Koya-san

Koya-san is the name of the most sacred mountain located in the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture. It’s here where the legendary monk, Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai) established the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect. The Buddhist town of Koya developed around these headquarters, making it a center for the religion. In fact, it is designated one of the Sacred sites within the Kii Peninsula by UNESCO. I won’t dive too deep into the history of Koya-san, as I’m sure others have done it better. For a more in-depth overview, check out the links below:

Getting There

Before jumping into Koya-San it’s important to be aware, there is a world heritage trail leading up to the town of Koya. The Choishi-michi trail begins near Kudoyama station and takes you through some of the mountainous and forested terrains of the Kii Peninsula. The hike takes about 5-7 hours to complete but can be shortened by beginning at one of the two stations located nearer to Koya-san.

Mountain Range of Koya

I did not take this trail. Unfortunately, I was a bit strapped for time and chose to spend more time in Koya-San than on the trail. (I did make up for it one year later by taking an even more challenging pilgrimage. More on this in a later post.) So for those of you interested in the hike, check out this pdf  from the official Koya-san website.

While I may not have had time to complete the Choishi-michi trail, I did make sure to catch the tail end of it after arriving at Koya Station. After exiting the station, you have the option of taking a short bus ride to Koya. Alternatively, you can walk giving you access to an entry path into the trail.

Luckily for me, I was with some people who had played this game before, and we found the trail in no time. I can’t speak for the entirety of the Choishi-michi, however this point in the trek was quite peaceful. And because we had started early in the morning, I felt the hike sort of put my mind in an optimal state to take in the upcoming beauty of Koya.

In any case, you’ll want to make sure you arrive via Daimon, a large gate which has been the entrance to the sacred area since about the 12th century. From here, you will find your way to Danjo Garan temple, very near the heart of Koya.

The Town of Koya

Perhaps my favorite thing about being in Koya was the fact that, despite there being well over 100 temples, everything is quite compact. You are able to visit most of the major sites on foot and at a very reasonable pace. I spent most of the afternoon walking from sight to sight speaking with various monks and shopkeepers (at the time, my Japanese was very broken. And so this in itself was quite the adventure.)

While visiting the various temples of Koya, I stumbled upon an open one where visitors are free to stop in and meditate/pray/explore as they please. For the past half year, I had been practicing (or attempting to practice) zazen meditation. So I took this opportunity to meditate in the heart of Koya. From one of the monks at another nearby temple, I learned that Koya was where Shingon monks-in-training received the bulk of their schooling and that it had been a sort of sacred training ground for many many years. To my surprise, not long after leaving this temple, I came across a procession of actual monks-in-training walking down the street. Over the course of the rest of the day, I found this was actually a pretty common sight.

You can find a list of all the major sites in Koya here:

The Temple Stay

If you’re going to Koya-San, one thing you really ought to do is stay overnight at one of the many Shukubo lodgings. They are much like Japanese style Ryokan (A Japanese style hotel in which the rooms have older tatami mat flooring, dinner and breakfast are served in a traditional Japanese style in a traditional fashion, and guests can bath in a public bathing area), but are instead run by monks and give visitors the chance to sort of walk in the shoes of a monk.

Because I had planned to hike Okonoin the following morning, I chose a temple called Hozen-in, which was very close to the entrance. Upon arriving, I was greeted by the monk staff and showed to my room, as well as given a schedule of the evenings/mornings events. Because I had spent the day exploring the city of Koya, my temple stay itinerary began with a traditional monk, vegetarian style dinner. The meal was served in a traditional Japanese kaiseki fashion: small dishes came out one at a time with rice and miso soup always at the ready. I am a meat-lover so I was pleasantly surprised to find I did get the feeling I was missing a portion of my meal like I do any other time I give vegetarian meals a shot. The meal included things like Japanese konyakuhijikitakenoko and other small flavorful dishes that were each a treat for my taste buds and left me feeling very satisfied.

After the meal, we were escorted to a medium-sized tatami room of the Shukubo, where I found Shodo (Japanese Calligraphy) supplies laid out upon a large wooden table. A very kind monk gave us instruction on proper technique and explained to us we would be copying a Japanese, Buddhist sutra and to focus on the act of hand-copying as a form of meditation. This particular monk even went out of his way to use some English while giving us instruction.

To be honest, I found keeping my mind in a state of focus quite difficult, especially considering I have very limited artistic abilities ;p. However, I will say, I did feel mentally refreshed after I had finished and was ready for a good nights sleep.

