A Travellerspoint blog

Monks on fire

Spooky graveyards, mediation and spongy tofu

Yesterday we left Hiroshima so early in the morning that it made our eyes water and headed for the hills. After a lengthy travel via bullet train, regular train, funicular railway, bus and foot we arrived at our home for the night. A monastery high in the hills by Osaka in a little village called Koyasan. After leaving our bags in our tatami (straw mat) floored rooms we set out to visit a cemetery. It is one of the most sacred places in Japan as it contains some of the remains of the man who brought Buddhism to Japan from China. It was a beautiful place to be with lots of shrines both very old and very new. The old ones were elegant and moss covered some having been around for close to two millennia. The new ones were just as amazing although for slightly different reasons. As it was one of the most famous graveyards in Japan it costs a lot of money to have your ashes interred here and so only the rich can afford it. Therefore many of the shrines of remembrance lent more towards the ostentatious than the respectful. There was even a grave for a family’s dog; some people have too much money.

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We rushed back to the monastery to make it back in time for an evening meditation session. One of the monks spoke excellent English and talked us through their style of meditating. We sat cross-legged on the floor and breathed in and out through the nose, counting each breath from one to ten and then repeating. The session was half an hour and whilst we were good at it, there were some around us that coughed and fidgeted.

Stretching out our aching limbs we made back to our rooms to change into our robes for dinner then headed to our dining room. It had been set out beautifully and had some tables on the floor at which we had to sit cross-legged. The meal itself was a monk’s typical meal but not one that we particularly enjoyed. They don’t eat meat so there was a lot tofu which neither of us are particular fans of. We did manage to get most of it down though, only taking exception to the spongy one that leaked with water every time you prodded it.

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After the early start most of the tour group were tired and headed straight to bed but we thought we’d try out the hot baths. Much the same routine as the ones in Hakone (Naked in the hot springs) here however there was only one bath. We’d planned to meet up again after a couple of hours but the water was so hot we were both out in about fifteen minutes! After chatting to our friend Steve for a bit we headed to our room for a comfy night on the Japanese futons.

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Our monk activities were not quite over yet though as we had a few ceremonies to attend this morning. With an early rise of 6.20am we headed to the main temple and watched two monks chanting for over half an hour. How they kept it up we’ll never know but it was non-stop and incredibly beautiful to listen to. We then moved on to the second ceremony; the Fire ceremony! As one monk chanted and banged a drum, another went through a long ritual to make a fire. He had to throw certain powders on it and liquids and he burnt sticks of wood that people had written prayers on. Although he seemed somewhat clumsy and kept dropping things, the ceremony was fantastic to watch and the fire was absolutely mesmerising. Now we’re all monked out it’s time for us to head on to Osaka, the last place on our tour!

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • It gets very cold up at Koyasan, make sure you have lots of layers. Our monastery kindly gave us heaters so going to bed was quite toasty.
  • The accommodation this tour provides is fantastic and a great change to hostels. If you can get on one in Japan with a stay in a monastery it’s well worth it. See Rach's review of the monastery here.

Posted by rexontheroad 09:40 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A deer ate my paper!

Fake castles, wild deer and some floating gates

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We spent our last morning in Hiroshima exploring the nearby castle and its grounds, something that we had to get up early to do as the rest of the day was due to be spent on Miyajima Island. We had a nice early morning walk there although we were expecting a little more size wise (doesn’t everyone!) as it was pretty small for quite a major castle. It was actually a reconstruction as the original one had been destroyed by the atomic bomb. Not that this was the first time it was destroyed, as like every other castle we have visited so far it had been burnt to the ground several times before. It had some good displays and plenty of signs in English but best of all it had a little dress up area and together with some of the other people on the tour we got kitted out as samurais and geishas. We had a brilliant time posing for photos although they should possibly have more female clothes on offer as Rach had to squeeze into the child’s samurai costume.

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After a race back to the hotel our tour guide Keiko led us via train and ferry to Miyajima Island. She gave us a map of the place and offered to take us round the best sights first and then leave us a few hours to do our own thing. She already pre-warned us about the wild roaming deer on the island but nothing really prepares you for them coming right up to you and trying to eat paper out of your pocket! After managing to escape from their clutches we made our way to the famous floating gates, our visit timed perfectly to high tide when they appear to float in the sea. The gates themselves have no actual foundations and instead stand on the seabed. They looked fantastic and made a great photo opportunity.

