Mountain Trek Day 1

Our hotel room is far too hot when I wake up. I take a luke warm shower and am basically sweating even after that. We have a big window at one end of the room that opens on a swivel system, so I unlock it and push it open. No alarm goes off or anything, so I think we’re okay. The way the window is designed, I can actually squeeze through one end and step out onto a small, seemingly unintentional balcony. Dad steps out onto it with me and we take our daily selfie.

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With the window open, our room is finally habitable and we continue packing up our bags for the day. Someone rings our doorbell and I answer, assuming that it will be Angela or one of the other Mountain Trekkers. It isn’t. It’s a flustered hotel employee, who tells us that our opening the window has set off an alarm. Whoops, my bad. He asks permission to enter the room, apologizes, then rushes over to the window to close it. He doesn’t seem mad, just stressed out about it. We apologize a bunch and he rushes back out of the room. In hindsight, there was some Japanese writing printed in red next to the window handle, which probably should have been an indication for me not to open the window…but it was just so hot!

We bring all of our luggage downstairs, our day packs stuffed full, and prepared for some hiking. We grab breakfast at the included buffet downstairs. Same same but different as all the other buffet breakfasts I’ve had in Japan so far. I won’t lie, it’s getting old.

We board a train from Osaka to Koyasan, a small town situated up in the mountains. We won’t be able to get a train all the way up, but it will drop us off at the base of the mountain so that we can get our Mountain Trek on and hike our way to the top. The train route is very scenic; weaving through small towns in the countryside, passing over deep rivers and through forests. There are still many cherry blossom trees around, but many of the petals have started to fall off their branches already. We definitely caught them at their peak in Kyoto.

When we reach the base of the mountain we get a bit of bad news. The trail we had planned to take has been closed due to typhoon damage, and is the only on-foot route up to Koyasan. Luckily, there is also a funicular that runs up the mountain side, so we take that method of transport instead. About three quarters of the way up, I can see some light SNOW on the ground. I thought I had escaped the never ending winter when I left Canada. No such luck, it seems. It’s still about 5 degrees outside, which is palatable. I don’t mind the snow so much when I’m not shivering down to my bones.

The funicular is not our final means of transport before arriving in Koyasan. From here, we must also take a bus that drives us around a series of hairpin turns up the mountain side. We get a driver who takes his time, thankfully, as I see other (granted, smaller) vehicles just killin’ it around the corners at full speed. The higher we go, the more snow we find. None of it is any higher than about 2cms, but that’s still significant for April.

He drops us off just outside the gateway to the ancient village of Koyasan. We walk down the main road, sometimes passing little shops and cafés, to an area where 10 temples are located very tightly together. We are given half an hour to walk around the area and do as we please. Dad and I walk around and try to snap some good photos of the beautiful temples, which have all been blanketed by a layer of snow. Often, piles of heavy melting snow will come crashing down from the tree branches, or the edges of the temple roofs. I try to stay on my toes to avoid getting pelted with a chunk of the cold wet stuff.
It is visible by the architecture and worn-out look to some of the temples, that they have all been built at different times. Each one is individual and beautifully designed.

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We meet up with the other Mountain Trekkers just before noon, and once we’ve all gathered we head out for lunch. Our destination is a small noodle shop with both western style tables as well as traditional Japanese kneeling tables. I sit at one of the Japanese tables, but regret it a little bit when I have to take off my hiking boots to get up on the mat. They aren’t fun to put back on.
I order a basic bowl of soba noodles with one piece of teriyaki shrimp on top. It’s delicious and hits the spot for a cold day. Dad orders some eel over rice and one order of maki, which is an unexpectedly large serving of 12 pieces. He shares them with the table. They’re just plain maki with a tiny bit of cucumber inside so I take two. The first is great and I taste a hint of wasabi. The second, ruins my life and makes me want to cry. The wasabi flavour is intense. It feels like it’s in my lungs. I can’t breathe or speak for a few minutes, and am overwhelmed by the urge to cough, but shortly after feeling like I might die right there and then, I make a quick recovery. I’m ashamed, but I don’t have a very high tolerance for spice, so maybe I’m being dramatic…but it was extremely uncomfortable. The eel and my soba noodle soup were great, though!

Tonight is probably going to be my favourite night of the entire trek, because we get to sleep in a Buddhist temple. Not an old building that used to be a temple and is now a hotel, but a real, honest to Buddha temple.
I am SO excited!
We walk up to our accommodations and drop off our day packs when we are told we won’t need them for the rest of the afternoon. I’m still not entirely sure of the itinerary for the rest of our day, but I am happy to shed 15 pounds off my back. All I get is a quick look at the outside of our temple, because some monks are there to greet us at the entrance and collect our bags. They all seem so welcoming and friendly.

