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.