I have visited Kaiyukan a number of times during my many trips to Osaka and have always enjoyed it immensely. It is invariably full of pushy tourists and children with sticky hands but the fish always make me feel surprisingly relaxed and calm.
My favourite part of public transport when visiting Koyasan is by far the cable car. Getting from Koyasan to Nara involved a bus, a cable car, a train, a subway train and another train. Seems a bit overwhelming, right? As I’ve mentioned before though – all extremely easy to navigate.
When we were booking our trip, we had intended on staying in Kyoto for two nights in an airbnb apartment, but as the date approached our host let us know that he was going to have to move us to a different apartment or offer us a refund. I opted for the refund and booked a ryokan in Nara instead. Upon arrival in Nara, it became clear to me that we made the right decision.
I love Nara. Not just because of the adorable shika (deer). The pace is a bit slower, the city isn’t built up and there is so much to see and do. It’s tourist friendly without feeling like a tourist trap and I truly enjoy just being there.
When we arrived we checked in to our hotel where they kindly held our bags while we spent the afternoon walking around Naramachi (literally translated – Nara town). Naramachi is a neighbourhood around a 10 minute walk from the Kintetsu station and is the former merchant district of Nara where you can see a bit of the “old town”. It’s a little bit of a maze, and is packed with residential homes, boutique shops, museums and temples. One of my favourite attractions is the Koshi-no-Ie, a traditional merchant’s house with a beautiful zen garden that is open for visitors to take a look.
Tim and I had visited the main attractions of Naramachi last time we visited, so this time we just wandered around, poked our head into a few boutique stores, patted a few dogs, purchased lots of our favourite Nara candy and visited the Harushika sake distillery. It was so pleasant to just be there, without an itinerary or a list of millions of things we have to see or must do.
Last time we visited was in summer and I didn’t have the opportunity to take Tim to one of the places I went in 2014 – I’m not exactly sure if it’s a temple or a garden (perhaps someone can help me out!) but during spring it is full of beautiful flowers and an amazing weeping sakura tree. We stopped in and took many photos.
We returned to our accommodation via Kofuku-ji and were served some hot yuzucha (yuzu tea) while we filled out check-in forms. Tim and I enjoyed it immensely and spent the rest of the trip seeking out yuzu drinks – more on that later.
A member of staff at the ryokan showed us to our room – it was perfect and had a wonderful view.
Our accommodation included kaiseki dinner and breakfast. I was thrilled, Tim was.. less stoked. We made a deal that I would eat the meat portions of both of our meals and he would eat the vegetables. Alas, dinner was served in a dining room full of other people staying at the ryokan and it made our food swapping plan a lot less discreet than we had hoped. While I was giddily eating course after course, the food wasn’t as close to Tim’s taste as I’d anticipated. He was being very good natured, but it was clear that he wasn’t a fan.
This plate came out:
I didn’t know what to make of it. How was I supposed to extract the meat from the crab? It dawned on me – am I supposed to eat the whole crab? Feeling as conspicuously gaijin as I ever have in my life, I motioned at one of the staff members and asked her in the best Japanese I could summon after a tokkuri of sake – is the whole crab edible?
Yup. I procrastinated for about 15 minutes and then ate it. Ate basically everything else on the plate first. The texture was difficult to come to terms with, but it was delicious.. I think.
I passed on Tim’s. It stayed on his plate, untouched, and they brought us our dessert – tea jelly with cream and a peeled grape. It was so delicious.
As we finished our meal, I encouraged Tim to have some green tea to warm up – we were heading out later to take some photos of Nara in the evening and he seemed a bit disappointed by dinner. He took a sip, looked over the cup at me with a strange look in his eye and said:
“There appears to be the smallest of bugs in my drink”
A perfect end to a perfect meal, as far as I’m concerned.
We went back to our room, changed into our warmest clothes and headed out to take some photos. It was freezing – at one point my fingers were so cold I had trouble moving them, but it was wonderful to walk around at night. There was barely anyone around – a few business men, couples holding hands and talking. It felt a bit magical.
We went home via a vending machine to buy hot BOSS coffees to keep our hands warm. Before leaving nara, we ended up completely emptying this machine of hot cafe au lait.
We spent one evening at Jimyo-in. I stayed there last time I visited Koyasan and wanted to share the experience with Tim. The temple hadn’t changed – still immaculate with beautiful furnishings and peaceful views from each room.
Dinner was served promptly at 6pm by a monk who was balancing several trays of delicious food to feast upon. The highlight was probably the tempura! There were a few things we didn’t enjoy, and when the monk came back I practiced my Japanese and pointed out which things weren’t to our taste. He thought it was funny, Tim nearly died of shame.
Post dinner, another monk came to our room and laid out the futons. I immediately climbed into bed with the intention of looking at photos but found myself drifting off in no time.
We awoke early the next morning to attend prayer. I had primed Tim for a really serious spiritual experience – like nothing he had ever seen before. Well…
I was laughing and shuddering and shaking in my seat so hard that Tim alternated between shushing me / joining me in quiet laughter for a good while. We returned to our room for breakfast, and then made our way to Nara.
