Join us as we tour Tokyo, Tokyo Disney, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Koyasan and Osaka. Following this blog is almost as rad as being there, only slightly less so. If you want to get in touch, you can do so via e-mail.


Our last $2 in Kansai Airport.

Ultraman Steampunk Train

Well, we’re back in the states after another long travel day. The highlight, without question, was the awesome Ultraman Steampunk Train we rode today, the rapi:t b (rapito beta).

Ultraman Steampunk Train

This bad boy whisks you from Osaka over to Kansai Airport, which is built on an artificial island. Pretty cool stuff, and a nice way to end our trip. Sommer, in her infinite wisdom, budgeted perfectly which meant that we came with a set amount of money and we spent exactly that amount without going over. She’s good. We did, however, end up with about $10 in the airport which I wanted to spend on the below, but instead bought a really cheesy black velvet painting.

Awesome bike

As we mentioned before, keep an eye on the blog for the residual posts on all the things we didn’t have time to talk about while we were there.

Check out the pictures from today.

Our last day

This will be our last post from Japan, we’re packing our things up and will be leaving for the airport in a few hours. Very sad, I know, but the blogging is not done yet! There are lots of cultural things that we’ve noticed that haven’t really fit anywhere else in our posts, so we’re going to do some residual blogging once we’re back home. In other words, keep coming back for leftovers, there’s plenty more where this came from.

Thanks for coming along with us, and sayonara for now!

Godzilla, meet Osaka.

From the top of a mountain to the bottom of the ocean

The morning started off bright and early with a 6 am Buddhist service. Part of the appeal of staying at a temple on Mount Koya is taking part in their morning service, which is quite an experience. Shojoshin-in, one of the oldest temples in Koyasan, was originally built over 1,150 years ago by Kukai himself (aka Kobodaishi, the founder of Koyasan), which made the service feel that much more authentic. The dimly lit temple was filled with laquerware boxes (that I assume housed scriptures), golden flowers, candles and other glittering ritual implements. The majority of the ceremony featured the monks chanting in unison and ringing an altar bell and cymbals. It was very peaceful and moving, more so than I expected it to be. Following the ceremony we ate a delicious breakfast and got the day started with a trip back to Okunoin cemetery.

Okunion cemetery

It was great to get back here during the day when we could enjoy the beauty with the sun peeking through the trees and illuminating the 200,000 tombstones. There isn’t much I can say to explain just how amazing this place is, so you’ll have to check out the pictures. Seeing it both at night and during the day was the right way, the contrast alone was worth it.

Okunoin cemetery

After Okunoin we walked back to Kongobuji, the head temple at Koyasan, to enter and view the painted sliding screens that it is famous for. There were no photos allowed inside, but trust me when I say that the screens are well worth the few dollars admission. I love the style of painting, so simple and minimalist and yet so beautiful. One of the highlights of Kongobuji is the rock garden, reputedly the largest in Japan. It is said to represent a pair of dragons in a sea of clouds, and is impressive both for its scale and beauty.

Kongobuji rock garden

From here we headed down the mountain on the long journey back to Osaka, where we checked in to our last hotel. Namba station in Osaka is HUGE, and is the most confusing station we’ve been in yet. It was no problem getting to the hotel (which is atop Namba station), but we’ve left the hotel several times since and each time has been an adventure finding our way back again. This station has multiple full scale malls inside, both below (two levels of stores) and above, which adds to the confusion. Pretty crazy. After checking in we made a quick trip over to Osaka Castle, one of the largest tourist draws in the city. It is a rather peculiar place, having been built in 1931 (originally built in 1580, it has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since), it looks like a real castle from a distance, but the closer you get the more you see the “modern” accents. We didn’t climb the steps to the top, but we did grab some ice cream and a bench to take in the action around the castle.

Osaka castle

After the castle we moved on to Kaiyukan, Osaka’s aquarium which is one of the world’s largest. The aquarium focuses on the Pacific Ocean and is unique in that you enter on the 6th floor and then spiral down to the bottom around an absolutely massive inner tank. We saw a whole bunch of excellent critters, all of whom seemed out and posing for pictures.