The following morning, there were two final events lined up before checking out. The first was to get up super-duper early and attend a Buddhist fire ceremony. During the ceremony, the head monk performed a ritual in which he made contact with the spiritual world. From what I gathered, this was done via the burning of wood and the use of Buddhist relics. While this monk established said connection, a handful of other monks continually chanted lines from a sutra. And perhaps most exciting for me, were two monks beating drums throughout the entirety of the ritual. I’m not too familiar with Buddhist ceremonies and such, but you can read more about it here .After the excitement of the ceremony came to an end, I headed to the large open space designated for breakfast. A similar style meal was served for breakfast, but only this time with more breakfast-y foods. Again, the meal was very filling and was the perfect way to prepare for the next leg of the journey, Okunoin.

You can find a list of temple stays in Koya-san here:

The Best Part

I really enjoyed all of my experiences at Koya-san. But if I had to choose a single best, it’d have to be the hike through Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery and a sort of a walk into the spiritual world. The graveyard surrounds the mausoleum of the legendary Kobo Daishi, where he is said to be in an eternal state of meditation. Again, before diving into this I should mention I am no expert on the subject, so you can read more about this here .In any case, the hike was definitely the closest I’ve ever been to experiencing the “spiritual world”. The enormous graveyard seemed to have become part of the surrounding forest, sort of signifying the spiritual and physical worlds had become one. I really can’t describe how amazing this walk was. Despite there being plenty of other travellers around, I felt I was still immersed in the natural world. One highlight for me was discovering the grave of Oda Nobunaga, one of Japans more notorious historical figures. I actually had no idea he was buried here prior to the visit and only stumbled upon it by accident via a very small and inconspicuous arrow sign.

Upon reaching the end of the hike, I came upon the bridge leading to Kukai’s (Kobo Daishi’s) mausoleum. Apparently, this bridge is the final path into the spiritual world. However, if I am honest with myself, I think this is where things became a bit touristy as there were tons of people all gathered into various large groups. That being said, I could still feel the immense significance of the temple and was very excited to just be there.

All in all, Koya-san was an unforgettable experience. I am not a particularly spiritual person, and yet here I was able to feel something more than just the physical world around me. Maybe it was the history of the town, or maybe it was the sort of unified disposition of everyone there. Whatever it was, it definitely left a very deep impression on me and I look forward to making a second journey there when my Japanese is better than it is today.

Taiyoji Temple

Image of Main Taiyoji Temple

Taiyoji is a Zen Buddhist temple built during the Edo period atop the mountainous region of Chichibu Saitama. Originally serving as a Shukubo (temple lodging) for pilgrims passing by, the Temple now serves anyone wanting an escape from the stresses of their busy lives. Visitors can spend a night or two at this Temple stay, where Asami-san, the temple’s Monk and sole caretaker, will share some of the more fascinating elements of Zen Buddhism.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Taiyoji is that it has stood the test of time. Unlike most Temples in Japan, it has never had to undergo restoration and stands as it was built in the 1700’s. As a result, being on temple grounds is almost like stepping into a world outside of time.

The stay will cost 9000 yen/night and includes breakfast and dinner. If you are willing to volunteer, you can stay additional nights at a discounted rate, including meals. For more information, check out the temples English website below:

Getting There

The nearest station to Taiyoji Temple is Mitsumineguchi station. From here, there are two options available to you. First, you can arrange for Asami-san to pick you up (arranged during the reservation process). Or you can catch a bus to the Taiyoji Entrance stop. The temple is roughly a 2-hour walk from here, part of which is a historical Edo trail marked throughout by stone Buddhist statues.

For more detailed directions, see the temples access page:

The Temple Grounds

As I’ve already said, Taiyoji has stood the test of time. Built in the 1700’s, the temple has never undergone reconstruction. The reason this is a big deal is that nearly every other temple in Japan has sustained some type of serious damage via fire, weather, natural disaster or what have you. So it’s actually pretty difficult to find a temple which doesn’t have a sleek new look. My immediate impression of Taiyoji’s main temple when was akin to the gate from the film Rashomon .

Not all of Taiyoji is as old as the main temple, however. The temple grounds actually has a zendo, or meditation hall, for zazen meditation. It’s here where I practiced zazen with Asami-san and company, as well as on my own throughout the excursion. I’d have to say this particular part of the grounds is my favorite of the bunch. The reason for this being, the zendo‘s outer walls are lined with large windows, in front of which you can sit upon padded blocks for meditation. These windows overlook the edge of the mountainside that Taiyoji resides on.

