Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Japan, Part 3

October 30, 2008:

To Koyasan.

In the morning, we're escorted to the proper ticket purchase point in Osaka Station by not one but two helpful Swissotel staff members. After picking up our admissions we head over to the terminal for our train to Koyasan.

The Station holds a similar feel to London Station, with its open spaces and daylight filtering in over the metal framework that spider-webs the train gates. A lone, dilapidated pigeon lopes near us. One corner of his beak looks crusted with calcification, and in place of his right foot is an equally-calcified stub. He's charming as hell in his scruffy way, and soon he's lured several scraps of pastry from Rita and I.

The train arrives, and we're off to Koyasan. The journey offers the same humble-but-palpable pleasures as the Tokyo-to-Kyoto ride: More birds'-eye views of some of Japan's non-touristy quadrants flit by, but this time the sardine-packed suburbs gradually give way to much more rural and placid areas.

All of the surrounding terrain grows more lush, green, and panoramic with the speed of a time-lapse sequence from a wildlife documentary as we get nearer to Mt. Koya and Koyasan. At various points in the train's ascent it slows to a near-halt, brakes squealing as it traverses corners that open up spectacular vistas of verdant trees and plant life. The area bears some resemblance to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest (give or take appearances by bamboo and other exotic flora/fauna).

Once the train reaches the end of the line we take a cablecar up to Koyasan proper, ascending past carpets of bamboo, conifers, and ferns. We're just two of a pretty large mob of tourists (mostly Japanese) at the top, and Rita and I maneuver our way into the bus that's to take us to our lodgings. Between the absurdly-tight seats and our bloated carry-along luggage, we're so crammed into the coach that laughing at the absurdity of the situation imperils our ability to breathe.

Koyasan is one of Japan's most religiously significant locales. It's a center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect of the religion introduced circa 805 AD by reformist monk Kobo Daishi. Over a hundred monasteries dot the Koyasan area. One of them is Shojoshin-in, the monastery that will house us overnight.

We arrive at Shojoshin-in early in the afternoon. It's along a quieter stretch of the main road that remains tranquil despite the tour groups that occasionally pop in to flood the well-stocked gift shop across the street. We visit the aforementioned tourist trap ourselves to admire the rows of knick-knacks, postcards, and toys. My favorite portion turns out to be the food wares--I gleefully sample the many exotic gelatinous snacks stuffed with fruit and bean paste proffered by the clerks, while Rita picks up my slack and souvenir-shops for friends and family.

The monastery itself sits with quiet modesty, its simple wooden exterior surrounded by immaculately-kept grounds and gardens. Most of the lodgings for tourists are communal housing, with shared houses and baths. Rita and I presume this to be our arrangement, but we luck out and our request for the hanare (the one private guest residence just outside the main monastery) is successful. It's a beautiful traditional-style Japanese home, all sliding paper screens exquisitely filligreed with traditional mythological and Buddhist imagery. It's sparely but tastefully furnished, with a single table for eating/tea and a futon for slumber. The hanare includes western toilets (a profound relief to Rita, who was rightfully shuddering at the notion of a traditional squat toilet) but has no central heating (space heaters fill in fairly well).

The monks who tend to our needs feed all of us an all-vegetarian dinner that evening in the main dining room. The meal is, unequivocally, the most delicious food we are to have for the entire trip. As Rita eloquently states, if all veggie cuisine is this good, meat-eaters'd never go back to carnivorous dining.
The gardens surrounding our hanare are gorgeous, and best of all, we're just a few hundred feet from the Koyasan graveyards. The Graveyards house some 200,000 graves, and in striking contrast to the often-dour and sad final resting places of the west, these graveyards envelop one in a contented serenity. Perhaps it's because Buddhism's centered awareness of nature compliments Japan's other principal religion (the nature-worship faith of Shinto) with grace and acceptance. Huge trees shade a seeming infinity of tombstones, stone gates, Buddhist effigies, and statuary. For some 1,200 years nature has been crafting abstract masterworks over the surfaces of these markers in the vivid greens, oranges, and browns of the moss and the ambient plant life. The groundskeepers of these massive cemeteries keep the surrounding pathways immaculate, but rather than scrape away or clean up the statuary and markers, the plants, mosses, and lichens are allowed to become one with the man-made--to often mystical effect. We spend over two-and-a-half hours leisurely wandering through the graveyard, all without reaching the end.

The Graveyards are one of the most 'idiot-proof' tourist attractions imaginable, meaning that I could probably send my mom in blindfolded with a disposable camera and she'd come out with amazing photographs. This place is that kind of magical. The photographs (which, incidentally, are copyrighted by us and should not be used without permission, Friends and Neighbors!) should bear that out. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I hope the next several are worth a few million, at least.

Postscript: The evening is relaxing, beautiful, and chilly. We take a turn in the graveyard after dark--Rita dilligently films while I tell an improvised ghost story. We return to the hanare, and before turning in for the night I decide to wander out to the graveyards alone, journal in hand:

"I am in the graveyard, alone...It is alternately tranquil and unnerving. I am at a fully-lit crossroads: There is darkness--infinite darkness--just beyond the well-groomed, well-lit pathway. The figures, markers, and stones that were so placid during the day are now shaded by the strange magic that the presence and the chill of the night induce. No cars are driving along the nearby road. All is silent: Indeed, the scrawling and scratching of my pen against paper sounds deafening amidst the silence. Tiny flies swarm 'round the lamp silently. I think I shall venture forward, just a bit more..."

I do indeed walk further down, to a darker point on the path, largely to face my own fear. How often, after all, does one get such a chance to immerse ones' self in something so atmospheric and magical? Leaning against a lightpost in the dark, I gaze up into the multiple tiers of graves and memorials as they dissolve into the surrounding blackness. After a few minutes of steeping in the atmosphere I rush back to the hanare, and I join Rita for several hours of restful slumber.

Tomorrow morning, we will be granted a special window into a ceremony oft-repeated here over the last thousand years...

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