Friday, 1 August 2014

From Urban to rural, from harmony to discord

After experiencing real rural life in Japan with Maki`s family the rest of the trip had a lot to live up to. On Sunday we headed to Osaka to sample something very different... Osaka proved to be weirder, wilder and more chaotic than even Tokyo. Osaka station was like a futuristic mall with many very international shops, from the Italian gelateria chain Grom to an English scone cafe, there really is something for everyone. A little disorientated from the sudden change in environment, we still managed to find our way to Shinsaibashi where our capsule hotel was located.

Asahi capsule hotel, Osaka

Central Osaka

The setup of the capsule hotel was a little strange; take off your shoes at the door, put in locker, pay for capsule in gender separated area, part from anyone of the opposite sex who is with you and feel lonely. After a very good Indian meal and a walk around the chaotic and lit up central area and river we took advantage of our capsule hotel facilities in a very lonely manner. I went to the naked onsen and sauna alone, browsed the common manga reading room, walked past sleeping business men in massage chairs and a row of sad vending machines (mainly selling drinks but there was also a cup noodle vending machine and one which provided ice cream), then tucked myself into the tube bed.

We awoke early the next morning to take the Koya line from Shin Imaya to Kudoyama to walk the Choishi Michi pilgrim trail to Koyasan. We bought the Wakayama world heritage pass at the station which covers transport to and from Koyasan for 2 consecutive days., which cost around 2000 yen. The train journey took about an hour to Kudoyama. We arrived at the station with plenty of water and snacks, not knowing when the next vending machine/cafe would be. A little bewildered at the lack of signs, we asked a Japanese lady for directions. We were walking down the hill when 5 minutes later she appeared in her car and offered us a lift to the start point, the Jison-in temple. We saw buddhists performing their morning rituals before climbing the steep steps to the first stone marker. The pilgrimage started in a sun-exposed plum orchard and was very steep and tiring. Both of us ended up walking topless, which was okay due to the lack of people stupid enough to do this trail in this 35 degrees celcius heat. Finally the trail became more shaded thanks to bamboo, which turned into a more coniferous forest with the ascent. There are about 220 stone markers which indicate how far you are. We had a 23km hike in front of us, and little to indicate how close we were. Our aim was to reach the Daimon gate, but you quickly lose sense of time and geographical location when inside the endless labyrinth of trees. There were only brief breaks in the trees where we could get a good look at the forested mountains surrounding us. After 17km we reached a tea shop at the foot of mt. Koya and got some drinks from the vending machines. The last steep ascent was tiring and, for me at least, a little thrilling given the threat of bear attack. We didn't see any but there were plenty of warning signs, and Japanese walkers carried bells to scare them away. Upon arriving at the Daimon gate we were really too tired to appreciate it. After a quick photo we sluggishly walked through town to find our lodgings for the evening.

Jison-in temple, gateway to the the Choishi Michi trail

The path starts in a bamboo forest

...then opens out to a view of the city, hot and exposed to the sun

The trees become more coniferous and the path far wilder

Shrines and stone trail markers along the way

The forest is dense, with brief interludes in which we could catch a glimpse of the surrounding mountains

Half way through and it feels like we are in a labyrinth... 

...or a repetitive Buddhist mantra  

I stop for snacks, a CLIF bar and an inari onigiri

6 hours and 23.5km later and we arrive at Daimon gate

Most people who visit Koyasan (ourselves included) want to experience a temple stay. This is an incredibly overpriced experience,  but interesting nonetheless. After much deliberation I had booked the Shojoshin-in, the second largest temple in Koyasan and one of the oldest. It was indeed very beautiful, made of wood and set within a peaceful zen garden. Our room was Japanese style, similar to that which we had already slept in but with a table for tea, a balcony overlooking the garden and a mini shrine. There was a very good Japanese communal bath and yukata were provided in the room. Highlights of the temple stay experience for most people are the morning buddhist ritual and the vegan buddhist food. We ate in a personal dining room downstairs with a view of the pond (complete with koi). Food was served on the floor and in many little bowls, the presentation was excellent. In addition to the cold offerings a waiter came through and gave us a big bowl of rice and a pot of green tea. Though some of what I ate was interesting, I regrettably must admit that some of these tastes and textures probably don't match the western palate too much. The tofu for example was far more gelatinous than I like and rather plain. The fried tofu that was served in the morning on the other hand was very good. Starting the day with rice and green tea is also always quite nice. The morning ritual was also admittedly quite tiring as we were woken up at 6.20 to go downstairs for 6.30. It was interesting and we both felt quite a bit of admiration for the buddhist monks, but after breakfast we also went back to bed for a couple of hours... After visiting the head temple and graveyard we took the bus and cable car back down to Gokurakubashi station, from which we took the Koya line back to Osaka. From Osaka we took the shinkansen to Hiroshima.

