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    • Day 5

      Learning the Buddhist Ways

      December 5, 2016 in Japan ⋅ 🌙 5 °C

      Dad - you would be so proud! I splurged! We spent a night in Koyasan, a sacred mountain on which you can stay the night in a temple, and wake up to pray with the monks. They feed you a traditional Buddhist dinner and breakfast, vegan of course. A few trains and a cable car later, here we start our walk! This was more a nature setting and Jack was looking forward to hiking, so we opted to walk from the cable car station rather then take the bus everyone was hoping on. Being out of shape and hating physical activity, I asked the attendant at the station if the road ahead was an incline or flat. He responds by waving his hand up and down like following a wave. Great.

      Turns out, mostly down hill! The man AND the map told us the walk would be an hour (which Jack denied and to which I refuted that the map has to be correct) we made it in 26 minutes (Another point for Jack, current standing is Jack:356 Me: 21). Apparently Asians walk slowly because this has been the case most of the time - we half the suggested walking times. And this is in no way to promote my physicality, because as most of you know, a single flight of stairs gets me winded! Anyway. These big red gates announced the beginning of this sacred town where the story goes something like a high placed Monk Kobi Dashi (ish) threw a pine cone for some reason, and found it years later in these mountains and thought it was a sign of God to build his temple here. I probably got some of it wrong. Lol.

      Arriving at Yochi-in, our temple accommodation for the night, we are welcomed by a beautiful old wooden carved gate with a "dry garden" inside. A dry garden is a rock garden where every rock and formation has a meaning. The lady of the house welcomed us, gave us a tour and showed us to our room. Here, I know, we are paying for the experience, not the room. Temples are rarely heated - the whole minimalist mind over body thing, so we had a little kerosene heater in our room which we turned on right away. It's probably about 8-10 degrees Celsius currently being in the mountains and all. We have folding futon mattresses on the ground, paper walls, and a cute little coffee table where we were served tea in our room, sitting on the ground of course. Sliding doors where our beds will be stored away and tatami mats everywhere. For those who are curious, this minimalist experience we wanted was 23,000yen for the night and 2 meals. Do the math.

      Being conveniently located across the street from the main temple "area", we ran over 20 minutes before the last admission time to peak into this beautiful old pagoda. It had these old paintings, more like murals on the walls, with an incredible prayer altar. The rest of the temples were obvious as beautiful, but as the sun was setting we couldn't appreciate all their carvings. Don't worry, we came back in the morning!

      Our dinner was served at 5.30pm,and I think I recognized maybe 1 out of 10 items. Mostly cold food, with hot miso soup and hot white rice. Most things were chewy or squishy, textures I don't do well with... But I finished my plate! Or I should say plates, everything was on separate little plates. You sit on a thin square pillow, onto of tatami mats, eat on trays that are 1 foot high off the floor... My kind of setting. You have to take your shoes off before entering the temple, and they give you slippers to wear. Only problem is, these slippers are made of shiny fake leather, and with socks they slip off our feet like crazy. So every second step Jack and I were looking for our sandal we managed to kick off! Going up the stairs was a challenge of its own...

      After dinner, we had 2 hours of free time before the lock the gates for the night. We were told the walk to the Mausoleum was an hour long one way, but we assumed that was on the same timing as our hike down, and decided to speed walk our way over. 17 minutes! To think, we almost didn't go because of timing. Granted, it was also to keep warm - its cold in the mountains! Within 45 minutes we were already at the end of the cemetery walk, and were looking at the outside of the mausoleum before heading back to our room. The cemetery is famous for having over 20 000 statues, illuminated by lanterns at night. What a beautiful sight. The lighting just made it that much more dramatic, just gorgeous. And we made it back in time to have our second public bath experience!

      In the temples are these public baths, traditionally all Japanese would bathe in these vs private baths and showers like we see today. You come into this little change room. Strip naked. Grab your soap and shampoo and head in. Through the doors, you have usually around 8 to 10 shower heads set at about 3 feet high, with bath spouts, all draining onto the floor and eventually water drains. You grab a little plastic bench, almost like a step stool. Grab a bucket. Sit in front of a spout, and start washing yourself! You use the bucket to spray piping hot water over yourself and the shower head for your hair. Once you are squeaky clean, you can enter the public bath, which is basically a hot tub. Women come with their friends, it's a social event, they have their skin exfoliants, their face scrubs, everything you could want to scrub yourself clean. After a chilly walk through the cemetery, this was the perfect way to warm up.

      We got up at 6am to make it for morning prayer. I felt a little confused by this... On one hand, I felt guilty that these monks had to entertain foreigners, they included us in the ceremony of pinching ashes into a fire and praying, they read one of their chants in English so we could join in, they stayed after prayer to answer our questions... But on the other hand, they are the ones advertising these rooms as stays, and charging ridiculous amounts of money for them... So really, who's winning or losing in this situation? It was an interesting morning, the chants and movements are incredibly ritualistic, more so than the Catholic churches I know. An issue I've had with religion is the idea of all of us doing things just because we're supposed to - stand up now, kneel now, repeat after me... And yet at least there's a sermon which is different and allows for free thought. But here - everything that was said or done during the ceremony was a ritual, all the voice synchronized. It was interesting. Jack asked at the end for a "dummies" explanation of what Buddhism is, and the answer was also interesting. It's the search for neutrality, the search for learning to have no emotions - no happiness or sadness. Just nothingness. Why? I guess I'd have to study it a lot further to really form an opinion...

      Breakfast was another array of unidentifiables, and I came out of it hungry! Those vegans don't know how to fill me up! With time on our side and daylight shining, we literally repeated our two visits from yesterday. The temple park in front of our stay and the cemetery / mausoleum, all incredibly calming and beautiful. Instead of yesterday's 1.5 hours to tour the cemetery, we took 4 hours! Relaxing morning.

      Off to Osaka we go for our last leg of this Japanese journey. Jack says this was one of her favorite parts, unsurprisingly, filled with nature.
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    You might also know this place by the following names:

    Yamaten, 山天

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