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Memorials on Mount Koya

Nakaheji Museum

Salmon, beans, and sea urchin

Squid, ginger, and sea vegetables

Roast duck

Chilled venison tataki

Approaching Okunoin

Our friendly ryokan hosts in Yunomine

A travelling companion on the Kumano path

Entrance to the Imperial tomb of Sugano Umako. Stones weigh 2300 tons

Pottery bells

A pottery bell   The elusive catfish

Lunch in Asuka

Your yukata and towel set at a ryokan

At Ginkakuji the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto

Moss the Interruptor

The opportunity to see Kendo practice

Ginkakuji Garden

The Imperial Pilgrimage Tour

March 2006

Drinking a bowl of frothy, fresh green tea ( matcha ), contemplating the stillness of the temple garden at Taimadera, was the perfect way to start this tour. The longer we sat, the stiller we were, the more we began to notice in the garden; the two 3-storey pagodas, the koi carp weaving slowly around the still pond, the small, offset stone bridge, the occasional falling leaf, the clear, bell-like echo of water as it dripped into a clay pot buried underground.

 

The temperature fell as we ascended Mount Koya to our temple lodging. Rain fell in the night. Last year it snowed at this time. We were the only guests attending the morning sutra recitals this time, so we were able to ask the Buddhist priest questions quite freely afterwards. A chance to get to know a little bit more about the mysteries of the mikkyo, or Shingon (‘Pure Word') Esoteric Buddhism. We of course discovered more the deeper we trekked in the Kii mountains in the days that followed.

 

For the first time on a tour, we spent the morning walking the Nyonindo path around the rim of Mount Koya . We did about half of the route. Women were formerly not permitted to enter into the centre of Mount Koya where the Buddhist monasteries were established, so had to content themselves with a visit to the Nyonindo temple and a stretch of pilgrimage around the mountain. Times have changed though, and women can not only access Mount Koya freely, but can now be priests. Signs of the times were also clearly evident among the cedar trees alongside the path, where we noticed a small forest of domestic TV antennae, planted high on the hill above the monasteries to get better reception.

 

As well as the thousands of memorials to the great and good in the cemetery on Mount Koya, there are also memorials to creatures including lice who have been exterminated by Japan's equivalent of Rent-to-Kill, a space rocket installation (see photo), and a huge UCC coffee company mug of coffee (a memorial to those who overdosed on caffeine?). The more conventional monuments are to poets, priests, shogun and daimyo , politicians, wealthy merchants, and members of the imperial family.

 

Well fed and rested, despite midnight gasping clearly audible from an adjacent room through paper-thin fusuma sliding doors, we set out on the Imperial Pilgrimage Route hike. Our mid-morning coffee break on Day 1 found us looking down on cloud-filled valleys and shadowy peaks as we listened to jazz - John Coltrane – coming from inside the home of the friendly couple who run the café above the village of Takahara .

 

There were few other walkers that day, except for a young ‘salary man' who told us he worked for an internet-based educational resource company which provides on-line distance learning. Our paths crossed several times over the course of the next few days. It was great to meet several young professionals this time who had taken a few days off work to visit Kumano and walk the old Kumano Kodo path..

 

We arrived at Chikatsuyu in time to drop into the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Museum , where we saw an exhibition of paintings by the Japanese artist Watase Ryoun. The museum building, a simple, jewel-like glass box, was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, the same architects who designed the 21 st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa , and who have apparently won a competition to design a new Louvre museum in Lens in France .

 

The night's accommodation in the natural hot spring resort of Yunomine was, as usual, wonderful, and our hosts as generous as ever.

 

We may walk the same route time and time again but, like the water in the constantly flowing river which is never the same, our experiences along the way are always new and exciting. The photograph of Commander H (aka Bob the Builder) apparently taking a light-hearted break from building a temple in the forests above Nachi waterfall, and posing with a traveller we met along the way, Asayo (sanding the pillar), was taken on a new hiking course to the small Okunoin temple. On clear days, early in the morning, there is a point along this trail where you can see Mount Fuji . It is about the southernmost place in Japan from which the volcano can be seen. But you have to be up early, normally in the winter, to see it.

 

We managed to wake up at 4.30am the night we stayed at the temple in Nachi, to participate (for the first time at Nachi) in the morning ritual o-tsutome sutra recital. Although it is always a bit of a challenge to keep ones eyes open at that time, the incense, gonging of the bell, chanting, and simply sitting, help focus the mind. The head priest was particularly warm and friendly. We went home with carrying gifts of oranges and cakes.

 

 

That day the sky was blue and it was warm so we agreed to drive down to Shionomisaki, the southernmost point on the main island of Honshu . Looking out over the glittering ocean we talked about how people living in the cities in the big cities in Japan , whilst at some level they must be aware of the fact, tend to forget that they are living on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean . The ocean has a constant influence on life here, even in the densely populated urban areas, whether it's food (the abundant seafood), the weather … or tsunami tidal waves. The mountain cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

 

 

Knoppar i väntan
På vårens första värme
Utan en tanke

Cherry buds waiting
For the first warmth of spring
Without a thought

Robert (from Stockholm )

 

The journey through the mountains of Yoshino took us to the ancient capital of Asuka, where we stayed in a minshuku run by a friendly lady no less than 76 years old. We enjoyed scooting up and down the low hills in Asuka on electric motor assisted bicycles, only falling off once (see photo!), as well as exploring the ancient stone burial chambers of emperors.

 

From Asuka we travelled in time, as well as by road, on to the next capital of Japan , Nara . Yoko, a good friend and knowledgeable local guide, showed us the gardens and temples in and around Nara Park . It was great to have Marc, a friend and long-term Kansai resident, join the group for lunch

And so to Kyoto , and some sightseeing (including Ginkakuji – the Silver Pavilion), before a farewell dinner and exploration of some of the darker alleyways downtown. Hike Japan friend and guide Meg accompanied us, kindly explaining how to wear a cotton yukata and tie the belt properly. Arigato!

The food, as on all Hike Japan tours, was truly excellent. Other companies who run tours in Japan sell what they describe as ‘gourmet tours'. Fine Japanese cuisine comes as standard on ours. See the pictures.

Click to read haiku poems from this tour.

The Kii Moutains

Always well looked after

Simmered vegetable dish

Sashimi

Noodles and sea vegetables in chilled broth

Great Gate to monasteries on Mount Koya in the mist

Gold Kannon statue

Pagoda overlooking Nachi Falls

Binzuru

Visiting the Aizomekan

Pottery bells in Asuka

Bob takes a tumble

Plum blossom

... and a helping hand in tying the yukata belt

Early spring blossom

VIP moss

Dainichi the Cosmic Buddha in Todaiji Nara

 


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