In addition to the two temples, there is another smaller shrine as well as a more modern building which was under construction when I was there. These two I didn’t really spend much time checking out. I did, however, utilize an outdoor bath which Asami-san built himself. The bath is actually an onsen, or hot spring, and it too rests at the edge of the mountain so to speak. Surrounded by trees rising from the edge of the mountainside, you can’t help but feel completely vulnerable in it.

The Itinerary

My stay at Taiyoji actually lasted two days. The first day I spent volunteering and the second as a guest. As a volunteer, I basically helped to clean the temple and prepare meals. While I spent a good amount of time helping out, there was actually plenty of free time, and despite being a volunteer Asami-san insisted I make time to explore the temple grounds. At the time, I had been practicing zazen in Tokyo for about 6 months, so I ended up spending a great deal of that time meditating on my own in the zazen temple.

Day 2 consisted of several activities spread throughout the day. But before any of them, I was advised to wake up super early to catch the sunrise and enjoy a morning hike. Considering the first event was to happen at around 6:30, this meant getting up way earlier than I am used to. Luckily, it was well worth the lost sleep. The tranquility of nature turned out to be the perfect way to begin before jumping into the day.

Morning Chanting

The first activity in the line-up was an early-morning chanting of a Buddhist sutra. Each participant was given a sheet of Japanese text to read aloud from, and the chanting was led by Asami-san, who’s voice guided us throughout the session. I was relieved to find that the kanji in the sutra was accompanied by its matching hiragana, making it possible for me to chant along. (I’m not sure, but I believe you can request romaji (Roman characters).) The chanting lasted for about 15-20 minutes before we moved into the next activity.

Zazen Meditation

After our morning chant, we were led to the zazen meditation hall. Here, we were given the choice of meditating in the innermost section of the hall, or along the outermost section, in front of one of the numerous large windows. Because I had done my fair share of meditating in the outermost section, I chose to be inside with Asami-san.

The session, which lasted for roughly 50 minutes, was broken into two segments with a few minutes in between to give our legs a rest. While meditating, as Asami-san explained before we began, we were given the option to be struck with a bamboo stick in order to help us regain focus. This practice is actually very traditional amongst zazen monks, and in some temples is even considered an honor. In any case, if we wanted to request a strike, all we had to do was look up during our meditation session. The strikes were firm, but did not hurt very much and actually help me regain my concentration.

Breakfast

The breakfast, like every other meal in Taiyoji, consisted of traditional vegetarian dishes that monks typically eat. I actually helped Asami-san and another volunteer prepare meals for all of the guests and ourselves, which was really quite fun and gave me the opportunity to learn a bit more about him and his very interesting story (I’ll leave that for you to discover when you meet him for yourself).

Sermon

After breakfast there was a small break followed by a roughly 30-minute Buddhist sermon. We gathered in one of the rooms of the temple and listed to Asami’s chanting once more, only this time we weren’t chanting along, and could take in all of what was being said.

Break and Lunch

At this point in the day, we had done quite a bit and it wasn’t even noon yet. So it was great to hear we would have the rest of the day free to spend as we please until later in the evening. I took this opportunity to get some rest and sneak in a nap. Afterward, I spent some time playing with Asami-sans dogs, his only companions in the mountains, and taking a small hike.

Upon arriving back to the main temple, I found lunch had already been prepared. It was smaller than breakfast and dinner but still very filling.

Sutra Copying

Shortly after finishing lunch, the group I had done the morning rituals with and I were ready for sutra copying. It seemed Asami was quite flexible with the timing on this, so we actually started earlier than planned. We were all led to a room with a large table and given a quick explanation on how to copy sutra. After that, we were given supplies and told we could choose any location in the temple to do the copying. I decided to do it atop one of the benches in front of the temple. The sutra copying lasted for about an hour and when we finished we were told we could spend time freely until the evening chant and dinner.

Evening Chant and Dinner

Finally, to wind down the day we met again for sutra chanting, which was exactly like the morning rendition, after which we had another delicious vegetarian meal. The dinner was particularly fun as we all spent some time getting to know one another. And at some point, someone broke out sake, and we ended up having a very lively evening until we were all ready to get to bed.

The next morning was a repeat of the previous, but it all felt just as fresh as the first day. And by the time the second round of mediation and chanting had finished, I felt completely refreshed. I had definitely forgotten about my life back in Tokyo and was actually a bit sad to be going. Taiyoji was an incredible experience, and honestly, one of the most memorable I’ve ever had in Japan. If ever you are looking for a unique thing to do, I highly recommend visiting Asami-san and his amazing temple in the mountains.

