip too! After many transfers, we finally arrived at Nagaike (Long Lake) Station. After walking a bit I asked a local construction worker if we were heading the right direction. He said yes, but is was another 3 kilometer... uphill.

When we finally got to the place, we had two choices for camping. A gravelly spot, or a mosquito infested one. We opted for paying a bit extra, staying at the lodge and then getting out of there as early as we could. OK, it wasn't such a good idea...
That behind us, we still had a great time seeing the sites in Nara, the most famous being Todai-ji, which has the largest Buddhist statue in Japan, and is the largest wooden structure in the world! At least that is what is said on the ticket.


We also visited a very beautiful garden nearby that I hadn't been to before.


Of course no trip to Nara would be complete without feeding the tame deer that roam Nara Park, living off of handouts from tourist and scaring small children. James still thinks watching the crying kids is more entertaining then the deer.

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October 1, 2007

Koyasan

Nearly 1200 years ago, a young Japanese man named Kukai traveled to China to study Buddhism. Kukai spent two years in a monestary. His master became deathly ill, and on his deathbed he asked the young monk to return to Japan, and spread his teachings. Kukai returned to Japan and founded the town of Koyasan in 816 AD.

A rock garden at Kongobuji temple

Tisha and I recently took a three day trip to the mountains south of Osaka to visit this beautiful town. Like many westerners, I am quite unfamiliar with Buddhism, and so this trip was particularly fascinating. During our visit we saw many Bhuddist Temples, and a beautiful cemetery. We also took a lovely hike, and stayed overnight at a temple.

(In order to maintain some semblance of brevity, I'm just going to run down the highlights of our action packed trip)

Funicular: The Ascent

Just getting to Koyasan is an adventure in itself. After a few hours and a few transfers on the train we finally arrived at the mountains south of Osaka. Koyasan sits in a valley amongst these mountains, at a height of 3000 feet. The final stretch of our journey was far to steep for mere trains... this, as we all know, was a job for a funicular!

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Riding the funicular, feelin' the flow.

After the excitement of the funicular, we needed to simmer down. Fortunately we still had a short bus ride into Koyasan.

Temples

We were finally in Koyasan, and it wasn't long before we got some sweet Buddhist temple action. If you're looking for temples in Japan, then Koyasan is the place to go. There are small temples...



...big Temples...



...and stone temples...
There's the pilot on top.

The most impressive temples are at the temple complex of Danjogaran. As always, our Lonely Planet guide gave us the lowdown:

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And here he is!

We liked Danjogaran so much, we decided to toss the old pie plate a few times:

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Filming your sweet trailing edge catch: priceless

Lodging

We spent our first night in Koyasan at a hostel, which was affordable and nice. Our second night in town we spent at Henjoson-in. Henjoson-in is one of many temples in Koyasan which offers shukubo style lodging to religious pilgrims (and tourists). The staff of these temples are all young Buddhist monks, who earn their keep by running the establishment. Shukubo provides a very authentic experience which includes distinctive vegetarian meals and morning prayer service. Henjoson-in also featured men's and women's Japanese baths, which were quite extravagant. Of course, this was Tisha's favorite part of the trip, and even I must admit that I enjoyed them, despite my well-known aversion to bathing. For photos of Henjoson-in, see the slideshow at the end of the post.

I See Dead People

For our final day in Koyasan, Tisha and I visited the town cemetery, which is located in the forest east of town. This cemetery is actually the main attraction in Koyasan, especially for the religious pilgrims. The most striking feature of the cemetery is its forest setting. Many of the cemeteries I have visited or seen in America are devoid of trees. None of them come close to presenting a native ecosystem, which is what is exactly what has been done in the Koyasan cemetery. I am particularly fond of forests because they are so alive. Walking through this place reminded me of the strong links between life and death. The fallen logs, gravestones, wandering children, and young saplings illustrate that without death there would be no room for new life.


I also realized in this hallowed setting that without mosquitoes there would be no need for bug spray. Fortunately, Tisha was prepared as always.

He is The One

The Buddhists actually believe that one guy has been holding on to his spot in the universe for almost 1200 years, and may not ever give it up. That man is Kukai himself, and at the far end of the cemetery there is small, and I suppose ancient, temple where he's been chillin' like a villain all this time. Of course, nobody gets within 100 meters of Kukai's final dwelling, and photographs are strictly forbidden. That said, Tisha loves candles, and has no shame:

Sadly, my wife will be reincarnated as a meal worm

I've Seen Enough to Know I've seen Enough

After seeing Kukai's mausoleum, we weren't exactly sure what to do next. Then we saw this...

Forget about Iran! The Buddhists have ICBM's!

... and we knew it was time to go home. As sad as we were to leave Koyasan, we knew we had one more thing to look forward to...

Funicular 2: The Descent

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Those poor suffering soy beans

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A near miss

Slideshow