Apr 12, 2017

Weekend Trip to Mt. Koya

So I'm really late in getting around to blogging about this and I honestly don't have any excuses other than I just kept putting it off. 

The first weekend of December last year, bestie J and I decided to take a relaxing little weekend trip to Mt. Koya (高野山, kouyasan). I had only ever heard of the place, but J knew much more about it - what there is to do and what's worth seeing - so I basically left the planning up to him.

He booked us a shukubou (宿坊) - which is a type of lodging offered by temples to guests making pilgrimages to the area. Our temple was Fukuchi-in (福智院), and the room we stayed in was a standard tatami mat room like what you would get at any standard Japanese inn. The temple grounds were well-kept and peaceful, and the halls inside full of interesting old relics.

We had arrived before noon but weren't able to check-in until 3pm, but stopped by to drop off our luggage before going to do some exploring.


In wandering around we stumbled upon this... peculiar little temple.

Inside there were a number of morbid depictions of what I'm guessing was the Buddhist equivalent of Hell. There was also a dark, underground pathway inside, of which I'm not sure what the significance was but near the end there was a really psychedelic neon Buddha that was pretty cool.

Monks could often be seen strolling the streets

Random open room within Fukuchi-in
Once 3pm hit we headed back to our temple lodging to check in, chill, and take advantage of the  baths before they got too crowded. That evening we were served our vegetarian shoujin-ryouri (精進料理) in our room, and it was absolutely delicious. There was miso-flavored soy milk nabe hot-pot, boiled on the spot; crispy vegetable tempura with a side of matcha salt; goma-doufu (ごま豆腐), or "sesame tofu", which is actually made not with tofu but sesame paste, water, and kuzu root powder; various potatoes; boiled vegetables in a broth; pickled vegetables; rice and a clear-broth soup. J also got himself some hot sake, while I had an oolong tea in a cool, vintage-looking glass bottle that I kept as a souvenir.

After dinner we both decided to go take another soak in the baths. I tried out the smaller bath the second time around - the one without the attached outside rotenburo (露天風呂) - and had the place all to myself for a good half hour, which was all the time I needed.

The next morning J got up extra early to go for yet another soak before breakfast, but I opted for sleep. Our breakfast was also prepared in the traditional Buddhist vegetarian style, and was just as tasty as our dinner.

Top left to right: ganmo (spongy-textured tofu patty with small bits of veggies inside, soaked in a broth, my favorite!), dried nori seaweed, pickled konbu seaweed and pickled umeboshi plum, okara (tofu lees) with vegetables, soy sauce for seasoning, tororo (grated yam, which has a gloopy, slimy texture that takes some getting used to), and white rice.

Top left to right: Miso soup, miso soymilk nabe, seasoning broth (I can't remember exactly but I think it was ponzu), and green tea.

After checking out we headed to Kongobu-ji Temple (金剛峯寺).

And from there walked to Okuno-in Temple (奥の院). From the direction we came, we ended up walking through the whole of Okuno-in Cemetery, which is said to be the largest cemetery in Japan. It was definitely impressive, size-wise. The overall aura of the place too - tombstone upon tombstone, worn and weathered and covered in moss, surrounded by towering trees - was mystical yet calming all at once.

I have no photos from the temple itself; as it is considered one of the most sacred spots on Mt. Koya, photography is prohibited. I wish I could remember in more detail about the temple and its surroundings so I could at least write about it. All I can really remember is walking past a group of older women (and men?), standing in front of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi - the founder of Shingon Buddhism - and reciting a song-like chant that reverberated in my chest as I walked by. The sound was so moving and chilling I had to blink back the tears that involuntarily welled up in my eyes. Granted I am rather sensitive to sounds and music, in that I literally feel them, but it was still an amazing moment to experience.

On the way back we walked through the newer part of the cemetery, which was interesting in its own right but didn't quite have the same feel as the older section we walked through on the way in. For lunch we stopped at an international cafe that offered vegetarian and vegan lunch plates. The vibe was very eclectic, and the food was served on handmade clay dishes which were also on display and available for purchase.

The food did not disappoint either. First was a pureed mushroom soup, then a plate of chillied beans, brown rice, quiche (?), salad with sliced persimmons and vinaigrette...

...and a rich chocolate cake and hot chai for dessert.

If you're interested in purchasing any of the clay pottery

By the time we finished lunch, the clouds had rolled in and started a steady drizzle. We had had a full day so were ready to head back to the cable car station anyway, and hopped a bus back. An extra day to see some more sites would've been nice, but we were content with what we did see and felt it was just the right amount of exploring. We left feeling contented and rejuvenated, which is really what we were hoping to get out of the trip anyway. ;)

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