Note: The following is a guest post by Lea Ann Christenson
While researching for a trip to Japan I called on a fellow professor who had lived in Japan for a time. He suggested that I go to Koyasan, a mountain top village of approximately 100 Buddhist temples approximately a 2 and a half hour train ride from Kyoto. He couldn’t even describe the beauty of the place – it’s just a great experience that is full of serenity. To contrast my city experiences in Tokyo and Kyoto, I decided to take his advice and travel to the remote location of Koyasan.
The beautiful train journey starts over the flat plains near Kyoto and then gradually travels up into the mountains. The final leg into Koyasan is taken by a cogrrain, a small train with a car that is built at an angle to accommodate the very steep journey up Mount Koya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Koyasan is a beautiful little village filled with temples at every turn and delighted me.
Some of the temples are open to visitors as an accommodation option. I chose to stay at Kongo Sanmaiin, a living Buddhist temple that you can spend the night in. It’s important to note that is not a hotel – you are a guest in a Buddhist temple, so it is a culturally immersive experience.
When I arrived I checked in with a monk and paid $100 for my room and breakfast. Most of the temples take cash only, so it’s important to bring cash. My room was in the style of a traditional Japanese Ryokan: tami mats, a bed on the floor a low blanket draped table with a heater underneath set with tea for my arrival. After check in I rush back outside in the rain as I only had an hour for sight seeing before the temples in the village closed.
Back at my temple lodging I was happy that it was my time to use the bathhouse, a communal room with showers and a large bathtub. I was chilled from the rain, so it felt very good to dip into the warm water. The temple also provided guests with traditional robes.
After a very cozy night’s sleep I arose at dawn to attend the temple service in the main temple. The service lasted around 30 minutes and was filled with chanting and incense. Back to my room and I reluctantly packed up and prepared to depart Koyasan.
I traced my steps via train back down the mountain and journeyed to the Hakone area at the foot of Mt. Fuji. This active volcano is very near Tokyo and is the country’s tallest peak. Unfortunately, it rained constantly while I was in the area so I never got a glimpse of Mt. Fuji…I will have to go back!
I spent the night in Hakone in a traditional Japanese Ryokan called Bamboo Choju-Wu. During my stay it turned out that I was the only guest at this 20-room inn. The owner cooked me dinner, and since no one else was there I told her that I felt silly eating alone. She then joined me and we sat up talking and drinking Asahi beer until all hours, swapping stories about our fathers. My father was an officer in the Navy during WWII and served in the South Pacific; hers, a Japanese citizen, was a prisoner under the Japanese emperor. It was a very interesting evening chatting with the ‘enemy’ of my father.
In the morning she kindly drove me back to the train station so I did not have to hike down the hill and take the bus. She would not accept any extra money for this service. The world is full of wonderful people with big hearts. If we could just get governments out of the way we would all be better off.
I took the train from Hakone back to Tokyo and waited for my train back to Narita airport. While I was there a crowd gathered and men in suits handed out little Japanese flags. I asked someone what was going on and was told that the Emperor was coming. After about ten minutes the crowd parted and there was Emperor Akihito and his wife beaming and waving to the cheering crowd.
My time in Japan, ten days, had come to an end. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the country. It was easy to get around and as I said previously very clean and organized. Japan is a perfect destination for a woman solo traveler. As they say in Japan…..Sayonara