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Part2 - Koya san
We snake our way along a narrow road filled with traffic. We are weaving our way forward between the cars, the housewalls, power poles and guardrails. This is only for a short distance and then we are free again as we turn onto the main route that leads up to Koya san. This part, by the river is the original route up the sacred mountain. To the left the steep hillside is covered with concrete, a bumpy and rough surface sprayed on top to prevent landslides, other side below is the river, way down below. At one point, as we hug the very edge of the road we have to duck to miss a rocky outcrop. We leave the traffic behind again after crossing the river one last time.
From the bridge we tilt our heads back as I point out the road leading up. We could follow the guard rails snaking their way up the mountain side. Narrow and ridiculously steep. I looked back at them and I will always cherish their collective expressions. What the fuck… The cars and buses are taking a newer wider road to the top, we like the pilgrims of old will follow an original route.
As we were making our way up and up, straining against the pedals, all of us out of the saddle, not to accelerate, but because we have to put all the weight down onto the pedals to turn the cranks. Been out of proper gear long time ago. Still, just in case try to shift down…to no avail…repeatedly, searching for that miracle last gear. Our sounds of labour were being punctuated by that of another, we could hear the sweet, rich and vibrant Hooo- hokekyo, hooo- hokekyo of the Japanese nightingale. We were making our way up the Nightingale valley, the whole way up this steep section their chorus kept us company. It was a marvellous way to ease the tension. When the gradient eased up and we were able to continue sitting down another sound came through the trees. A squealing searing scrapping sound, the wheels of a train as it crawled up the tracks and around the curves. The Koya train line brings many pilgrims and tourists from distant Osaka in just under two hours. They come by regular train to Gokurakubashi station then change to a funicular train which carries them to the top. It was many years past while on this wonderful train ride through the mountains I saw this road and thought, “where’s my bike”. At first you cannot see the train line but then a break in the trees and a bend in the road it brings you down toward the station. Suddenly our passage is interrupted by the remnants of a landslide. A mass of rocks and trees has covered the whole road blocking the way for cars but it gives us some good dismount and portage practice. Back on our bikes we continue our methodical climb up through the forest towards our goal and nearer the top we make out some smaller peaks through a fine descending mist. Then a faint tolling of a temple bell can just be heard, maybe it is a sign welcoming us now we have made our ascension into the 1100 year old town of Koya san.
It's misty, cold, and damp at the mountaintop, very fitting, seems like it should always be damp at these historical sacred places. The impression of riding from south Osaka to Koya san seems so much farther than the actual distance distance shown on the cycle computer, it worn us out more than what it should have. And probably a good timing for some food, since we are in a remote parts of the country, if we miss this tourists destination, we could be riding without proper food for hours. We enter a restaurant, or more like a cafeteria. Nothing fancy or especially regional. Basic noodles…good filler, easy to go down, easy on tired stomach, and instant energy.
During World War 2 most of Japan was denuded of trees. There was an exception to that, the grounds of temples and shrines were sacred and so too were the trees insitu. Now whenever you visit such places you will be struck by the enormity of the cedar and cypress trees in place. Here atop this 800 metre high mountain are scores of such trees and beneath them are the numerous temples with their gates, belfries, main halls and Pagodas, There are many with exquisite gardens as well. One very special place in Koyasan is Okunoin a centuries old graveyard, with the remains of many famous figures from Japanese history including the Samurai leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi. So too are the mummified remains of the founder Kobo Taishi. This is not a spooky place but one of calm and serenity a place where you can feel one with nature and if may be a higher spiritual being. On the streets we see many monks, their heads covered with woven straw hats that make them look like walking shiitake mushrooms.
Despite the cold there feet are bare except for some woven straw sandals.We glide by a religious paraphernalia store and my senses are arrested by the sweet pungent aroma of incense wafting from inside.