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After that we headed to the Senjokeku to see the five storied pagoda then on to the temple of the five hundred Buddhas. It is aptly named as, by some strange coincidence, there are five hundred stone Buddhas each with a different facial expression. The aim of the game being to find the one that looks most like you. After a successful Buddha hunt Keiko led us to another part of the temple to experience being reborn. She led us down some stairs to a chamber where if you walk through you will be reborn. She neglected to tell us just how pitch-black this place was and it was a maze. You had to feel your way along the wall so we spent more time trying to figure out our way (or in Alex’s case leaping out at people) than feeling enlightened but never mind.

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On our way back for our free time we stumbled across a traditional, Japanese wedding and saw a performance for the bride and groom to scare off the bad spirits that would have harmed the union. After witnessing the orange robed, masked man stabbing at the demons with his ceremonial stick we moved onto the street crammed with souvenir shops. It was here that we had planned to buy ourselves some personalised chopsticks with our names in Japanese. Unfortunately after looking at the prices and giving our wallets a fright we decided it wasn’t worth it so bought some cheaper, but equally nice ones, to take home with us. Rach also took the opportunity to get some postcards of which there’d been a serious lack of everywhere else we had been. Sadly our planned hike to the top of the island didn’t happen as the days are getting shorter now that we’re back in the Northern Hemisphere and so we had to make our way back to the hotel with the rest of our group.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • There seems to be a bit of a postcard shortage in Japan, we barely saw any and we were in pretty big touristy areas. If you see any, snatch them up straight away.
  • If you have a Japan Rail pass then the ferry across to Miyajima Island is included.
  • Don’t expect any castle in Japan to be the original. They built them out of wood and never learnt when they burnt down. Even after staring at the ashes for the fifth or sixth successive times.

Posted by rexontheroad 23:13 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A tale of two cities

Ninjas, bamboo and nuclear weapons

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The last two days have been jam packed with activities in Kyoto and Hiroshima, so as our blogs have been trending towards the long we will endeavour to keep this one short and sweet. Yesterday we rose early with the sun to meet up with a small group of us who had decided to see the same things that day. We caught the train using our Japan Rail passes and arrived at the Fushimi Inari Shrine that is famous for the eight thousand gates that line its walkways. We arrived and after looking around the shrine we found the walkways and walked along with amazement at the passage that was created by the thousands of wooden gates to our sides and over our heads. We had just begun to take some photos of the place when our camera did the dirty on us and died leaving us stranded with no means of recording bar our memories. Luckily for us everyone in the group offered us the use of their cameras for snaps and so thankfully we still have photos to see as below.

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We then headed back to Kyoto station where we left the group as they transferred to another train and we went and charged the camera and managed to shovel a quick breakfast into our stomachs. We then headed back to the train station armed with our freshly charged camera and set about making the most of the sights of Kyoto. We first decided to follow another of Keiko’s recommendations and go to the Nijo (ninja) temple. There we bumped into the group we’d left just as they were departing the castle. They said it was amazing and they weren’t lying. It was great; the gardens were tranquil and peaceful and the castle was full of interesting information on how Shogun lords lived and entertained in feudal Japan. The floor was a particular attraction for us. Bit weird you may say, but no, it squeaked wherever you trod. This was fully by design and was the Shogun’s burglar alarm warning him of anyone approaching. Sadly we left the squeaking behind and again shovelled down some more food before heading on to yet another of Keiko’s recommendations (well she is a tour guide after all), the bamboo forests.

The forests provided a lovely short walk through the tall bamboo grasses and it was a little surreal being surrounded by all the green that was almost blocking out the sun. We also got to see a couple of rickshaws which were interesting. Alex did also experience a severe trauma at this point continuing his theme of being attacked by an animal in every country we have so far been in. Rach all of a sudden looked at him in fright and he realised that there was a large insect flying behind his head. In a sudden spasm he swatted at the insect bashing it into the back of his head. Unluckily for him it turned out that it was a stinging insect and a painful one at that so he spent the next few minutes of the walk clutching at the back of his head. Rach was in tears by this point but were they tears of worry and solicitude, no they were tears of laughter as she somehow managed to find some modicum of sadistic merriment in the situation, particularly as he had frightened some poor Japanese near us by shouting like a mad man.