Penguins

By far the most impressive sight were the two whale sharks. I’ve never seen one other than in pictures, and they are giant! These two are the largest fish in captivity in the world. They were so big that you almost didn’t notice the rays in the same tank with 9 foot wing spans. We watched these guys swim around for quite awhile, they are so graceful for being such large animals and they seem to float in a beautiful slow motion.

Whale shark

At the very bottom of the aquarium was the second thing we came to see, the giant crabs. Looking like prehistoric spiders with legs that can reach 9 feet, they were certainly a stark contrast to the gliding whale sharks. From here it was on to the souvenir shop, which was excellent and very reasonably priced. Unsurprisingly they had a whole section devoted to snacks! Speaking of which, we left the aquarium in search of dinner, which was much harder to find than we expected. Osaka is known for its love of food, but everywhere we looked there wasn’t a restaurant to be found! I guess we were looking in the wrong places, so we headed back to our hotel where there are plenty of places close by. Sommer has been wanting a pizza, so we located an Italian place which was fun because it gave us a chance to see what the Japanese version of Italian is. For instance, apparently Italians love Doritos, because that was the appetizer. Strange. From there we did a little walking around the city, which is considerably different than both Tokyo and Kyoto. It actually has a very Western feel to it. Fortunately it didn’t take too long to find a robot, though.

Robot window

The highlight of the trip back was definitely the drunk businessman on the subway, doing his best to remain upright. His friends weren’t much help as they had appeared to have been drinking alongside him. I am happy to report he was able to hang on and make it to his station.

Check out the pictures from today.

Drunk businessman on the subway in Osaka. It was only 9:30, guess someone had too much sake!

When hinges creak in doorless forests…

After dinner we waited until just before dark and then headed out for Okunoin, Kobo Daishi’s Shrine, via the 1 mile path through the cemetery. Yes, we waited until dark to visit a cemetery. Yes, we are strange. 

The path is lit well enough to walk, but only outlines the silhouettes of the more than 200,000 tombstones here. The entire cemetery is in the center of a centuries old forest, so in addition to the darkness of the night, you are also cradled by towering cypress trees. To say it was an experience is an understatement. We were the only ones there, so beyond our footsteps the only sounds were those of the forest. I will admit that it was a bit frightening at times, being out there with the unfamiliar noises in a vast sea of tombstones. But this is one of the main reasons we came, and it was every bit as awe inspiring as we expected it would be.

Cemetery at night

After making our way over the river (literally) and through the woods (literally), we arrived at Kobo Daishi’s Shrine, the Offering Hall and the Hall of Lamps. Being that this is the most sacred land in Koyasan, it is said that one must clean their soul before crossing the last bridge to the shrine – which we did from the Tamagawa stream. Because it was late we were not able to enter the buildings, but we were able to see the impressive glow of the hall of lamps, completely filled with lamps sent as offerings by followers. We also lit a candle and incense, something we have not done at any temple on this trip except this one, there was just something about the journey that made it seem right.

Lighting a candle for Kobodaishi

Our journey back was slightly more comfortable, having become familiar with the various sounds of the forest. We met two delightful frogs on the path as well, and made note of a few things we missed on the way in. The entire trip took just over an hour, and like everything we’ve seen on this trip, it is something we will never forget.

Hall of lamps

Arriving back at Shojoshin-in we decided to visit the communal baths, which turned out to be less than communal since no one else was around. Bathing here is done on a small wooden stool where you soap off, rinse and then once you are clean you soak in a very large, very warm wooden tub. It was a great experience, and it makes me want a very large, very warm wooden tub at home. From there it was up to the room to go through the nearly 400 photos I took today, and then off to bed with the sounds of the wind in the trees lulling us to sleep.

10,000 torii and a journey to enlightenment

We began our day by retracing our footsteps from last night to Fushimi Inari Shrine. It was much better during the day, despite the rain – we could actually see what was beyond all of the Torii! We found numerous shrines tucked into the wooded trails that meander through the torii pathway, many with stone foxes, which are said to be messengers of the gods. We also found a beautiful lake that we would have completely missed if we had walked that far in the dark.

