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Friday, June 29, 2007

Trip to Japan: Day 5 6月21日木曜日

One thing I love about Japan is its public transportation. For me, half the fun of traveling in Japan is the act of getting from one place to another. I often use sites like Yahoo Transit and Ekitan to plot the quickest and/or cheapest way to get from point A to point B. That was how I determined the least expensive route from Dorogawa 洞川 to my next destination, Koya-san 高野山.

I checked out of the Daitoyo-san Ryokan 大豊 around 7am, and made my way over to the bus stop, where I caught the 7:25 bus to Shimoichiguchi Station 下市口駅, and arrived before 8:45. At 9:25 I got on a Kintetsu Line express train 近鉄線急行, and rode to Yoshino-guchi Station 吉野口駅. There, I transferred to the Japan Railways Wakayama Line JR和歌山線, and took the train to Gojo Station 五条駅. At Gojo, I switched to the Nankai Koya-san Line 南海高野山線, and relaxed on the rapid express train 快速急行, enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery all the way to the terminus, Gokurakubashi 極楽橋. The last leg was a five-minute ride on a cable-car to Koya-san, and a short bus ride to my stop, Isshin-guchi 一心口バス停, where just before noon I deposited my bags at the temple where I was to spend the night, and went off to have some lunch and explore Koya-san. Some people might've been worn out from a journey like that, but I was pumped up and ready to go.

Compared to the relative peace and quiet of Yoshino 吉野 and Dorogawa, Koya-san was bustling, especially with foreign tourists. A UNESCO World Heritage 世界遺産 Site, the town of Koya-san is centered around Kongobu-ji Temple 金剛峰寺, a temple founded in 816 by one of the greatest names in Japanese religion, Kukai 空海 (aka Kobo Daishi 弘法大師), the founder of the Shingon 真言 sect of Buddhism. It didn't take long to understand why so many people come to this place.

Lunch was katsudon カツどん (breaded pork on rice) and a bottle of beer, because I knew the temple was going to be vegetarian food and green tea all the way. Afterwards, I visited Kongobu-ji, the headquarters of the Shingon sect. The temple site is 12 centuries old, but the main hall dates from the 19th century.

Nevertheless, it was well worth the ¥500 admission ($4 or NT130) to go inside and look at all the beautiful rooms and the ornate screen paintings. Photography, unfortunately, wasn't allowed inside, but I could take photos of the lovely rock garden in the back.

It just doesn't get more "Japanese" にっぽんぽい than that, wouldn't you agree?

Not far from Kongobu-ji is Garan 伽藍, a temple complex containing a number of halls and pagodas. Of the latter, the best by far is the Dai-to 大塔.

The inside contained awesome statues of the Dainichi-nyorai 大日如來, the Cosmic Buddha, and four attendant Buddhas. Alas, no photography permitted.

Other attractive buildings in the Garan complex are the Kondo 金堂, or Main Hall, and Sai-to 西塔, or Western Pagoda.

The last bit of sightseeing I did was to visit the Reihokan 霊宝館, or Treasure Museum, which had a great display of Buddhist art.

By this time it was becoming late in the afternoon, so I walked back through the central part of town...

...and headed for the temple where I was to spend the night.

In Koya-san, over 50 Buddhist temples offer rooms 宿坊 for visitors. I chose to stay at the Haryo-in 巴陵院.

At around ¥7500 ($60 or NT2000), including two meals, it was the cheapest of the temple lodgings, and the second-cheapest accommodation option in town after the local youth hostel. The 5畳部屋

was spare but comfortable, and the bath was hot but relaxing. But the best part about staying in a Koya-san shukubo was the shojin-ryori 精進料理 dinner. Shojin-ryori is a vegetarian cuisine originally derived from the dietary restrictions of monks. Despite its humble origins, it's actually quite delicious and filling. The other guests staying the night at Haryo-in - a Japanese couple from Sagamihara 相模原, an American couple from Philadelphia, a man from London and a woman from New Zealand - also seemed to enjoy the meal. This shukubo, with its English-speaking head priest, was definitely a 外人-friendly place to stay!

Next: Koya-san to Kyoto 京都

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