Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Koyasan Experience Part 1: Hostel and Temple Lodging

After Kyoto, I set off for a few days of tranquility at Koyasan (高野山), a secluded mountainous area in Wakayama Prefecture, about 3 hours away by train. Koyasan, or Mount Koyu, is considered a sacred site for the Japanese Shingon Buddhism, founded by monk Kobo Daishi who built the first temple on the mountain in the year 826 AD after returning from China in Tang Dynasty. Since then, over 100 temples were built in the area and now it has become a major pilgrim site, or for me, a perfect place for time of retreat and to enjoy the beauty of mother nature. I am also interested in touring around this UNESCO World Heritage site and experience their unique cuisine. 

The 150km journey to Koyasan was long but fun - I got off early in the morning, checked out from my hostel in Kyoto, then a few changes of train later (via Osaka), I arrived at Hashimoto Station (橋本駅), at the foot of the mountain and the starting point of the picturesque Koya Hana Tetsudo (こうや花鉄道) railway line, with the train took me half-way to the Gokurakubashi (極楽橋駅), where I got on the cable car for the final destination of Koyasan Station, where a bus is waiting for us to transport us into the town center. I managed to arrive at the doorstep of my hostel just slightly before noon.

For twice a day for the hour-long, 20km journey on Koya Hana Tetsudo, running between Hashimoto and Gokurakubashi, the train company run a special, all-reserved car with observation deck, known as "Tenku" (天空) train. The car was modified from an antique locomotive with classic wooden floor and chairs, and all the seats were facing sideway with unobstructed view of the forest and mountain en route through the large windows. Luckily I called the rail company a couple weeks before I left home to make a booking - and it was well worth the hassle as the ride was enjoyable and the view impeccable under this clear, sunny sky.

The cable car to Koyasan train station was another interesting ride - a quick 5-minute ride going up at a steep 60-degree angle through the mountains, then from there it's another 20 minute bus ride before I arrived at my first stop, the hostel where I was spending my first night in. As Koyasan covers a pretty wide area and since I was staying for 2 nights, I decided to stay in either side of the town for each night, with accommodations in two totally different styles.

The first night I was staying in a "designer hostel" called Kokuu, near Okunoin Temple in the east side of Koyasan, run by the husband-wife team of Ryochi and Yuri Takai. I first learned of this place from a feature article at Wallpaper magazine. The interior of this modern style house on the road-side was cozy and simplistic, making clever use of space, utilizing neat, narrow wooden columns to support the entire structure and created this "corridor of open space" running from front to end, making the house looks spacious and comfortable and taking advantage of the ample natural lighting available by the skylight windows. Near the entrance was a homey lounge completed with long wooden benches and a small pantry, where travelers could hang out day and night. And on the other side is the open kitchen and bar.

Two types of rooms are available - the capsule-style rooms good for solo travelers, or the family rooms that can sleep 2-3. This is the first time I stay in a capsule-style room and I found it more comfortable than I thought. I chose the "upper deck" which means my room was just right under the slanted roof, so there's actually enough headspace to sit inside quite comfortably without the head hitting the roof, and inside there's ample space for one, fitted with reading light and with good natural light in the morning. It's a bit of a challenge getting up to "my room" through the stairs at first, but I got used to it after some time - at least I didn't fall of it. And my other complaint was the lack of air conditioning, which was a bit of an issue considered the heat during the day, but at night when it got slightly cooler it's all fine.

And the hosts were gracious and helpful - they were able to let me check in early and provided me with all useful information needed to tour around the town, with recommendations on what to see, what to eat, etc. Ryochi-san worked as a part-time DJ in Osaka so throughout the day the lounge was filled with relaxing background music coherent with the quiet surroundings while Yuri-san cooked and baked for dinner and for the breakfast next day. I bet not too many hostels offered a choice of homemade curry which changes regularly with a full bar menu for dinner, and I enjoyed my quiet night with the Indian-style butter chicken curry with a glass of Yamazaki whisky served on the rock, while having some interesting conversations with other travelers coming from all over the world. And the breakfast was as amazing the next day - with home-baked bread, egg and ham, yoghurt, and a freshly made cup of masala chai. All these for less than 6000 yen all inclusive - it's of amazing value. This is a great place to stay, even if you think you are not planning to travel on budget.

Koyasan Guest House Kokuu: http://koyasanguesthouse.com/en/

The next morning after breakfast, I said goodbye to the great hosts Ryochi-san and Yuri-san, dragged my luggage onto the bus and moved to the west side of town, where I stayed for the second night. Koyasan is known for the numerous temples scattered all over, and most of them also provided lodging. In the past, those lodging facilities, known as shukubo (宿坊), were primarily for the monks traveling around the country, then it's the pilgrims who made their way up to the temples to meditate. But now, it's basically open to the public with full lodging facilities available, pretty much like a full-blown ryokan. And I spent the night at Fukuchiin Temple (福智院), one of the 52 shukubos in Koyasan for this unique experience.

Fukuchiin is one of the largest temples in Koyasan area with over 800 years of history, and the only shukubo featuring a natural hot spring. Unlike an upscale onsen ryokan, the facilities were quite simple. Inside the classic Japanese-style room is a small TV but no internet nor private bathroom. There's two indoor and one outdoor baths plus the sauna room, segregated by gender. There were plenty of communal area including the hall filled with antiques and art pieces, a few beautifully-designed zen garden where guests could spend time meditating, or a tea lounge with wifi available - naturally that's always the most crowded spot.

Since the place is primarily a temple, certain rules were to be observed. Dinner was served early, usually before 6pm so the monks who served you could rest early, and the main gate of Fukuchiin closed at 9pm, so if you are planning a night out you are out of luck. The stay package included dinner and breakfast, both based on the unique vegetarian cuisine known as Shojin Ryori, although to my surprise, alcohol is allowed if you so choose. Every morning at 6am, monks engage in morning chanting ceremony in the main hall for an hour which guests were welcomed to participate before breakfast. Or just having another dip at the outdoor hot-spring when it's still breezy and cool before dawn.

Fukuchi-in Temple: http://www.fukuchiin.com/

Want more photos? Please check out my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157656774468735

More on my summer trip adventures? Visit the whole series: http://g4gary.blogspot.hk/search/label/Going%20Round%20Half%20the%20World

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