Temple pillars

Koyasan is not near Kyoto

Five trains, a cable car and a bus: that’s what it took to get from Kyoto to Koyasan in the Wakayama prefecture of Japan. With every leap in altitude, my confidence decreased. Where was I going? I had impulse booked a ryokan online that claimed to be near Kyoto. When I realised how not nearby it was, I tried to cancel it but the owner politely told me there would be a 100% cancellation fee of $800.

Temple pillars
Pillars from the the temple of Seven Buddhas, Koyasan

‘OK, then’, I thought. ‘It had better be good.’

And it was good. Not in a resort-y, luxurious kind of way but in a weird Northern Exposure kind of way.

There were Buddhist nuns in the coffee shop smoking cigarettes and checking their email. There were wooden temples, most of which were reconstructions of previous temples that had been burnt to the ground many times in many centuries. There were pilgrims and gap year students and lots of people wearing polar fleece.

The food was all vegetarian and largely made of pickled, salted, soaked or fried tofu. My nemesis was the chunk of tofu boiled in soy milk. I just … couldn’t.

The hot springs at Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in, the temple complex where I stayed, were crowded and boisterous; not quite the zen experience I had anticipated but fun nonetheless as I chatted and sign languaged to the ladies around me.

I went to the lamest calligraphy class ever. The Buddhist monk demanded the equivalent of AUD$20 and then sat the class down with pens and made us write out a whole page of prayers from a photocopy. That was it. No instruction. No art. Just sitting there like kids in detention.

For all its quirks, I’m glad I went. I spent one glorious day wandering in spring sunshine among pine trees and cherry blossoms. I took myself for a picnic in a boggy forest behind a temple, looked at ancient Buddhist scriptures and rang temple bells. For the first time in a long time, I cleared my head. I cut my hair. I thought about my future. I dreamed new dreams.

Sometimes it takes five trains, a cable car and a bus to get to that place.

6 comments on “Koyasan is not near Kyoto

  1. “I dreamed new dreams” – That’s just lovely Em! What more could anyone ask for in a mountain retreat?

    The whole Japan trip sounds like a very different one for you, travelling alone, couch surfing, no language. It was a brave thing to do and it feels like it payed off for you.

  2. Thanks Em for such a lovely post!
    We have 24hours in which we’re planning to go to Mt Koya from Kyoto. How long did the trip take?
    We have to go to Narita airport the following night. Do you really think its worth it or would you stay in kyoto another day?

  3. “There were Buddhist nuns in the coffee shop smoking cigarettes and checking their email.”

    Now that’s a sight

  4. Babe, it’s a loooong way from Narita. I flew out from there at 9pm and it took a whole day to get back from Koyasan to Narita. Totally worth the visit but maybe rearrange so you don’t have to spend your whole last day on a train?

  5. Hmm… Thanks for your advice Em. It sounds amazing but a whole day on a train sounds super bad 🙁

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