Sunday, 7 December 2014

Magical Koya-san in the Snow


The temple town on the holy mountain of Koya-san is my new favourite place in Japan. The fact that women have only been allowed to enter this site for a hundred years or so, made my stay here all the sweeter. We're here now, sisters! 
If there's any way you can go and visit Koya-san in December, do it. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will change the way you think about life, death and central heating.

I came to this ancient place on a bit of a whim. I'm in Asia to see friends, clear my mind and finish my current novel, and a temple retreat seemed like a good way to help with the second and third part. Otherwise I would just spend the entire trip chatting and drinking. Which is great in terms of catching up with friends, but not all that conducive to writing.

I'm not going to lie - Koya-san in December is not an easy trip. To get here from Tokyo, you need to take a bullet train to Shin-Osaka, then a subway to Namba, a local train to Gokurakubashi (changing at Hashimoto, which is funny if like me you suffer from Hashimito's thyroditis), then a cable car and finally, a bus. 

Other downsides: the monks don't really do central heating, or indeed any kind of heating. I stayed in two temples, and in the first, there was snow in the hallway in the morning. 

However, in a concession to the tourists whose good custom keeps the temples from rotting away, they've put little electric heaters in every guest room, and heated low kotatsu tables. One of the monks assured me that they also use heaters in their own dorms - I was worried the monks were forced to shiver all night as part of the whole austerity and spiritual purity thing, while the guests were sleeping snugly. Apparently, in the old days there was really no heating of any sort, and the older monks used to flee to another monastery the valley when their bones could no longer take the mountain cold!

Some bloggers have described Koya-san as expensive, but right now now it's actually amazingly good value as the yen is so weak. A night at Eko-in, the second temple where I stayed (and my favourite of the two), costs about 12,000 yen including dinner and breakfast. That's about 65 quid. For that, you get to stay in a tatami-matted room in beautiful ancient temple, with a view of snow-topped rooftops; sleep on a comfy futon and relax with your feet unter a heated, duvet-covered kotatsu table; take part in a guided afternoon meditation session; and have a delicious vegetarian feast served by a friendly monk in a dozen pretty bowls (for dinner, and a lighter version for breakfast). Plus, a steaming hot soak in a lovely communal bath, after which you can wrap yourself in one of the yukata (cotton kimonos) they provide, sit by your window and contemplete the bittersweet brevity of life and the beauty of the passing moment. 

You also attend the morning service, which at Eko-in (one of the two temples where I stayed) includes the fire ritual. I may suggest this to my local rabbi to liven up the shabbat service. It should be ok, halachically speaking, as long as you light the fire before sundown on Friday.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that it's all worth it. Even if I had left Koya-san with pneumonia and not a single new chapter, it would have been worth it. The beauty of the place is impossible to capture in words or pictures. Maybe you're looking at the photos and thinking, oh that temple is pretty - but the point is, the entire town looks like that. There are a few modern buildings, little shops and cafes, but the site is really dominated by the dozens of temples lining the streets. You can step away and take it all in a one big temple feast for the eyes, and it's beautiful, and then you walk close up and see a carved stone sculpture, or a charm dangling in some incense smoke, or a red bridge flashing in the snow, and it takes your breath away.

Ok, enough cliched travel writing. Koya-san in spring, summer, autumn is probably stunning as well, and more comfortable. But I cannot imagine it looking any more spectacular than this. 

(Footnote: my Japanese was never great, even when I lived here, and once I moved away, what little I had fell out of my brain. However, in a wholly unexpected, delightful bit of travel magic, I now find I can suddenly speak Japanese! Sort of. I can book a room, order a meal, praise the prettiness of the snow, agree that it's very cold but the onsen is very hot, tell them I'm from Germany via London and working on a book, exclaim "omoshiroi-desu, ne!" and "sugoi!" and "honto!" while tilting my head and widening my eyes just so, and check if the Eko-in temple is after the next set of traffic lights and then to the right. And so on. All of this seemed pretty lame when I was living here, the kind of functional level it's so easy to get stuck on, but now, as a tourist, it feels GREAT.)


  1. Sophie, I'm enjoying your dispatches from Asia, hope that you're having a great trip. I would like to visit Koya-san (and Mount Athos in Greece) - it sounds moody, dramatic and frigid at this time of year. Also enjoyed your piece on black women in French art - I visited the Château Josephine Baker last year and it was enlivening and outstanding. Enjoy the rest of the trip and see you soon.

  2. Thank you, Sandy! It's been a great trip. Have been gathering new recipes too... like nori toasted with sesame oil, yummy Korean breakfast snack. See you soon! Sophie