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After allowing time for Alex to recover from his wound we headed back to the hotel for a good nights sleep before catching the bullet train to Hiroshima. The bullet trains are amazing here; three hundred kilometres per hour and on the inside you wouldn’t have a clue. We arrived in Hiroshima to find the rain awaiting us. Luckily today was our only museum day so we would spend most of it indoors. After a quick mission through the rain for the two of us, and beating the others who took the tram, we rejoined the group to see the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Museum. The Dome is one of the few remaining structures from the aftermath of the blast and its skeleton is a poignant reminder of how powerful weapons have become. The museum itself was really interesting and educated us as to the history of Japan in the war, the lead up to the bomb drop on both the American and Japanese sides, the blast itself in Hiroshima, the aftermath, the ongoing damage and also had information about nuclear weapons worldwide and what the world is doing about them today.

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It was a brilliant place to visit, incredibly sad and haunting, and is one of the busiest museums either of us has visited. A bigger demonstration as to the dangers of war and the havoc that man can now wreak at the push of a button could not be imagined. We were so engaged that we were there up until closing and so after a short walk back to the hotel are now ready for bed.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Japan rail passes are a great way to get around cheaply and can be used on local trains as all trains are run by JR. Sadly though it cannot be used on buses or subway so expect a little bit of walking to get to your destination.
  • We have tried so hard to steer clear of directly telling people what to do, it’s a free world after all. However should you find yourself in Hiroshima the Peace Museum is an absolute must.
  • If you are on a tour and on a tight budget like us remember you can say no to eating out and instead get supermarket fare. It will still be interesting as unless you know Japanese you won’t have a clue as to what you’re eating until it passes your lips.

Posted by rexontheroad 21:28 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Stalking the Geishas

Kimono fashion show, golden temple and birthday surprises

For those eagle-eyed people who have been reading our blog for a year (how has it been a year already??), you may have realised that today is a special day- Alex’s birthday. This was his second birthday away from home although this one was a little harder as we’ve had no address to receive birthday cards from home. Keiko, however, had lots of stuff in store for us so Alex had a jam-packed and fun day.

It began (after a great nights sleep on the Japanese beds) with an early start as we wanted another dip in the Hot Springs. We both found them pretty empty which was surprising as you could see the surrounding mountains in the daylight and it was quite serene. After a rush to check out we got our second bullet train, this time a slightly longer journey to Kyoto. It was great as we’d all been peering out of the windows to see if we could see the elusive Mt Fiji. We managed to see her briefly and the local people around us obviously saw how excited we were and a little while later an elderly Japanese man indicated to us that she was back. We all ran across to the window, pressing up against the glass, squeezing around each other to try and get photos. Luck was obviously on our side as she was so clear and we could see her in all her glory. We were only slightly disappointed that she didn’t have her normal snow cap.

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In Kyoto we dumped our bags in the hotel and headed straight out. Keiko had noticed how excited we’d all been at wearing the kimonos last night so she took us to a kimono fashion show for the next season’s styles. The models themselves were beautiful and walked down the catwalk with such elegance and poise. The kimonos were absolutely stunning and the detail that was put into their designs was incredible. We ‘oooooed’ and ‘ahhhhed’ all the way through and were staggered to learn at the end that the hand stitched, intricately designed ones could cost up to a million dollars!

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Next on the list was the Kinkakuji temple, or the Golden temple. As there are so many temples in the Kyoto region, Keiko wanted to pick the best ones for us to see. She made the perfect choice in this temple as it was fantastic. Overlooking a small lake the setting sun lit up the temple brilliantly and the gold shone so brightly it nearly hurt your eyes. As we made our way back to the group we stumbled across a stall that offered green tea with gold leaf floating in it and it was actually really sweet to taste.

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The tea was just a sample of what was to come as we headed to a food market, which had over two hundred stalls in one long strip. We sampled a few delicacies although we did skip over the octopus on a stick (pricy!). At the end of the market was a Japanese photo booth, an incredibly popular place for young teenage girls where you can draw and add things to the photos. We went in with Keiko, Steve and Danny and had a good laugh posing and editing our pictures.

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Sufficiently hungry by this point it was time for dinner. Keiko had chosen a restaurant which served hotpot; basically you get given a broth, a gas cooker and ingredients and let the meal cook in front of you and it was certainly delicious. Towards the end of the meal Alex was surprised when suddenly a chorus of Happy Birthday sprang up. Keiko appeared with a cake and candles and party poppers had exploded all around us. After blowing out his candles Alex then received a birthday card that all the group had signed. He was really overwhelmed and touched by the effort they’d made.