Odaiba, Tokyo

Skyline of Odaiba City

Odaiba is a human-made island located in Tokyo Bay. Since its inception, it has served a number of purposes, but today is a center for leisure and commerce. The city is fairly compact and grid-like, so is very easy to navigate and all of the various places of interest can be reached on foot or via bus. Some of the highlights include Odaiba’s Marine Park, an artificial beach where various events take place throughout the year; numerous shopping plaza’s; Miraikan, a museum showcasing the future of technology in various sectors; and Oedo Onsen Monogatari, an Edo-themed bathhouse.

For more information about Odaiba, check out the links below:

Getting There

There are actually a three trains leading into Odaiba. These include the:

  • Yurikamome Line
  • Rinkai Line
  • Tokyo Monorail

In a addition to the trains, there are also several busses including shuttle services leading from both Tokyo airports. The Narita shuttle takes about an hour, while the Haneda shuttle takes roughly 15 minutes.

If scenic routes are your thing and you are up for a nice leisurely stroll, visitors have the option of walking across the world-famous Rainbow Bridge. To get to the bridge, you’ll need to walk to its base from Tamachi station (about 10 minutes), then take an elevator up to the main walking path. From here, it’s a pretty much linear path, so you can take your time and enjoy the weather/view. One thing to note for cyclists: you can brink your bike, however, you will have to walk it while on the actual bridge. If you don’t mind this minor hassle, bringing a bike makes traversing Odaiba incredibly easy and, in my opinion, is the best way to go.

For more detailed directions, see the link below:

Odaiba Marine Park

The first thing you’re most likely to see upon arriving into the human-made island is Odaiba Marine Park, an artificial beach running about 800 meters long. The beach is an excellent place for an afternoon walk. There are also open volleyball areas and shops where you can rent windsurfing gear. Also, walking to the other end of the park reveals Tokyo’s very own statue of liberty as well as some pretty gorgeous views of Rainbow Bridge (especially pretty at night time).

In the summer, the Marine Park often hosts volleyball competitions or other interesting events. So be sure to check the event schedule  before planning your trip to see what’s going on.

Shopping

If you enjoy shopping, then it’s very hard not to love Odaiba. With tons of shopping areas scattered about, there certainly isn’t a shortage of stores to peruse. I’ve been to Odaiba more than a handful of times, and I still haven’t seen all of the stores there are to see. Below are a few shopping centers I especially enjoy.

Diver City Plaza

Aside from the standard shopping mall and food court, Diver City is perhaps most famous for its giant Gundam  statue standing at the entrance of the mall. If you’re lucky, the Gundam even sometimes lights up at night, presenting a very cool photo op. Fans of the series will also be excited to know there is a Gundam gift shop nearby which sells collectables from the series.

In addition to the Gundam, if you’re a fan of Mexican food and skateboarding, there is a Mexican restaurant on the 7th floor, which also hosts a pretty impressive rooftop skate park!

Aqua City Odaiba

Aqua City is another large multi-story shopping complex. Aside from the shopping, Aqua City also houses a 13-screen theater and an entire section dedicated to different types of ramen that can be found in the various prefectures of Japan. There is also a pretty cool deck area with lots of great views of Tokyo and Rainbow Bridge, so it’s definitely worth spending some leisure time just walking around.

Venus Fort

This 18th-century Europe-themed shopping complex is located in Odaiba’s Palette Town and probably takes the cake for the number of stores. You could easily spend your entire day shopping in Venus Fort, stopping for lunch and dinner at the numerous cafes or restaurants.

Miraikan

Miraikan, also known as the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, is one of my favorite museums in Tokyo. The Museum showcases cutting-edge technology used to solve various problems in different sectors of society; from issues in environment and sustainability to solutions in space exploration. There’s even a Robot show starring ASIMO, a humanoid robot created by Honda. The museum will cost 620 yen for adults or roughly 200-ish yen for children. There are also often special exhibits which will cost a bit more than the standard rate.

For more details about Miraikan, see the links below:

I should note that Miraikan is not the only museum in Odaiba, there is also the Museum of Maritime Science which I have never visited. But if you are a maritime kind of person, it’s probably worth checking out.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Oedo Onsen is an Edo-style onsen (hot spring) theme park. The theme park is actually a chain with the next nearest location being in Chiba. The entrance fee ranges from 2,000 yen to 2,800 yen, but there are offer discount coupons posted on their website or via their mailing list offering much lower rates.

Upon checking in to the facility, you will be given a wrist magnet with which to make all of your purchases on premises, then asked to choose a yukata of your liking. After this, you will be directed to the changing areas to lock up all of your belongings aside from anything you might need throughout the day. Once you are all changed and your things are safely stored, you are free to enter the theme-park area. No money is necessary as everything is tracked via your wrist magnet. I thought this made the experience much more care-free, removing the added stress of carrying cash everywhere you go.