our room in the temple

Shojin ryori

The Okunoin Cemetary

Our temple stay

Arriving in Hiroshima was more emotionally shocking than I had expected it to be. Walking to the hostel it was crazy thinking that just over half a century ago this city had experienced so much pain and suffering. Ks hostel was very friendly and clean. That evening we took the tram over to the Atomic bomb dome and got a glimpse of the destruction that the little boy bomb caused. After a walk through the peace park we ate some tiny portions of Mexican food at Otis, just beyond the Hiroshima peace memorial museum.

Hiroshima Peace Dome

The following day we did something entirely different with the knowledge that we would be returning to this more somber attraction the next morning. After one hour in the train (with one change) we took a ferry to Okunoshima, otherwise known as bunny island. It is a little bit of a mystery as to whether or not the ancestors of these rabbits were used to test the effectiveness of the chemical weapons at the poison gas factory during world war II. Whatever the reason might be, for some reason the island is now overrun with semi-wild bunnies which follow you and sometimes "attack" for food in stampedes. Upon arriving on the island we were approached by a girl who asked us for a little of our time. Before we knew it we ended up in a documentary about foreigners coming to the island and posed some awkward on-the-spot questions, like what we knew about the history of the island and how it coincided with the presence of the bunnies. Whilst walking around the surprisingly pretty and jungle-like island we were often followed by hungry bunnies who we happily fed. Every so often we came across some world war II ruin, such as the power plant and chemical weapons factory. Around midday we headed back to Hiroshima, from which we took another ferry to Miyajima island to see itsukushima shrine and the "floating" tori gate with dusk light. Along the beach there were friendly deer like the ones we saw in Nara, one of which ate our map. The island was very pretty but our feet hurt, so rather than a hike to its various temples we sat down and enjoyed the scenery.

Camera crew on Okunoshima, see us appear briefly on Japanese television here
WWII poisonous chemical lab, Hiroshima

bunny island

Bunnies fighting for Calorie Mate


Our last morning in Hiroshima was spent at the peace memorial museum. This visit was informative, moving and at the same time disturbing. It gave an outline of the history of Hiroshima before the atomic bomb, during and after, then made a seriously good argument to promote a peaceful future before hitting us with shocking images, artifacts and stories which provided a little insight into the horrors that radiation can do to the human body. The whole exhibit was surprisingly very neutral and the two hours spent in the museum were very emotional. I left Hiroshima impressed at the people`s determination to move on and push for a peaceful world, and relieved to leave a place with such a recent trauma. In the afternoon we took a shinkansen and local limited express train to Takayama. The entire journey took about six and a half hours. As we passed Gifu and Gero the countryside became very green, beautiful and wild. We immediately noticed the rustic nature of Takayama upon arriving at the station and seeing the wooden turn stalls.

I am currently writing from Takayama. Our hotel, the Sakura guest house, is at the foot of a mountain leading up to the Hida folk village, which I visited today. This morning we cycled a little (with hired bikes from the hotel) through the old town, along the river and through rice paddy fields, before getting too hot, eating at a cosy western-style burger joint and then retreating to the hotel. I returned from the folk village with a sun burn. Tomorrow morning we are going out early for a half day tour to Shirakawa-go, a pretty little village with thatched roofed houses in the mountains.

We have less than one week left in Japan and then we will be heading to Vietnam. I have been impressed with what I have seen, but surprised by the considerable familiarity I feel towards Japanese culture.

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