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Alex would have been happy if the day had ended then but there was still one more activity of the day. We were in the area of Gino where the Geisha’s teahouses are and Keiko wanted us to go hunting for Geishas. They only appear when they’re going between teahouses so you have to be quick if you want to take a picture of them. We divided into smaller stealth groups and crept around the streets looking out for them. Every so often you’d hear a shout of “There’s one over here!” and everyone would sprint to take a picture. Unfortunately most of ours were of their backs but luck was on our side and we managed to see around six Geishas and the last walked right towards us. We looked like the paparazzi, a long line of flashes going off and we finally got a great picture.

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Tired but extremely happy we headed back to the hotel.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Pray or wish really hard to see Mt Fuji as she’s a crafty one and often hides behind clouds.
  • Try and get to see a kimono fashion show as it’s a great, free way to see a key part of Japanese culture.
  • If you go Geisha hunting they really don’t like it if you ask for photos with them. Just stand back at a reasonable distance and let them get on with their walk.

Posted by rexontheroad 20:49 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Naked in the hot springs

Bullet trains, trains, taxi, pirate ship, bus, cable car and switchback train

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We have used a hell of a lot of public transport today. Pretty much every kind of transport you can possibly use bar the batmobile. The bullet train was first and was incredible, taking us from Tokyo to Odawara at 300kph. It doesn’t feel like you’re going that fast and is a very comfortable journey. On arrival we got a taxi to our hotel to drop off the bags and headed back to the station to get a bus to Lake Ashi. From there we boarded a pirate ship (complete with a man dressed up as a pirate) and had a leisurely cruise across the lake. Finally we got another bus to Sounzan and a cable car up to Gora. Sound complicated? It did to us too but it is a lot easier than it sounds, particularly if you have a tour guide. Keiko, our guide, led us around the Hot Springs at Gora, pointed to roughly where Mt Fuji was (although as is normal she was hidden in the mist) and explained all about the area and even tempted many of us to try some black hard boiled eggs, which are believed to make you live seven years longer.

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With everyone feeling more youthful, we headed back to the cable car and the journey down felt somewhat more adventurous. The mists had descended on the hillside and all we could see was about five feet of cable in front of us and every so often we’d feel the car drop as we hit a pylon. We had one more journey ahead of us to the hotel which was by switchback train. It’s pretty much a normal train but it zigzags down the side of the mountain by going backwards and forwards downhill. Finally when all the travelling was over we got back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

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The hotel we’re staying in is quite a traditional, shoes off, Japanese hotel and they offered guests the option to wear kimonos to dinner. Leaping at the chance, the girls were offered one of five different patterns, whilst the boys were supplied with the regular blue one. Rach picked a beautiful red cherryblossom kimono, whilst Alex looked very samurai-like in his. We hurried down to the all-you-can-eat buffet and nearly two hours later Alex was still shovelling the food down. They had such brilliant things to try and we both sampled a lot of the Japanese food.

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Another reason Keiko had selected this hotel was for the Hot Spring spas that were available. She had explained the procedure for the springs which we will go over for you now. The spas are separated by sex; the men were on the seventh floor and the women on the sixth. You enter into the locker rooms where you strip naked (yes naked) and leave everything but your small towel. If you are feeling shy you hold it in front of you to just about cover the necessary areas, or if you’re us just wander around with it thrown over your shoulder like the locals. You then go through to the shower room where you sit down on a wooden stool and take the shower head in your hand. You shower like normal and shower gels and shampoos are provided. After you’ve cleansed yourself you can then head on to the pools. They have both inside and outdoor pools and they vary in temperature. Then you leave your towel by the side and bathe away.

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We both got the hang of it straightaway and really enjoyed the experience. It was surprisingly not too embarrassing and we even chatted to some of the people on our tour in the tubs. We attempted the technique of switching from hot bath to cold and hot again although it makes you feel a little faint. One of the pools is shown in the picture above which we took from the hotel website and believe it or not it's not photoshopped, it really looks that nice. We had a brilliant time and will be heading back in again in the morn.

We have one last cultural experience of the day in our rooms. Instead of Western style beds we will be sleeping on Japanese style futons on the floor, which we’ve tested out and they feel surprisingly comfortable. We’ll keep you updated about our night tomorrow.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • If you want to try lots of different transport in the Hakone area, you can get the Hakone Free pass, which is a discount round-trip ticket and you can get a two day or three day ticket.
  • If you get the chance to experience Japanese style bathing don’t wuss out, it’s not as embarrassing as you may think and a truly relaxing, and unique, experience.

Posted by rexontheroad 22:49 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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