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WORDS: Vincent Flanagan | PHOTOS: Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji
In the early 9th century a leading Buddhist monk in Kyoto, the Imperial Capital at the time, learned of small mountain top plateau surrounded by 8 small peaks and said to resemble the shape of a lotus plant. This learned and reverent monk, Kobo Taishi, was given Imperial sanction to establish a monastic complex on the plateau and became known as Koya San (Mount Koya ). This small town is located South East of Osaka city in Western Japan. There are now over one hundred temples in this sacred town surrounded by deep forest. It is the centre of the Shingon Buddhism Sect and a special place of pilgrimage for their many faithful followers. The natural serenity of the surrounding forest mixed with the spiritual significance of the town make Koya san a memorable and worthwhile destination.
Pilgrims heading towards Koya San on different routes from across western Japan converge at Kawachi Nagano in southern Osaka. It is a rough place where the local folk have a no nonsense attitude to both work and play and their dialect is as direct as a thrusting samurai sword. There is not the subtle formality here as you would encounter in Kyoto or Nara. We begin our ride from this town and like the pilgrims we must venture over the mountain behind us, cross a valley and travel up the steep slopes towards the temples on the mount. Then forge a different trail back to our start point.
The start point is the train station, it too is a junction for two railway lines and also place to begin the journey to Koya San. There were some other cyclists there and it was interesting to read their expressions as we looked at each other, acknowledged each other, and wondered where might you be pedaling to today. We slowly ride away from the busy station round-about and look for the old road Rte 170 as it heads southwest towards the coast. Japan is an ever changing place with constant renewal and development. In the city what was once rice fields have been covered over and morphed into medium housing developments. New roads and structures are constantly appearing. Road atlas is out of date with in 10 years. Yea, better update that $3000 navigation system on the dash board. That said, the abundance here of roads both new and old gives us an enormous option to choose a route that can be amazingly free of traffic. Our legs reacting sluggish in the cool late winter air and keeping an easy tempo so not get too bushed before we begin our first real climb. All of us are unfamiliar to this part of the route and rely on our cue sheet not to get waylaid. Even on a weekend the cars are not so numerous or bothersome.