Sunday, May 29, 2011


Sunday 29 May Koyo-san

Another early start to the day, getting out of bed when the gong was sounded around 5:50. It continues to pour rain. First stop today was the first temple founded on Koyosan, Kongobu-ji. The temple has a beautiful set of wall screens, including a set showing the life of Kaiku (the founder of Koyosan). There is an enormous stone garden, partially flooded by all the rain. (A typhoon is just south of us, skirting the coast of Japan - and foiling our plans to head to Tokushima by ferry today.) The patterns made by the raindrops on the puddles on top of the patterns of the stone are gorgeous. On the doors of the temple were large scrolls with prayers for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

I bought a pilgrim's jacket and book at Kongobu-ji, and had them stamp my coat with the monastery's seal. It's neatly centered at the top.

I now reliably recognize about a dozen kanji, including entrance and exit, big and small. But the depth of my illiteracy was pointed up today when we stopped at the "eastern office" (a euphemism for the bathroom) at Kongobu-ji. I don't know the kanji for men and women and no helpful icons on the doors. My colleague (equally clueless when it comes to kanji) pointed at one door and firmly asserted, "This is the men's room." I was impressed until he pointed out that the doors were a bit ajar and a quick peek revealed which was which. Nothing could help me figure out which of the four buttons in the stall was "flush" -- as I tell my students, guess and check is as good a method as any when you are stuck.

Each of the temples on the pilgrim routes offers tea, sometimes made over the fireplaces that have been used for hundreds of years from water pulled from the rain water cistern, other times in electric kettles. Here we sat on tatami in a large room and were served hot tea and lovely little rice cookies that melted in your mouth, sweet with a touch of almond and a sigil imprinted on the front. I found a box in the gift shop and have been lugging it around since.

Lunch was udon noodles to slurp with a tempura mix floating on top, and a quick lesson in how to slurp without getting the broth on your glasses, or worse yet, the shirts of your dining companions. By now it was truly a deluge outside.

We walked on to the Reihokan museum, where some of the treasures of Koyosan are on display. There were some amazing carved wooden statues of various deities and historical figures, and I could imagine what these might look in their full glory, painted, gold leaf and places in a dark temple enclosure lit by flickering lights and candles. Some of them were pretty terrifying. I enjoyed several of the exhibits of materials related to the founding of the museum and its original quarters. Every day items such as old ladders, battered wooden dustpans and pressed tile rafter ends were preserved.

As befit pilgrims, we then walked up to the women's hall. Until the early 20th century, women were not permitted within the enclosure at Koyosan, and would come to these small shelters just outside the precincts. There is a long trail that connects the sites of seven of these shelters, this is the only remaining shelter. The space is still active as a temple, there is a prayer post there for the comfort women of WW II, for example. The monk there was happy to stamp my coat, and to be the first to stamp my book. The stamp of the shrine is in red ink, on top of which he put an elegant calligraphic phrase. As a final service, he wrote a title on my pilgrimage book, then picked up a little blue plastic blowdryer and made sure it was completely dry before handing it back to me, despite the fact that the taxi he'd called for us was waiting (he kindly explained to the taxi driver who had come to roust me out from the shrine).

Now we are on the train to Osaka, where we will spend the night, then go on to Tokushima in the morning (the typhoon should be well past by then).


  1. Oh, poor you -- typhoons at this time of year are odd. Have lived here --out west--(i.e western Japan) for nearly 20 years. I know you will be enjoying the post-typhoon clarity. Continue to enjoy! I've really enjoyed reading your travel blog, which, like most blogs, I happened upon serendipitously -- under the same rain in which you were tea-ing and templ-ing. All the best! Kate

  2. Oh, er. A lot of 'enjoyment' -- you'll notice! ha ha

  3. You're making me feel quite like I'm there with you!

    I love reading!!