10,000 torii

We didn’t make it all the way to the end of the 10,000 torii pathway because we were short on time, and it was starting to rain even harder. I think the rain added to the experience: the sound of the rain drops, the sheen it gave the vermillion torii, and the smell of wet earth. Very calming.

Casey and Sommer in toriiville

We began our trip to Koyasan around 11am. The trip seemed quite daunting: four train rides, one cable car ride and one bus ride to make it up the mountain. We began by taking the Hikari shinkansen to Osaka, then caught the subway to Namba Station. From there, we took the Nankai Koya Line to Hashimoto. By the time we reached Hashimoto, the modern train stations of steel and lights had diminished into simple wooden structures jutting out of the countryside. We got on our last train to Gokurakubashi, which screeched up the mountain and afforded a spectacular view of exactly how far we’d fall if the train were to dislodge from its track. Fear aside, it was a beautiful journey and we hardly noticed that the trip had taken upwards of two hours at this point. From our last train stop, we boarded a cable car, which took us up a very steep climb to the Koyasan basin. The last part of our journey was a 10 minute bus ride up a very winding road to the town.

Train to Mount Koya

I thought this journey up the mountain would be insanely difficult, given all the transfers and the short amount of time to make them, but it was quite effortless. It was even easier than navigating Kyoto Station, which we still had not figured out when we left Kyoto earlier today (you know a building is confusingly built when you need to use a compass INSIDE the building). The signage on this trip was great, they were all in English, and everything was on schedule.  To anyone fearing the trip: Do not fear. Just follow the signs, get a Koyasan round trip ticket to cover all your fares in one shot, and go.

Cable car

Now, about our lodging: We are staying at Shojoshin-in, a Buddhist temple situated beside the side entrance to Okunoin, a huge cemetery. The temple itself is more than 1,150 years old, with the guesthouses around 150 years old. We were greeted promptly by a monk who checked us in and showed us to our room, which overlooks a pond and the side of a mountain covered in beautiful trees that whistle when the wind rushes through. It’s incredibly gorgeous – the room has a tatami-floor, with sliding screen doors and futon bedding. We even have a tearoom with a balcony. The word “unworthy” comes to mind again. 

Our room at Shojoshin-in temple

After dropping our bags off and taking a moment to pinch ourselves, we set out to visit a few of the many temples in Koyasan. We saw the Danjo Garan complex, which houses the oldest structure on Mount Koya and a number of other beautiful buildings; the Tokugawa Mausoleum; and Daimon, the enormous gate of Koyasan which overlooks the mountain range. We left Daimon around 4:45pm, and we had to be back to our temple by 5:30 for our dinner. We were planning on catching a bus back, but it turns out that buses don’t run between 4 and 6pm, so we did some major powerwalking back to Shojoshin-in. We made it just in time for our Shojin ryori dinner, which is a Buddhist vegetarian meal. The variety of food was incredible, as was the room we ate in: we were all by ourselves in a tatami-floor room with painted sliding doors. I was unable to finish everything, but I think Casey managed to get through every dish in front of him – there were about 12 dishes in all.

Dinner at Shojoshin-in

After dinner, we explored the garden and pond outside the temple. 

Check out the pictures.

Our delicious Shojin ryori dinner at Shojoshin-in temple on Mount Koya.

Goodbye Kyoto! We’re on our way to Mt. Koya next and since we’ll be staying on top of a mountain at Shojoshinin, a Koyasan Temple, there won’t be any internets or phones. Can monks go on the internet, anyway? I guess the ones above did (although I wish I took this picture, sadly I did not). Anyway, you’ll probably hear from us next some time tomorrow night when we get to Osaka.  

Goodbye Kyoto! We’re on our way to Mt. Koya next and since we’ll be staying on top of a mountain at Shojoshinin, a Koyasan Temple, there won’t be any internets or phones. Can monks go on the internet, anyway? I guess the ones above did (although I wish I took this picture, sadly I did not). Anyway, you’ll probably hear from us next some time tomorrow night when we get to Osaka.