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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Trip to Japan: Day 6 6月23日金曜日

The highlight of any visit to Koya-san 高野山 is arguably a walk through the Okuno-in 奥の院 cemetery/temple, preferably in the early morning. And so I was up at 6. As Haryo-in 巴陵院 is a functioning Shingon 真言 temple, there was o-inori お祈り, a Buddhist prayer service, to attend at 6:30. Following a vegetarian breakfast at 7, I left my bags at the temple and set out on foot after 7:30 for the Okuno-in.

45 minutes later, I arrived at the Ichi-no-hashi 一の橋, the entrance to the cemetery.

The scene inside the Okuno-in was like something out of a coffee-table book. Imagine walking along a cobbled path, surrounded by tall cypress trees ヒノキ and thousands of old, moss-covered tombs. For much of the time I was the only one on the path, and the threatening skies only added to the mysterious atmosphere.

One of the more interesting memorials I came across was the North Borneo War Victim Memorial 北ボルネオ没者墓所, dedicated to Australian and Japanese soldiers, and Malaysian civilians killed in North Borneo during the Second World War. Nearby was a memorial for Japanese troops who died in Burma.

At one point, a Western woman with red hair who was taking pictures in the cemetery, asked if I knew the significance of the bib-wearing Jizo 地蔵 statues that were everywhere to be seen in the Okuno-in. I did, and told her (among many things, he is the guardian of the souls of dead children, and the bibs are put there by parents who hope Jizo will give special protection to their deceased young ones). As I started to walk away, I remembered that a few weeks ago on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree page I had given some advice to someone planning a trip to Japan (you can read the thread here. My username is “Solon”). The writer singled me out for thanks, and wrote:

Solon, maybe I’ll see you in Yoshino and Koya-san – I’ll be the red head with a nicatrol inhaler.

So I asked this redhead in the Okuno-in if she had written to the Thorn Tree a couple of weeks before, and it turned out she had! We had a nice conversation. Darcy, I hope you enjoyed your trip!

The path eventually leads to the Toro-do 灯ろう堂, or Lantern Hall. Photography isn’t permitted on the other side of the Mimyo-no-hashi 御廟橋 bridge, so these were the last shots I could take before crossing over.

Just before crossing the bridge there is a row of Jizo statues that people pour water over as an offering for the dead.

Once on the other side, the first thing to see is a number of inscribed wooden plaques in the river, placed there in memory of aborted fetuses and those who died by drowning (according to the Lonely Planet guide). A short walk further on brings you to a small building housing the Miroku-ishi みろく石, a large boulder which pilgrims try to lift onto a shelf. Apparently, the weight of the stone equals the weight of your sins. I didn’t find it particularly heavy to pick up, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet. At the end of the path is the Lantern Hall, which contains hundreds of lamps. The LP guide states that two of the lamps have been burning for more 900 years, but I couldn’t tell which two they were. Finally, behind the Toro-do, is the mausoleum containing the remains of Kukai himself 空海の墓. It’s a shame I couldn’t take any pictures, because this whole area at the end of the path through the Okuno-in was very photogenic.

Eventually, it was time to leave. So after walking back to the center of town and stopping off at a café for a bowl of gyudon 牛丼 (rice covered with beef and vegetables) and a bottle of beer (ah, meat and alcohol!), I walked back to Haryo-in, said farewell to the priest, picked up my bags and took the bus up the road to the cable-car station. From there, I rode the cable-car down to Gokurakubashi 極楽橋, where I got on a Nankai Line Rapid Express 南海線快速急行 bound for Osaka 大阪. After a little more than 90 minutes, I got off the train at Shinimamiya Station 新今宮駅 and transferred to the JR Loop Line JR環状線. This I took to Osaka Station 大阪駅, where I then hauled myself and my bag over to the nearby Hankyu Umeda Station 阪急梅田駅. 40 minutes on a limited express train 特急 brought me to Karasuma Station 烏丸駅, followed by a short walk underground to Shijo Station 四条駅 and a transfer to the Karasuma line subway 京都市地下鉄烏丸線. A couple of stops later, I emerged from Marutamachi Station 丸太町駅 and onto the streets of Kyoto 京都.

Ah, Kyoto. What can I say that hundreds of travel writers haven’t written already? Depending on how you count these things, this was either my fifth or sixth time to visit. A wonderful combination of the historic and the modern (too much of the latter in some peoples’ eyes), Kyoto is a city I don’t think I could ever get tired off. So after checking into my hotel (the Palace Side Hotel ザ・パレスサイドホテル, across the street from the Sento Gosho Palace 仙洞御所 and the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park 京都御所), I hopped on the No. 10 bus and rode it the short distance to the intersection of Shijo-dori 四条通り and Kawaramachi-dori 川原町通り, Kyoto’s main shopping district.

I’m not much of a shopper, but I love to wander around and check out the sights (and the people). Two places that caught my eye were a bubble tea stand and a Mister Donut outlet. Bubble tea was a reminder of Taiwan, while Mister Donut is, quite simply, a weakness of mine. Who in their right mind can pass up a Honey Dip ハニーディップ, a Honey Old-Fashioned ハニーオールドファッション, a Custard Cream カスタードクリーム or a Chocolate Custard チョコカスタード? A branch has recently opened in Taichung 台中, so hopefully it’s only a matter of time before Fengyuan 豊原 is blessed with its very own outlet (I doubt the donuts will be a sweet as they are in Japan, though).

The day ended on a very upbeat note when I met two other former students of mine from my Yokkaichi 四日市 days, Mariko and Sachiko. These two were also a great help to me when I was planning this trip, and they took advantage of my arrival in Japan to come down to Kyoto to see me (in fact, they stayed in the same hotel). Along with Mariko’s son Takayuki (a student at Kyoto University 京大), we went out for dinner at a restaurant a short walk from the Palace Side Hotel. Called Kaji かじ, it specialized in Kyoto cuisine 京料理. I don’t have to tell you the food was very delicious. I also don’t have to tell you that it was expensive, and that Mariko and Sachiko insisted on paying, but I will. I think I accumulated a lot of 義理 on this trip – someday I’ll do my best to pay it all back!

Thank you again Mariko and Sachiko! どうもありがとうございました。

NEXT: Kyoto to Osaka

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