Koyasan, Japan

During the past fortnight the world has been watching the distressing images of Japan’s triple calamities – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.  For my wife and I, the pictures of the devastated towns of northern Honshu have brought back vivid memories of our own terrifying experience of the 1995 Kobe earthquake where we were living at the time. I have some idea of what Japan is going through at the moment.

I would really like to help but the Japanese are not very good at accepting charity, particularly from foreigners, and anyway the Japanese Government will no doubt give generous support, albeit by increasing their already huge national debt. We received 100,000 Yen from the Kobe local government to offset some of our losses and we were luckier than many because at least we had insurance – it is very difficult to get earthquake insurance in Japan and policies will normally have a modest cap.

If you would like to help Japan the best way in my opinion is if we all take holidays in Japan this year. This will boost their morale and finances. Don’t go right now of course, the mood of the Japanese is not appropriate to receive tourists. But go after six months or so  by which time, if Kobe is anything to go by, the world will be amazed at the progress the Japanese will have made in repairing roads, railways and ports, reconnecting utilities, clearing the rubble and providing temporary housing for the displaced.  Rebuilding shattered lives though will take longer.

I can recommend visiting Koyasan, a small town set in forested hills in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka (well away from nuclear radiation if that is a concern). Koyasan (Mount Koya) is a pilgrimage site for the Shingon sect of Buddhism which is followed by ten percent of the Japanese population. The area has a special atmosphere with misty cedar-lined paths, enchanted woods, temples, pagodas and rock gardens. It is not so well known to foreign travellers but perhaps here you will experience the true essence of Japan more readily than in touristy places like Kyoto or Nara.  There are over a hundred monasteries, many of which take paying guests. Do not think of a spartan monk’s cell. These temple lodgings (shukubo) offer the same sort of luxurious accommodation and lavish meals as those found in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan), with prices to match. The only difference is that the food is vegetarian (you will like it – no boring nut cutlets here) and you might be invited to observe the monks chanting their morning prayers, if you wish.

The journey to Koyasan is itself memorable. After taking a train from Osaka, you switch to a cable railway (like the Peak tram in Hong Kong) where the weight of the ascending car is counterbalanced by the descending car. Alternatively, if you have the energy, you could take the traditional pilgrimage trail, the Koyasan Choishi Michi, a 23km trail which would take seven hours or so. Shorter trails are also possible. I would have liked to have tried the trail but on my visit it was snowing so I took the train. Next time perhaps.

Unfortunately my photos of the visit are rubbish – I blame it on the weather. This photo is from Japan-guide .com’s website and  I think it captures the atmosphere of the place which left a lasting impression on me.

Go during November to enjoy the beautiful colours of the autumn  leaves .

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