Koya-san, where saints and sinners mingle

Apr 07, 2013, 09:00 IST | Rahul Dias

Escape the clich �d Japan in the misty mountain town of Koya-san, as RAUL DIAS did on his quest for the other, more spiritual side of this dichotomous country

I am surrounded by Catwoman, a French maid and someone I suspect is trying very hard to look like Marilyn Manson, complete with mismatched coloured contact lenses in each eye and black painted lips. Just for the record, this isn’t some substance-fuelled miasma. It is reality playing a typical Japanese youth game called Cosplay on me.

Surrounded by eight peaks, Koya-sans’ tiny mountain haven is just over an hour by train from Osaka

I’m seated in a funicular ready to see another side of Japan which is just a five minute ride away up in the thick-forested mountain town of Koya-san. The trio keeps snapping pictures of themselves striking Charlie’s Angels-esque poses, all the while giggling hysterically.

Luckily for me, they choose to annoy the daylights out of the ice-cream vendor just outside the funicular station once we reach the top. I slink away into the rapidly thickening mist. It’s 4.30 pm and the town of Koya-san is putting on a spectacular show. The ground is carpeted with the blushing pink fallen sakura cherry blossoms that have bid adieu after a fragrance-filled 10 day ‘performance’ all over the Kansai region. And they couldn’t have cherry-picked (pun intended) a better place than Koya-san for their final curtain call. Surrounded by eight peaks, this tiny mountain haven, just over an hour by train from Osaka, is part of Kansai’s Wakayama-ken Prefecture and is the headquarters of the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism. It is also a place where people like me come to seek a sliver of expiation for past wrongdoings.

A short bus ride to the town’s centre and from there another 10 minutes of easy walking along a cypress tree-lined path deposits me at the main gates of the Okuno-in cemetery complex. It has taken on a dusky pallor thanks to the swirling grey mist. I’m all alone and the silence is complete, save for the chirruping of cicadas and the occasional hoot of an owl. Over 200,000 tombstones honour everybody the Japanese, Australian and Malay soldiers killed in the North Borneo battle of WWII to white ants exterminated by a now-repentant pesticide company. Okuno-in is Japan's largest cemetery. It is also the most revered with the belief going that anyone interred here (or even a small piece of the deceased’s clothing or hair) is ensured a fast-track to paradise.

The Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi

Another Okuno-in legend that I was itching to try out ever since I had heard of it from a Japanese friend, revolves around the Mirokuishi Boulder. Located at the northern end of the cemetery is a tiny wooden cabin with large holes punched into its sides. Believers are expected to put their hands through the holes and try to lift a small boulder called Mirokuishi off the cabin's floor and place it on a shelf. It is believed that the person's sins weigh as much as the perceived heaviness (or lightness as the case may be); of the boulder they try to lift. Well, I do just that, try to lift that is!

Carrying the tonne-like weight of my sins with me, I exit the cobblestoned path of the cemetery. I hope that my second pit stop for the evening helps lessen the load a bit… or at the very least washes away some of the ‘sinful’ travel grime.

The Koya-san Onsen Fukuchi-in is where I not only find myself divested of ¥ 400 (approximately Rs 230), but also of my well-guarded desi modesty. I partake in a typically Japanese ritual of an onsen hot spring bath. Wearing only the tiny 8”X8” towel provided to cover one’s vital parts, I slip into the bubbling waters of the Onsen’s al fresco stone pool. Ignoring the fact that I’m the only non-Japanese gent in this communal bathing house. The term ‘hanging out with the locals’ takes on a whole new meaning!

Okuno-in is Japan's largest cemetery. It is believed that anyone interred here is ensured a fast-track to paradise. Pics/Raul Dias

It seems like hours of sybaritic heaven with my every sore muscle getting its much needed attention thanks to the sulphur-rich water bubbles.

I could have stayed the night at the onsen that doubles up as a hotel, but my pre-booked sleeping arrangements too had a supporting role in my quest for some pseudo soul cleansing, or so I hoped. I was to stay at the Henjoko-in Temple that, like most other small temples in Koya-san, offers pilgrims and evil-doer travellers like I boarding and lodging called shukubo for a nominal fee.

Greeted at the door by a white-robed priest, I am led to my tatami mat-floored room that has the soothing aroma of fresh straw. Furnished only with a futon, a blanket and a pillow, the tiny room is cordoned off from the rest of the lodgings with a fusuma paper sliding door. Over a simple vegetarian dinner called shojin-ryori — that is similar to a Jain meal sans onion and garlic — the head priest whose name was Gandhi-san (just like our very own Father of the Nation) explains the working of the temple dwelling. As the former imperial chamber of Emperor Shirakawa, the Henjoko-in Temple today welcomes guests to stay in its precinct and gives them the choice to take part in the Buddhist prayer ceremony called o-inori as well as to help out with the temple chores called o-tsutome. But since I had come in after the evening o-inori, Gandhi-san said I could go to bed directly.

Okuno-in cemetery complex

Up at a ghastly hour of 5.30 am to the incessant rapping of knuckles on my gossamer-light paper door, I make my way to the main prayer hall for the morning prayer. I sit in silence for half an hour listening to the gentle chants of Gandhi-san reverberate through the room, its soothing effect almost reaching my core. A peaceful smile spreads across my lips as I make a mental note to have another go at the Mirokuishi Boulder later.

After a frugal breakfast of sliced fruit and tepid occha green tea, I check out of the temple and walk towards the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi who was known as The Kukai before he died. This is the holiest of holy places for the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism located at a small plateau surrounded by the three massifs of Tenjiku, Yoryo and Mani that stand as if on guard. It is believed that The Kukai, who founded the Shingon School in 816 AD and who is entombed here, is not dead, but merely resting and will soon return to this realm as we know it.

Sitting in the pebbled Zen garden, in the shade of the ancient cedar trees, I let the cool mountain air fill me with its rejuvenating freshness, something both saints and sinners seem privy to here at Koya-san.

Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in

What is Cosplay?
Cosplay short for ‘costume play’, is a uniquely Japanese youth counterculture that came about as a means of expressing oneself through costume and make-up. Interestingly, very often the teenagers, who preen and pose for tourists' cameras every weekend with abandon, are bullied in school through the week and look at this drama of alter ego dress up as a way of escape

Travel facts
How to get there: Koya-san is an hour and a half long train ride from Osaka. From Gokurakubashi Station one has to take a five minute funicular ride up the mountain, the price of which is included in the train ticket.

There are direct flights from Mumbai to Tokyo with onward connections by air, train and road to Osaka. Alternately, one can reach Osaka from Mumbai via connecting flights from Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur

How to get around: There are regular bus services from the top funicular station to Koya-san's town centre. Most attractions and sites are easily accessible on foot from the town centre. Alternately, you can also rent bicycles from the Koya-san Tourist Association office in town and pedal your way through. (www.eng.shukubu.net)

Where to stay: For a unique and truly Japanese experience, try and book at a shukubo or a temple dwelling that offers basic and spartan — but very comfortable — accommodation with food. Some of the best are:
>Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in
(All the above three shukubo can be booked online at www.japanican.com)

For western style budget accommodation, the Koya-san Youth Hostel is your best bet (call on +81-736-563889)
What to eat: Koya-san doesn’t have fancy restaurants. All shukubo serve simple, vegetarian shojin-ryori (temple food) for meals with the goma-tofu (sesame tofu) being the ‘star’ dish. There are other small restaurants around the town centre that offer set meals called setto with tempura, ramen and sushi on their menu as well

When to visit: The spring-summer-autumn months from early March till end October are the best time to be in Koya-san 

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