After lunch, we made our way to the other end of Koyasan, stopping first at the Danjo Garan. According to legend, Kobo Daishi threw his sankosho from his China toward Japan when he was studying, and found it stuck in a pine tree in Koyasan. They started construction on the Garan nearby and the pine tree still grows there today.
The entire complex is beautiful and awe inspiring. I am a big a fan of the huge, very orange Konpon Daito.
Tim was particularly taken with the Rokkaku Kyozo (hexagonal depository of the scriptures) which once held the complete Buddhist scriptures copied in gold ink on blue paper.
We visited later in the day so Tim could spend some time drawing and I could take photos.
We walked further up towards the Daimon gate and spotted our home away from home – Family Mart. In Sydney, Tim and Jarrod like to go to a Korean style coffee shop called Tom N Toms to eat piles of honey butter bread, so Tim was thrilled to find packaged HBB that we stopped to enjoy with some hot BOSS coffee.
As we approached Daimon gate, Tim let out an audible “Whoa!”. I think I had forgotten how imposing it was.
In the afternoon it started to get cold – really, really cold. When we arrived back at our lodging (Jimyo-in) a monk showed us to our room. We shuffled in, shivering and clutching our arms while he served tea, explained dinner and the onsen.
The room was beautiful. I was unable to fully appreciate the beauty at the time because I had just met the new love of my life, Kotatsu-san.
I was familiar with the concept of kotatsu (My cats in neko atsume have one). I just hadn’t realised the significant impact kotatsu could have on your life if you’re as fond of blanket weather as I am. Probably even if you aren’t. It was like the most amazing warm embrace from a welcoming and comfortable best friend. Like Kif, but furniture. Furniture that I am in love with. An immobile furniture version of my fattest cat that I am in love with.
I was briefly separated from my beloved when the monk returned to our room at 6pm to serve dinner.
We started our day as per our tradition – breakfast onigiri from Family Mart. I am still battling this cold/flu/thing so I opted for a hot can of coffee and several bottles of C1000 to tide me over until lunch.
We travelled from Osaka up to Koyasan, via subway, train, cable car and bus. I know that changing modes of transportation this much seems a bit daunting, but public transport is so easy to use here. There is very clear information at train stations, supplemented by HyperDia and helpful attendants at almost every location. We opted for the limited express service (a beautifully furnished train with reserved seats, toilets and vending machines) from Tengachaya to Gokurakubashi, where we switched to the cable car to get to Koyasan. At Koyasan, we were greeted by a friendly man who helped us find the right bus, advised us of the fare and highlighted our stop on a map.
We were welcomed at our temple lodging by a monk who took our suitcases to our room and instructed us to be back before 6PM for dinner.
Our first area of interest was Okunoin. I visited Koyasan in 2014 and didn’t cover much ground during that trip – while I was on the bus I dropped my camera and damaged my 16-50 lens beyond repair and spent a lot of time trying to fix it instead of sightseeing.
The walk to Okunoin from our lodging was brief, cold and beautiful.
We walked across Ichinohashi bridge, found ourselves in the cemetery (Japan’s largest) and slowly made our way towards Torodo hall.
Koyasan was settled in ~819 by a monk named Kukai and is now known as the world headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Japanese buddhism. Our visit to Koyasan happened to be the day after Kōbō-Daishi (Kukai) entered into an eternal samadhi (meditation) in 835 – legend says that he will continue to meditate until the arrival of Maitreya.
The cemetery is breathtaking.
It feels very pleasantly and peacefully isolated. The tall cedar trees cast heavy shadows and allow dappled light to fall on the path, highlighting the graveyard around you. As you approach the Torodo Hall (hall of lamps) photography is forbidden. The hall itself was immense, dark and decorated with gold. A priest was chanting sutras.
We made our way back through the cemetery toward the town for lunch a bit more hastily than we’d walked in – almost a light jog – stopping only to take photos of flowers.
When we arrived at the restaurant, Tim opted for Kitsune Udon (udon noodles in a dashi broth with a piece of aburaage), I went for Katsudon (fried pork cutlet on rice with a yummo egg topping), and they were both crazy delicious.
We got to the airport early.
I’d had a lot of trouble sleeping (I remember waking up to check the clock four times) and was eager to make sure we got to the airport without me falling asleep. After a makeshift hotel-room breakfast, we set off. We were early. Really early. First people in the airport except for staff early.
Tim was as patient as ever, and we passed the time by levelling our pokemon.
I had come down with something on Saturday afternoon, the day before we were to depart on our exciting holiday and it really caught up with me on Sunday morning, so I took the opportunity to sleep as much as possible on the flight.
Upon arrival, we enjoyed a heated train, topped up our ICOCA cards, bought our first BOSS coffee, dumped our bags at the hotel and went for the first of many walks around Osaka. To try and cure my sickness, we stopped at a store to buy some c1000 and the gentleman behind the counter gave us warm change – amazing service, if intentional! We played some taiko, saw a cat, stopped by UNIQLO and enjoyed night ramen back at our hotel before turning in.