We follow Ted to the entrance of a graveyard in Koyasan, where a famous mosoleum lies at the end of the pathway surrounded by 400 year old cedar trees that tower over us like skyscrapers. We meet a Japanese woman named Kansa, who will be our graveyard guide for the afternoon. She stops at important monuments along the way of our 2 kilometre walk and explains each of their individual significance. She makes little jokes every now and then, too. She’s precious. Most importantly, she explains that we’re not technically walking through a graveyard. She calls it a monument yard. No bodies are buried below the earth, but stone monuments have been placed here in honour of those who have passed.
I love everything about the tour and the experience of getting to walk through the ancient, moss covered monument yard. The sun has gone away, and the forest has become a little foggy; in many ways it’s the perfect time to be walking through. It’s got a slightly eerie vibe to it. The only downside, is that it is bone chillingly cold, and we are all without our packs. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for an extra layer right now. I find myself simultaneously trying to relax and take in the experience, as well as desperately wanting it to end, so that I can go curl up in some blankets by a
fire somewhere. I’m not the only one either; everyone in the group seems to be freezing down to their core in the cold, wet mountain air. It’s all I can do not to think about my extra sweater and toque sitting cozy in my backpack across the town. Had I realized where we were going and for how long, I might have just brought my pack with me (or at least donned an extra layer…or six).

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We’ve come to the end of walk, and without hats, food, or cameras, we are allowed to cross the bridge and enter the final part of the pathway where the mosoleum is located. We are lead downstairs to the basement where easily 100,000 mini Buddhas are lined up row after row on shelves throughout the entire room. The space looks a little bit like a wine cellar, but with Buddhas. Walkways between shelves guide us to an altar and large statue dedicated to Kukai, who is said to have come here to meditate hundreds of years ago and is still meditating today. He is treated as if he is still alive; the monks even bring him two meals a day. Kukai is the protector of the weak, and by touching his rosary and touching an area of weakness on your body, it is said to heal. I touch the rosary with my epilepsy affected hand. It can’t hurt, right?

We take a different route on our way out of the monument yard and head back to our temple accommodations to get ready for dinner. I just can’t wait to be inside somewhere!
At the temple, tables and chairs are set up in a long room facing one another for our dinner. Beautiful sets of food are sitting there and waiting for us when we walk in. I notice that it doesn’t look like very much food, but it looks delicious so I hardly care. We are given beer, sake, and green tea along with our meal, which doesn’t end with what is currently in front of us. We are brought dish after dish full of incredible vegetarian food. As one of the young monks is passing out a new dish, he stops to ask me a few questions. He is curious about my age, and seems surprised to find out I’m 21. I ask him the same question and he happily announces that he is 16. He also asks me if Dad is, well, my Dad and when I say yes the monk laughs
and says he is a nice guy. He seems very excited to be practicing his English. We compliment him on the food, he thanks us, and continues on serving the other Mountain Trekkers. I just had a casual conversation with a monk! This is the highlight of my life.

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By the end of the meal I am absolutely stuffed an basically ready for bed, but decide that I should take a quick dip in the hot bath before I go to sleep. It’s only like 8:00 after all.

Japan is famous for it’s hot baths, usually referred to as onsens, which are natural outdoor pools. The one here is indoor and man made, but still to be treated in the same manor.
One does not wear a bathing suit to an onsen, you must enter totally clean of any dirt, soap etc., and you must be naked. They almost always separate onsens by gender. When I walk in, there are two Japanese women washing off and preparing to get in the hot pool. The room is all steamy and I’m basically not naked anyway because I’m cloaked in mist. I follow the women’s lead and spend a long time rinsing my body and washing any possible soap residue out of my hair before stepping into the pool. It’s sweltering hot but I embrace the heat after such a cold afternoon.
The two women try to have a conversation with me (I don’t usually talk to people when I’m naked) but I’m lame and can’t speak any Japanese so our conversation doesn’t go very far. When I am finally warmed up and actually getting too hot (today has been a roller coaster of temperatures)
I get out of the bath and go to put on my yukata (cotton kimono-like loungewear). The Japanese ladies start laughing at me, and one of them, still naked, walks over and helps me tie it the correct way. This is my life.

After my bath I return to the room and put on all my layers again, and I tell dad to wake up. “YOLO”, I say! We must go for an evening walk to check out the illuminated temples. He kinda hates it but then he does eventually come with. On our way out the monks tell us to be back by 9pm. It’s already 8:30 so we speed walk up to the temples, where we see Arun coming back from shooting photos with his tripod. His are infinitely better than the ones I’ve managed to get with my iPhone. He has some incredible images of lanterns and temples, they’re so good that I assume he’s a professional photographer, but he tells me it’s just a hobby. He offers to give me a lesson in photography one of these days. Sweeeet! We take a few more quick photos and hurry back to the temple to get some sleep.

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