Sofia Levin discovers tradition and tranquility in rural Japan

Lush rice paddies morphed into a thick forest of bamboo and cedar trees as our train climbed steeper. Plants clung desperately to the side of the mountain and small waterfalls trickled down every crevice. At the end of the line, a funicular heaved us up the steepest part of Mount Koya, 800 metres above sea level. At the peak, a bus was waiting to take us to Koyasan, a monastic centre and world heritage site that is the heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Here visitors can choose to stay in shukubo accommodation – a guesthouse or ryokan situated within the temple grounds – and we finally arrived at ours, Shojoshin-in.

The intense perfume of cedar wood filled our nostrils as we slide open the door to our self-contained accommodation. Four rooms bordered by a hallway were separated by golden fusuma, sliding doors decorated in ornate Japanese images. Futons were laid out in each room except one: a tearoom complete with a tea set, red bean mochis (rice cakes) and an incongruous television. We pulled back the paper shoji screens to let in the last of the light and were met with a beautifully manicured Japanese garden.

With an hour to explore, we walked two minutes to Okunoin Cemetery, which dates back to the seventh century. Over 200,000 stone obelisks, wooden stakes and tiered memorials recede into the forest. Moss blanketed the ground and fungus clutches to bark. Every surface was moist and, ironically, sprouting with life. The scene was reminiscent of something out of Miyazaki’s mystical films.

All photos by Sofia Levin

Before dinner, we washed and soaked in the traditional pinewood bath before wrapping up in our yukata robes. We slipped on our geta, which quite possibly translates to ‘awfully uncomfortable Japanese clogs’ and tottered to the main building for supper. A gracious monk slid open the fusama. There, on the tatami mats were five cushion seats, each placed before three raised lacquered meal trays displaying a selection of small dishes. It was an authentic shojin ryori, a vegan meal appropriated from China and based on the five elements of Buddhism.

Every plate is different from the next: dishes of pickles and rice complement a basket of vegetable tempura; a square of silken tofu the consistency of crème caramel swims in a puddle of soy; supple pumpkin and oversized shitake mushrooms sit alongside shredded daikon pickled in vinegar. Sweet boiled black beans and a ginger broth with chewy glutinous rice dumplings kept our taste buds on their toes, as did the many other Japanese delights. We washed down our remarkable dinner with green tea, and were in bed by 9pm.

Our iPhone alarm provided a harsh contrast to the peaceful silence of Koyasan at 5.30am the next morning. We made our way to the main temple to take part in otsutome, a Buddhist prayer ceremony. Four monks were already kneeling on the floor, sitting perfectly still for 40 minutes in their flowing black robes and purple silk sashes, moving only to gently clash symbols or turn a page in their prayer books. As they harmonised and chanted Buddhist sutras, we couldn’t help but sway in time.

Ryokans are synonymous with tranquility and tradition. While lodging with the monks is certainly an experience, we stayed in two other ryokans during our trip. The first, Ryoso Kawaguchi, is located in Miyajima, an island south of Hiroshima known for its iconic floating torii gate and domesticated deer. The other, Yama No Chaya, is situated in Hakone, a mountain resort about an hour from Tokyo boasting verdant hills and bubbling rapids that breathe life into the surrounding flora. Both served outstanding kaiseki banquets but Yama No Chaya also offered a stunning onsen experience of an open-air bath fed by a natural hot spring.

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