The first part of the theme park you will see is a large open area where sweet shops and game stalls have been set up. In the middle of all of this stands an enormous Edo-style tower, giving the whole room a sort of old-time Japanese market feel. Connected to this room is a large cafeteria where visitors can purchase from a variety of Japanese restaurants. There are cafeteria style seats available, or if you plan to take a fair amount of time eating, there is also a large open room lined with low Japanese style tables and floor cushions, perfect for taking a quick nap if you’re a bit tuckered out from your day.

Aside from these public spaces, there are of course hot spring areas, divided into two sections: one form men and one for women. The onsen areas consist of various bath types, each featuring a different mineral, style of jet, or temperature. There is also a cold bath in which you are supposed to dip between hot baths to improve your blood circulation. Be sure not to miss the sauna or outdoor bath area to change the pace up between baths.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, there is also a massage area where you can pay for a professional massage,
or sit in a high-end massage chair. The chairs are placed in a very large open room which is designated for quiet, so anyone utilizing them can relax and nap peacefully.

Finally, if you need some fresh air, there is also an outdoor unisex foot bath. You can walk along the stone floor of the bath, which is quite painful at first, but actually makes your feet feel fantastic afterwards. Or you can simply walk along the paved path and enjoy the scenery.

You can find more information, and make reservations, below:

Events

Perhaps my favorite thing about Odaiba is that there always seems to be some sort of event going on. And considering Tokyo Big Site, Japan’s largest convention center, is located here, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise. Below are a few events that I have personally been to and very much enjoyed.

Car Shows

The Toyota Mega Web, a large showroom, often hosts car shows featuring the latest and greatest in the car industry. (I’m not a car person, but it’s still always really cool to see what they’ve got.) And when there are no shows going on, guests can test drive cars (assuming you have a Japanese Driver’s License of course) or check out the car museum on location.

Beer Festival

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Beer manufacturers from all over Japan (and outside of Japan) come to showcase their beer. There are usually lots of food stalls and live bands playing throughout the day.

Meat Festival

This is pretty much the same kind of experience, only with more meat options. Honestly, all of these kinds of festivals seem the same to me, however, I can say I almost always have a great time when I go.

Volleyball Tournaments

These tournaments are held at the Marine Park and usually run for a week. The scene is always very lively and the competitions are quite fierce. It’s super fun to find a seat and just enjoy the show. And if you are more of an active type, there are open exhibition games going on throughout the day.

Concerts

Finally, from time to time, a Japanese artist will have a live show either outdoors or in Big Site. I actually don’t listen many Japanese musicians, however, whenever I’m in the area, I like to stop in if the event is free and I have some downtime. (One strange memory I have is seeing a teen girl-band playing in an outdoor festival and getting a bit uncomfortable when I noticed how many avid fans were older men that were not with families.)

For a list of upcoming events, see the Tokyo Odaiba events page below:

Odaiba has so much to offer. In this article, I’ve covered everything I particularly enjoy about the human-made island, however, there is so much more which I have yet to discover. For one thing, I have yet to ride the infamous ferris wheel! (I know right.) This place seems to always be changing, and always offers up something new and exciting. If you live in Tokyo, I’d say Odaiba is more than worth the trip. In fact, I’d say its worth planning visits every few months as your experience is sure to be different each time.

Long Time Coming

Me at the top of Mount Fuji during sunrise

Finally, after 3.5 years of living in Japan, I have decided to launch ExplorerNippon. I had always sort of envisioned what ExplorerNippon would be, but for so long it took a backseat to other projects I deemed more important. Well after over 3 years and plenty of experiences, I decided to dig down and get it done.

So here it is. My vague concept of a travel blog made real. So what is it? To be honest, I’m not sure exactly. I mean, I know what I will be sharing, and I have a rough idea of what I want it to look like in the future, but I can’t say for certain what it is in its current state.

What I do know is, I love Japan and I have a ton of experience living life here. A bunch of things I just want to share with the world to make life easier for anyone who is uncertain about life in Japan. So I intend to share the following:

  • My travel experiences
  • Things I have found difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis
  • Things I find astonishing about Japan
  • Other Miscellaneous things I am passionate about
  • Probably web development things

I have a bunch to say about a bunch of things so I’m really excited to begin sharing. While I’m sure ExplorerNippon will evolve over time, I hope one thing will be consistent. And that is the wonder I always seem to have about life here in Japan.