Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Waka Wakayama

The second long weekend in a row I had fell on a Friday to Sunday, Sept 23 - 25th. I was planning on going to Kagoshima because it's Miami's sister city and also because of an amazing ancient cedar forest that is there, but after an expensive weekend in Nagoya, it wasn't seeming likely.

I toyed with the idea of Wakayama all week but by Friday I still hadn't made any definite plans. But at 10am Friday morning, I just decided -let's do it. So with nothing but my iPhone, we navigated our way, booked a hotel, and decided the attractions to visit.
I'm not too proud to admit that I would be lost without my godphone. lol.

On top of Wakayama Castle: Osaka Bay & some of the Kumano Mountains 
Wakayama is the name of both the prefecture and its' capital city. Wakayama prefecture is huge so we stuck to the most famous attractions. On Friday when we arrived in Wakayama city, we walked to our 'Best Western' hotel. If there's something I'm learning in Japan, it's to stick with the hotel chains you know. This time the bed actually sunk a bit when you sat in it allowing for some measure of comfort. It was small, clean, comfortable and all for 3,000en per person per night. We dropped off our bag and headed out to Wakayama Castle. Yes, another castle. They really do start to all look alike - just like the cathedrals in Europe - but you eventually start to notice their unique aspects. This time, the view  from the top was spectacular. Instead of just endless city, Wakayama city has Osaka Bay to one side and the sacred mountains of the Kumano Pilgrimage on the other. By the way, over the week, the weather changed to be less humid and more like fall, so walking through the gardens on our way up to the castle was also a delight. We then wandered aimlessly around the city in search of food. We found another Coco Ichibans! This one was even better though cause they had garlic bits as a topping option. I of course went over board with the toppings, but what can I say? I always like things in excess. Luis was keen to do some karaoke, but I couldn't fathom karaoke with only two people. It seemed depressing if we weren't drunk enough. Either way, I knew we would have an early morning, so we just turned in.

The next day we headed out to Koyasan, also known as Mount Koya, one of Japan's three most sacred mountains and a World Heritage Site. We consulted the godphone but the route had us going more than half the way home back to Osaka, just to come back down through another rail line to Koyasan station. This was ludicrous to us, so we asked the front desk and were completely perplexed when they told us the same thing. There was a charter bus that left from a nearby hotel, but we would have had to have booked it 24 hours in advanced. Whoops.. so off we went to Osaka to then just come back down via the Koyasan railway. It took two hours in total before we arrived in front of a cable car that would take us straight up the mountain. As a side note, I was baffled by how an efficient country like Japan didn't have an easier way to get to Koyasan and sure enough I found a more direct route later which we used to get home that night. Both the phone and front desk had given us the most direct route to Koysan but not fastest. Blargh.

From the top looking down. @_@
Anyway, the cable car was unlike anything I had ridden before. I had done mountain rope ways before, but those were cars that could fit maybe 10-12 people at most and were, well, on a rope. This was a huge train car that had been fashioned to travel at what had to be a 75 degree angle. The stairs going up the car were already angled. This was so dizzying that it made my head hurt. Imagine being in a regular train car in Japan, but then the car is suddenly on its' two back wheels and there are stairs to get from the front to the back. Dizzy yet? I am just remembering it, so moving on. The ride was about 10 minutes and had lush forest on either side. As I had anticipated, once we reached the top and got out, it was much colder than on the ground. Colder, but like walking around outside with air conditioner, so perfect. Koyasan was different than I had imagined. I thought it was meant to be a hike on this mountain to one famous temple. Instead it was a cluster of temples with local establishments dotted along the way. It was amazing. We visited the two most famous temples of the area, Okunoin, which houses the founder of Shingon Buddhism (Kobo Daishi Kukai), and the Grand Stupa he had built. My favorite part of the whole trip was the path up to Okunoin. It was a path lined with towering cedar trees and over 2,000 ancient graves of all shapes, sizes, and significance. I had read somewhere before my trip that this forest was the inspiration for the forests and creatures in the Miyazaki film, 'Princess Mononoke.' The beauty and presence that this place help was breathtaking - truly worthy of being a World Heritage Site.

Okunoin. One of my new favorite places in Japan. 
View from the Top
The next day, we knew we had to head home, but I had seen an interesting looking temple on a travel brochure that seemed to promise a waterfall for my viewing pleasure. A few inquiries later and we were on our way to Inunakisan-Shipporyuji Temple. What I wasn't expecting when we got there was a hike up the mountain to get to said temple. I had been wearing my hiking shoes all weekend so this was no hurdle, just a welcome detour. It took us about two hours of climbing. Along the way, we were following a river that would have little rapids and waterfalls of its own. I was also absolutely fascinated by all of the over grown foliage covering the graves, torii, and diety statues we saw along the way. The grand finale was a thirty foot waterfall framed by a brilliant red bridge. We took pictures and just gazed in awe at the nature around us.
How long has he been here? 
I've always loved the atmosphere one can find in Japan. It's unlike any other place that I've been. Whenever I find myself in a shrine or temple, there is noticeable stillness and quiet that brings peace to my usually restless mind. These first couple of months living in Japan had not been such a smooth transition, but this trip reminded me of why I waited so long and worked so hard to get here.

A Tranquil Moment

On the way home we stopped in Osaka for dinner and little known to me, the best, most serendipitous act since I've been in Japan was yet to come...

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