A traveler experiences the tension between ancient and modern Japan as she winds through hypnotic cities and a temple-topped mountain in this story, the first of a two-part Japan series.
Ask many people what aspect of Japan first interested them and, along with food and anime, they’ll often reach for that old travel cliché, the juxtaposition between old and new. In few countries is the tension between ancient tradition and high-tech modernity so dramatic.
This contrast was made manifest over a single weekend when I journeyed between Osaka city and the misty mountain monasteries of Koya-san.
Osaka, Japan’s second largest metropolitan area, is an industrial port city that, post-World War II, literally rose from the ashes bigger and bolder than before. Brasher, cruder, and less conservative than Tokyo, it has the characteristics of a mouthy younger sibling.
I arrive in Osaka on a Friday evening. I’m staying in the heart of Amerika-mura, a frenetically vibrant area of vintage clothing stores, record shops, tattoo parlours, street-art, hammock cafes, and bubble-tea stalls. A concrete intersection called Triangle Park throngs with drinkers and people-watchers, and every surface that stays still long enough has been papered with fliers for club-nights and live music. In the centre of the crowd, a young girl-band dressed in Gothic Lolita mini-dresses and studded platform boots gyrate mechanically and sing plastic-doll voices into microphones.
I wander up to Dotonbori and find that the rest of humanity already beat me to it. High-rise buildings lining the canal are a futuristic kaleidoscope of illuminated signs. Smoke bellows from hole-in-the-wall cafés, chefs flipping and stirring the hearty, cheap and delicious street-food the city specializes in. “Eat until you drop” is less the city’s unofficial slogan than a statement of fact.
The night is hot and, with humidity pushing 100 percent, everyone wears a thin sheen of sweat on their faces. Women hold up portable battery-powered fans, and men intermittently mop their brows with pocket-towels.
I’ve always loved walking around a strange city by myself, the feeling of being an anonymous ghost at the intersection of so many lives. I buy a beer from a convenience store and drink it standing on a bridge overlooking the river, the Glico running-man flashing before me, reflected in my neon-blasted eyeballs. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made the right life decisions. Should I have settled into a sensible job and a mortgage and school-runs instead? Standing on this bridge now, I give mental thanks for the freedom and the choices that allow me to see all this.
To escape the crowds, I duck down a narrow, lantern-lit alleyway, and the noise falls away. Within a moss-covered shrine, monks perform some kind of fire ceremony. Bent-over old men, dressed in white robes with crab-apple faces, proceed up the lane clinking bells and blowing horns that sound like they resonate from deep within the earth. I try to follow them, but they disappear into the multitude.
I search out a cocktail bar via a hidden doorway, the location provided by word-of-mouth, and nurse an Old-Fashioned before stopping for late night takoyaki (fried octopus dumplings), which I eat perched on an upturned beer crate on the pavement.
I wake early the next morning and slip out of the hostel. I sit in Triangle Park in the grey dawn, a ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland of discarded bottles, beer cans, and food wrappers. A couple of dread-locked Japanese guys in surf shorts and flip-flops stand around a fire hydrant, smoking, and they nod at me as though we both know something. In just a few hours I’ll be meeting a friend and moving a world away to Koya-san.
Koya-san was established in 816 by the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, as a mountain retreat from worldly affairs. Today it forms the temple settlement and ecclesiastical headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.
Mount Koya is accessed by cable-car with views of the vertiginous valley. The air smells of pine and is several degrees cooler than on the plains. We’re staying overnight in one of the many monasteries that welcomes visitors in exchange for those sweet tourist dollars. We pause just long enough to drop-off our bags and sip some complementary green tea before heading out to Kongobu-ji.
Kongobu-ji is a perfect haiku of a temple, simple and austerely beautiful, everything exactly where it should be. Tatami-mat rooms are framed with exquisite silk-screen doors painted with willow-leaves, cherry-blossoms, and waterlilies. In the open-plan kitchens, a young monk picks green-tea leaves. A grandfather clock from the 1930s is stuck forever at five minutes to eight.
We wander through rock gardens raked into perfect, symmetrical circles, surrounded by trees of many shades of green. Tall umbrella pines, cypress, and maple press in on each other. I imagine the wistful beauty of the autumn leaves turning and can almost hear flute music.
I’m momentarily lost in my daydream of Old Japan (How simple! How unencumbered by tiresome modernity!) when behind us I notice three monks wheeling a giant flat-screen TV through the halls for their undisclosed entertainment purposes.
We take dinner in our monastery, seated cross-legged around a tatami-mat room. It’s presented beautifully in tiny dishes on lacquer-work trays, but I cannot ignore that there’s a lot of tofu. In Japan, there have been many foods I have unexpectedly loved, so fresh and well-seasoned were they: Raw chicken, horse, sashimi.
But I have never and will never like tofu.
My friend tells me it’s considered offensive not to eat everything you’re served. I sigh and start to make queasy inroads into the spread. I’ve choked down half of the slimy, tasteless tofu before they admit they made up that rule.
We walk to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum as night is falling, following a two-kilometre path through a vast cemetery that sits within a forest of ancient cedars. Stone-lanterns light the path, moss-covered tombstones retreat into the shadows on either side, and tall trees with faces mouth mournful “O’s.” Clear, plastic umbrellas protect us from light showers as we walk past stone deities dressed in red-bibs and caps, their features weathered away. The silence of the trees weighs tangibly on the forest. We come to a bridge of Jizo statues, presiding over troughs of river-water to be ladled as offerings to the dead.
At the top of the hill, we reach a grand temple lit by thousands of lamps, the resting place of Kobo Daishi. His followers believe him not to have died but merely to have entered a state of meditation until the return of the future Buddha. Everything is made of mellowed wood and covered in moss, looking not like an artificial imposition on nature but rather that it all formed itself within the landscape. A pilgrim clutching prayer-beads prays, deep in concentration. All I can hear are their murmurs and the steady drip of water.
On the way home we wander into the Garan temple, a 50m tall, bright orange pagoda illuminated in the dark. It’s surprisingly noisy and delightfully spooky. The wind rises, insects hum, frogs croak, the buildings creak and moan.
Back at the monastery I roll out my futon and slide open my shoji windows overlooking the street. A teapot sits on the kotatsu. Green-tea leaves are pooled in the bottom of ceramic cups. Rain starts to fall heavily just as I lay my head down.
I wake up to high winds in the maple trees, water running in the gutters, and the gong calling monks to morning prayer.
We rub pinches of incense into the palms of our hands and sit observing their prayers. The altar is dark, lacquered wood. Candles and firelight reflect off gold statues and the chandelier of bells that hangs down to head-height. Monks in saffron robes chant, rising and kneeling in rhythm, reminding me of a holy game of whack-a-mole. A monk tends the crackling fire.
I just researched the fire ceremony. It’s called the “Goma Ritual of Consecrated Fire, for cleansing oneself of negative energies and detrimental desires.”
Thank you, Wikipedia.
The journey home is long, and we’re eager to set off promptly. When we arrive at the cable-car station and are told the next car down the mountain leaves in one minute, fate seems to be on our side. We run with our bags through the station and throw ourselves down on our seats with relieved sighs. We sit and wait.
More people arrive.
We practice cleansing ourselves of the detrimental desire to get somewhere.
Share Your Travel Story
Thank you for reading this story on Intrepid Times, the online home for narrative travel writing with heart. If you’re looking to become a travel writer, check out our free guides, The Rejection Report and the Travel Writing Checklist.