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Day 9: Seeking Enlightenment with the Monks of Koya-San

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An early start to today as we are woken for a full Japanese breakfast, sometimes it is just a little too early to consider rice and tofu. Thankfully the sunshine had returned so we enjoyed a pleasant stroll back down through the town of Nara to our first train of the morning. The scenery remained stubbornly suburban for the first hour of our journey but for the first time in three days of travelling away from Tokyo we seemed to break free from the endless procession of townland.

Slowly we began meandering our way through mountains climbing steadily until we reached the end of the line where we changed for a funicular which carried us clear over the forests and to our final destination of Koyasan. A monastic settlement that is the centre of much of Japanese buddhist life, this town is covered with temples and monasteries who are happy to host guests on a nightly basis.

We were dropped direct to our chosen monastery Daimyo-ohin and made our way inside to be greeted by several young monks and a senior (perhaps abbott?) whose English was sufficient for our briefing. We were shown to a fantastic room overlooking the monastery's garden and told to be back for baths at 430 and dinner (all vegetarian to Sanj's delight) at 6pm. Happy to oblige, we took the next few hours to stroll through the town visiting some of the larger shrines and enjoying the sounds of genuine pilgrims making their way from temple to temple offering prayers and chanting meditations. We took a beautiful forest walk up through the hills to a small shrine and travelled back again through a series of red gates.

We made it back just in time for our respective bathing slots which despite some early reluctance turned out to be a fantastic idea. The baths were made entirely from wood and with a constant flow of hot water was absolutely the perfect way to unwind after our walk. Avoided some slight embarassed confusion with the monks when my repeated clarification as to which was the male and which the female bath was interpreted to mean whether they were ok with Sanj and I sharing a bath. This understandably seemed to raise some discussion which they finally agreed was ok, only for us to emphatically emphasise that was not what was being asked, cue much more monkly confusion and scratching of comptemplative heads.

Return back to the room to enjoy sunset over our perfect zen garden before being invited downstairs to our traditional shojin ryori feast made without meat, fish, egg, garlic or onions. As you might imagine with such dietary restrictions, a wide variety of tofu was in abundance as were a startling array of delicately wrapped items for tasting. Despite tofu not being my favourite dish I enjoyed much of what was on offer, in particular the hot sake (shockingly our first taste on the trip).

After the meal dusk was rapidly turning to night fall so I borrowed Sanj's tripod and made my way to Oku-no-in. This temple is feted to be the site where the Miroku Buddah will return to earth so consequently over half a million Japanese souls are buried beside the temple to ensure they are suitably well positioned for his return to earth. The cobbled path to the temple is lit with stone lanterns which give the thousands of headstones a beautiful eeriness which sadly I singularly failed to capture on film, Sanj's tripod or not!

The final Toro Do temple is really something quite mystical to behold. It's eaves are bedecked by thousands of lanterns and as I made my way up in the now pitch darkness the smoke from the incense drifting slowly over the tombstones in the light of all these lanterns made for one of those very special moments where you begin to understand why religion means so much to so many people.  Not least the monk sat in transfixed meditation at the entrance to the hall despite the freezing cold.

As amazing as the place was, I chose to respect the repeated no photography signs and I kept my camera firmly in its bag Sad to say these requests weren't heeded by everyone as I met a couple of snap happy US kids on my way back down the path.


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