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May 22, 2012, Japan

Far from the madding crowd

SUKI LOR finds peace at the top of the mountains in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture

Suki Lor

AFTER hours of walking and exploring the sights of Koyasan, a mystical town in the mountains of Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, I was looking forward to sampling hojin ryori — a Japanese vegetarian cuisine that originated from Zen Buddhist temples.

At Koyasan, part of a wider Unesco World Heritage site, visitors can enjoy the unique experience of shojin ryori while staying at a comfortable shukubo (temple lodging).

Koyasan is located on a 900m high plateau surrounded by eight low peaks like lotus petals.

The little town with its picturesque setting and pristine environment was founded some 12 centuries ago by the multi-talented and revered monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, as a centre for Shingon Buddhist training.

Koyasan spreads along a main road about 3.5km long running from east to west, and is home to close to 120 temples, of which slightly more than 50 offer temple lodgings.

It offers a cool respite during summer, as temperatures are a few degrees cooler at Koyasan than down in the plains.

After touring the sights in town, it was time for a shower and a soak in one of the spacious communal baths at Jimyoin Temple, where I had booked to spend the night.

Letting the hot water soothe my tired limbs was heavenly.

Zen cuisine

Then came dinner served in our rooms. And what a sumptuous meal it was.

There were several dishes such as tempura, soup and pickles made with seasonal ingredients ranging from vegetables and seaweed to mushrooms and freeze-dried tofu, a local delicacy.

In shojin ryori, which forms an aspect of Zen training, garlic and onions are not used.

The ingredients may seem simple, but shojin ryori draws out their natural flavours to yield a wholesome feast that certainly kept my palate happy.

Memorable sites

The next day, I was up bright and early with the other guests to join the morning prayers beginning at 6.30am.

I spent about 24 hours in Koyasan, which enabled me to cover most of the important sights in town, but a two-night stay would be more ideal.

Some of the must-see attractions include:

Kongobuji Temple
This is the head temple of Koyasan and nearly 4,000 branch temples of the Shingon sect nationwide.

Beautiful paintings of willow trees and cranes adorn the sliding panels in the rooms of the main temple.

On the sprawling site is a quintessential Japanese rock garden, the largest such garden in the country.

Danjo Garan Complex
The Kondo Hall and the Daito, or Great Pagoda, are the two most important temples in the complex of nearly 20 structures located in the
western end of the town.

Okunoin
To the east of the town, from the main road, a 2km cobblestone walkway leads to Okunoin — Kobo Dashi’s mausoleum — which is regarded as the most sacred site in Koyasan.

Along this winding path is an atmospheric forest cemetery, with many tall and ancient cedar trees standing watchful guard over more than 200,000 tombs and monuments.

I visited at dusk on the first day and in the following morning, and was fascinated by the myriad of tombstones of various styles, all with a story to tell. Many Japanese actually wish to have their ashes buried here.

Getting there

  • The nearest major city to Koyasan is Osaka. From Osaka’s Namba Station, the fastest train to take is the Nankai Koya line that terminates at Gokurakubashi Station at the base of the mountain. The ride takes about 80minutes. Then board a funicular railway for a five-minute ride up to Koyasan Station, followed by a bus ride into town.
  • A useful ticket to buy is the Kansai Thru Pass, which enables holders to ride on subways, private railways and buses throughout the Kansai district,which covers places like Osaka, Nara and Kyoto besides Koyasan. A two-day pass costs 3,800 yen (S$61) and a five-day pass 5,000 yen.

Traveller’s tips

  • A tatami room for one person at Jimyoin costs about 6,300 yen a night. Dinner is about 3,675 yen and breakfast 1,575 yen. I highly recommend the dinner. If you prefer, you can have breakfast at one of the cafés andrestaurants in the little town.
  • The Koyasan Tourist Association website (www.shukubo.jp/eng) has a full list of shukubo available, where online bookings are possible.

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