With its ancient forests and centuries-old temples, Mount Kōya (高野山, Kōyasan) is, without a doubt, a magical place. Steeped in religious and historical traditions, the tranquil mountain has a past that stretches back over 1200 years. More than a hundred temples are scattered throughout the area, giving the secluded town of Kōya a truly sacred atmosphere. Many of these magnificent temples offer lodging to dedicated pilgrims and tourists alike, giving visitors an excellent chance to experience the simple, traditional lifestyle of Buddhist monks. This means tatami floors, wooden sliding doors, vegetarian cuisine (shōjin ryōri) and communal baths!
Kōyasan is located in the northeastern part of Wakayama, south of Osaka. To kickstart our journey there, we purchased our Kōyasan World Heritage Passes from a kindly ticket booth operator at Awaji Station. The pass fully covers the trains, cable cars and buses needed to get to and from our temple lodge in Kōyasan. From Awaji Station, we took a train to Tengachaya Station and changed to the Nankai Kōya Line to get to Gokurakubashi Station, which marks the gateway to Kōyasan. Snaking through forested valleys, persimmon orchards and peaceful micro villages littered with quaint wooden houses, the journey to Gokurakubashi Station was a real visual feast!
When we arrived at last, we had to take a cable car up the mountain to get to our destination. As we inched closer to the top in our giant carriage, it gradually dawned on us that the surrounding forest was slowly getting whiter and whiter. We were looking at snow, and that was a real surprise for us because we weren’t expecting such a drastic change in weather from what we’d been having in Kyoto (this was on the 4th of December). But hey – we wanted to stay on a mountain, why not make it a snowcapped mountain? Much more exciting!
The temple we chose, Ichijoin (一乗院), is a short bus ride from the cable car station. The snow started to really fall as our bus headed into town, driving along steep and winding roads. When we eventually got off, we walked through the slush and cold and finally reached the doorstep of our temple, where we were quickly greeted by a friendly monk who took our luggage and gave us warm slippers to change into (no shoes in the temple)!
We were then ushered into a nice waiting room with the world’s smallest heater along with a few other people who had arrived at the same time (they seemed to be on a religious pilgrimage). After a while, the monk finally returned and led us to our room. Along the way, we were given a tour of the temple, learning about which rooms were which, where and when we could use the communal baths, and where the morning prayers were held.
Our room was much bigger than expected. Snacks and tea were laid out on the table for us and there was a convenient little portable heater sitting in a corner, which was a very welcome commodity. We were also greeted with an amazing view of a beautiful outdoor courtyard with a well-manicured garden from our window. It was surreal. Everything was calm and still and tranquil.
We did some exploration of the temple grounds and the surrounding area just outside the gates. It was very cold though, and the sky got dark pretty quickly, so we didn’t wander too far. One of the neighbouring temples was very impressive – they had a grand and spacious courtyard entrance. I also spent quite a bit of time admiring Ichijoin’s koi pond, which looked quite stunning with the surrounding snow.
Dinner was brought to us by two monks who efficiently cleared a space in centre of our room and set down serving pedestals and a great number of warm and cold dishes. Shōjin ryōri is what the monks prepare and eat themselves. In accordance with Buddhist teachings, the taking of any sentient life is wrong, so only strictly vegetarian meals are consumed. Shōjin ryōri is based on the concept of five cooking methods – a meal should include a grilled dish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish and a soup dish. Indeed, our elaborate meal matched that criteria. Among the selection, the tempura maple leaves, silky sesame tofu and grilled persimmon halves definitely stood out.
After our filling meal, the monks came to clear our dishes and then laid our futons out for sleeping. Just before we crashed for the night, we had a quick wash in the hot, steamy communal baths. It was late enough that there weren’t many people around. I had to deal with the presence of a couple of ladies in the female bath area, but the male baths were empty according to James, so he had a much more relaxing time. After that, we were ready to hit the sack after such an exhausting, adventurous, chilly day!
Read PART TWO of our overnight stay at Ichijoin Temple!