So with a budding Buddhist in the fold, we thought why not spend a night with the chaps at a temple? Hence the Beers are taking a slow, twisty train up a misty mountain. When we are deep in the forest and high in the clouds, we alight and re-board a cable car. (Europeans call them funiculars.) 5 minutes later we are getting on a bus and a few minutes after that are mildly white knuckled as the driver navigates the tortuously twisty road to temple town: Koyasan. 1,200 years ago a Buddhist thought it’d be a splendid spot for a monastic jaunt. Still drawing in the crowds today.
The short bus journey gives us all flashbacks to Tamil Nadu in 2012, only without risk of soiling ourselves through terror. Better driver, better bus, better road-sense here.
Presently we arrive at our lodgings, the delightfully named Hoon Inn (Or is it Hoo In? Never quite found out, the website being in Japanese.) We are greeted by a enthusiastic young monk who shows us thoroughly, considerately and carefully to our room. There is much etiquette to observe. Shoes outside, where the loos are, bath times, food serving times, what to wear and when. We listen with serious, bordering on pious, intent which crumbles just a little when he offers us the WiFi code.
In a flash we are relaxing in our Yukuta whilst the rain pelts down outside. We are snug behind sliding framed paper doors on our cushions, futons and tatami. We all try to ignore the fact that we’re sleeping in one room. Together. On the floor. Heigh ho. “It’ll be like camping!” No response was the stern reply.
Soon the boy and I are bobbing in the communal bath down the hall at his suggestion. At 13 he’s not usually keen to clean, so I seize the day ensuring he gets a thorough scrubbing. At six sharp we are in a large tatami-and-screen dining hall – where they filmed Neo/Morpheous training fight scene in the Matrix* – with 20+ other guests for a vegan slap-up-tea fit for a monk.
It’s an experience alright. Although I sense the pains in my legs will last more than my memory of the tastes of various pickled things. (Furtive glances show that all of us soft westerners cannot sit on the floor for more than a minute or three without fidgeting. Sitting zazen is indeed a meditation in itself.) Actually the food included some things I have never eaten and will never eat again. Great fun. We turned down beer & sake – at extra cost – but it didn’t seem to stop anyone else necking the booze. Yay Buddhism! A religion without too much piety.
[Considering we are up a Japanese holy mountain, you’d imagine that eating-what-yer-given because this is a temple, not a Holiday Inn would be correct operating procedure? Ohhhh no. This doesn’t stop the Shermans’ next to us noisily enquiring about gluten, radiation, toenail clippings and cod sperm. Every other nationality just cracks on with it in the spirit of the gig. Well done the young Beers for having a crack at the tucker: some of it was pretty out-there.]
Did I mention our garb? We took to the Yukuta en masse and – am pleased to report – the Beers rocked it.
Fast forward to 06.00 following a cosy night. (Well, I slept.) We are invited to join the morning service. It’s a sleepy, hazy mix of incense, low rhytmic zazen chanting, gongs, chimes and memories that will reverberate for many a moon. Whilst I won’t claim the word spiritual, I would venture meditative in a calming, enveloping way.
Add in a deckchair, maybe a beanbag and it’d be perfect.
When the music stops, a senior monk stands, thanks us in English for coming along and invites us to breakfast.
They’d run out of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.
Whilst it’s a basic hostelry in many ways, it’s not a hostelesque experience for the wallet. A night at the monks gaff, including return transport and such was a £400 thing pretty much.
Totally worth it. Just look at the temples nearby, best seen in peaceful, atmospheric early misty morning seclusion nestling amongst magnificent trees. Low gonging bells and monastic chants floating through the woods.
Next stop Kobe.
*Not true. But for those who’ve seen the film it’s a good visual prompt.