Thursday, 29 December 2011

A night on Koya-san

Our destination was Koya-san, some 50km south of Osaka, one of Japan’s holiest mountains.  The town itself is in a high, ceder-filled valley near the top of the mountain, 800m above sea level.  This group of temples among the clouds is a complete contrast to the futuristic sensory overload of modern Japan city life.

We took the train from Osaka’s Namba Station to Gokurakubashi Station (journey time around 1 ½ hours), and then a cable car to Koya-san Station (5 minutes).

We admired the views as the cable car started its slow ascent up the mountain.  As I was taking pictures, there was someone else doing the same – Hori-san.  A well travelled Japanese resident, this was his first time to Koya-san as well.  Good natured and very friendly, we were privileged to have him join us for this part of our journey, we made a good friend and we’re still in contact.

At the top of the cable-car station we took the 5 minute bus ride along the winding road through cool, dark cryptomeria forests to Shojoshin-in, our temple lodging for the night. 

On arrival we were greeted by a monk.  We exchanged our shoes for sandals and after wiping our luggage over with a cloth, our monk showed us to our room and explained the meal and bath times. He warned us of the incoming typhoon.  We had seen pictures the previous day on television.  The weather had been windy in Osaka, but so far we had been fortunate in managing to avoid the worst of it.

Our room was Japanese style overlooking beautiful gardens.  On the table were two origami doves and a note, congratulating us on our marriage.  It was a lovely gesture and meant a lot to us.  During our stay the monks made us feel really welcome. 

After dropping off our bags, we left the temple and started our walk through the mysterious forest of Okunoin.  Koya-san’s vast cemetery, the forest floor is scattered with more than 200,000 stone stupas of all shapes and sizes.  A large number of historical characters are also buried here.  Wondering slowly along the mystical 2km path, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the cemetry’s spiritual centre.

It started to rain.  And rain.  And rain.  We took shelter beneath a temple roof where me, my wife and Hori-san chatted while waiting for the rain to ease.  I’m not sure if it was just getting married, or being back in Japan, or making a new friend, or the religious overtones of the forest, but it seemed like a pretty special moment.

As we headed back we found this Panasonic grave.  To Hori-san’s great amusement this picture was taken with my Panasonic camera.  When we got back to the entrance, Hori-san had to rush to catch the bus back to the cable car station so we said our goodbyes.

Back in our temple, it was time to enjoy a traditional Japanese bath.  There were two baths, one for men and one for women.  Fortunately I had the bath all to myself.  Large, wooden and filled to the brim with piping hot water, the bath was immensely relaxing. 

After the bath it was time to get ready and go for tea.  The meal was excellent, consisting of seasonal vegetable and tofu-based dishes cooked without meat, fish onion or garlic seasoning.  A lot of the dishes we were unable to identify, but it was delicious and beautifully presented.  It was still raining heavily and rained throughout the night.

The next morning at 6am we attended prayers with the monks.  The monk’s chanting was captivating and strangely hypnotic.  During the ceremony, the monk who had shown us to our room invited us to prey with him.  Up in this beautiful, mysterious mountain-top hideaway, the monks have their own strict way of life, their lives devoted to their religion.  During our stay they showed us warmth and kindness.  It’s clear they’re very friendly people and accepting of other cultures and beliefs different from their own.

The rain had stopped.  It was a beautiful day.  The mountain top air felt cool and refreshing.  We thanked the monks for their amazing hospitality, said goodbye and set off back to Osaka.  Koya-san was an unforgettable experience.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Mori Tower & Tokyo Tower

Mori Tower - Roppongi

Mori Tower was a nice surprise.  It only got a brief mention in our ‘Rough Guide’ travel book but we wanted to visit Tokyo Tower and it was close by so we thought we’d give it a look.  I’m really glad we did.  The views from the observation deck were stunning and it was nice taking some time out, relaxing and enjoying the amazing views. 

There were a range of cafes and bars.  My wife sampled one of the unusual cocktails, which was quite literally smokin! 

As I sat there, chilling out with a nice cold beer, I spotted a familiar logo on one of the buildings…

Konami HQ!

We also took some time to have a look around the very nice aquarium at the top of the tower.

As we left the building I somehow managed to persuade the wife to deviate slightly from our itinery and go and find Konami HQ.  It was only a short walk away and we eventually located the imposing entrance doors. 

My wife sat down on one of the benches, sighed and said ‘Whatever your about to do I don’t want to be part of it’.  With that, I said I wouldn’t be long and opened the entrance doors.

There were two girls on the reception desk.  I told them I was a massive fan of Konami, especially the Gradius and Castlevania series.  The girls were really friendly, I asked about Hideo Kojima.  Apparently he worked in the building, but they didn’t say if he was there or not.  I asked if there was any chance of a look around the Konami office but they said it wasn’t open to the public and sadly it wasn’t to be.  I did briefly consider employing some stealth tactics, avoiding the security cameras to get a better look around but remembered the wifey was outside, probably getting grumpier by the minute! 

I left Konami HQ and went to take a look at the nearby Konami souvenir shop the reception girls had told me about.  I purchased some very nice Metal Gear Solid art books from the store.  Check out the Vic Viper model kits!

Tokyo Tower

When we got to Tokyo Tower, our first stop was the ‘Tokyo Curry Lab’ restaurant at the base of the tower.  We both opted for the tasting plate which comprised of three pots of curry of varying hotness.  Although none of the curries were that hot, we both really enjoyed our meal and it was very reasonable at 1500 Yen each.

Getting the lift to the top of Tokyo Tower was quite expensive (over 2000 Yen each if I remember rightly) and there was a long queue.  In the end we decided to leave it as we had been up the nearby Mori Tower.

We had a walk round the shops and the various attractions.  There was a small arcade with a couple of old Sega dedicated machines.  Of more interest were the small metal bodied prize arcade cabinets.  You can exchange your Yen for tokens which can be used on these machines to win more tokens, and the tokens can be exchanged for prizes.  The machines featured a variety of mini games and typically only had one button.  One machine was a variant of Bomber Man.  Another machine featuring characters from the Parodius series had you using the button to fire arrows at balloons.