Saturday, March 05, 2011



Today I got up early to go to Koya-san, a small town in the mountains near Osaka, filled with Buddhist temples and shrines.

Koya-san was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004; I wonder if they were a bit slow to classify it, seeing as some of the temples have been around since the twelfth century. Still, I suppose there was no real rush: if the buildings had been there for that long, they could wait a few more years.

Although since the Kondo temple "has been repeatedly destroyed" according to our pamphlet from tourist information, perhaps it's best not to delay these things.

As we were staying at the Hotel Granvia, right on top of Umeda station, it was just one stop on the underground to Namba to catch the train to Koya-san. Unless you fail to study the map properly and take the Osaka Local Loop instead, get off at Imamiya, get on the wrong train, and arrive back at Umeda having circumnavigated the whole ruddy city and then out of sheer bloody mindedness go round the loop again until you get to the right point to change and get an overland train to Namba.

Of course, if we hadn't done that we wouldn't have been accosted by an odd bloke in Umeda station who wanted to take us to lunch (and a satisfying conversation as we had no common language), so it wasn't entirely wasted time.

At Namba station (which is ludicrous in size and filled with confusing signage) we found the tourist information centre, who sold us a two day Kansai pass. That covers all trains except for the JR, and buses, and the cable car up to Koya-san, so it was substantially cheaper than mucking around with paying for things individually. Unfortunately, because of all this mucking around with trains in Osaka, we didn't actually get up to Koya-san until about 1:30. (It's fun to tell the ladies in the tourist information centre that you're taking a day trip to Koya-san, as this is so fundamentally insane an undertaking they find it hard to contain their disbelief. And another time I would stay the night, but we have another early start for Osaka Aquarium tomorrow, and a hotel room paid for in Osaka.)

Looking down from Koyasan

The first time I went to Koya-san was in September 2007, when it was cold and the skies were grey. This March it was a lot colder, but despite the patches of snow on the ground there were blue skies above us, which made up for the absence of cherry blossom or autumn leaves. The light was a bit harsh: it was a lot more work to get a decent photograph today than the previous, overcast, visit but then again, if we'd got up earlier we'd still have had to contend with the midday sun.

It's one or two trains, a cable car and a bus to get into Koya-san - we started with the Daimon gate, which is enormous, and then wandered around Danjo Garan, a complex of pagodas and halls, some very weather-beaten, others shiny with fresh orange paint. There's a pond down by the road that's full of very well-fed carp, who kept bobbing to the surface and making gulping noises. Unfortunately, we had no food for them, and I'm not sure that as good Buddhist fish they should be begging anyway.

The temples are wonderful to look at, but something that only struck me a little later was how quiet everything was. When urban Japan seems filled with a constant cacophany of chimes, beeps and whistles, Koya-san is largely silent. Occasionally a monk will walk past, but besides that (hardly a loud screaming interruption of the quiet)there's barely a sound as you inspect the architecture or look at the dozens of votive offerings fastened to a frame outside the temples.

The first time I visited, I didn't realise there were a whole bunch of shops and restaurants on the south side of Koya-san - we hit the cemetary, saw vast numbers of idiosyncratic grave markers (shaped like rockets, or hundreds of hands, or just a little Buddha with a wool cap and a bib on to keep him warm). That meant I missed out on a great little noodle shop that filled me up with soba this time through, before walking down to the graveyard to show my fiancee around.

I'm glad she likes cemeteries. Not in a I'm-so-Goth-I-think-I'm-a-vampire-and-want-to-sleep-on-a-tombstone way, but she has a proper appreciation for large bits of stone commemorating people's lives. It was a shame we didn't tour Highgate when we were in London last year, but I hope there will be other chances to inspect funerary art. And look at the enormous bust of Karl Marx. I love enormous busts.

Especially of influential economic and political thinkers.

That's right, give me a magazine filled with photos of Alan Greenspan's chest and I'm done for the weekend. Well, maybe not.

Anyway, we didn't have long to spend in Koya-san - it felt like we were leaving almost after we arrived - and I'd prefer to spend a night here and proceed more leisurely around the cemetery, but we did get to see lots of pretty little towns from the train. (Osaka has a lot of rather dull buildings all jumbled together, as well as some traditional pagodas and interesting new things, so it's nice to get out and see something that's more picturesque.) But another time we'll be better prepared to take the correct train, and time things so we can get a direct train to Gokurakubashi at the base of the cable car, rather than have to change at Hashimoto and spend another ten minutes in transit.)

Next time, Koya-san, next time.


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