Travel with a toddler is an exercise in forced perspective. I fondly recall the freewheeling whims and spontaneous explorations of my single days, which invariably ended in me being hopelessly lost and walking toward the tallest identifiable landmark. This was usually a recipe for fun (getting lost and stumbling on a protest in Barcelona comes to mind) but it was not efficient. It’s easy to glamorize those days, but then I remember that married, committed, and responsible me has the resources to share a meal of Kobe steak with my husband.

Let that be your travel lesson of the day: an appetizer of raw Kobe carpaccio to whet one’s appetite for the steak to follow works like gangbusters to help one accept the consequences of adult choices.  It also causes you to mumble things like “Margaret, I have never laid a hand on you and I consider corporal punishment to be the basest, most vile form of bullying. But if you throw a $300 steak on the floor, so help me, you will fly back to Honolulu via the tip of my boot.” I digress, but it was delicious.

All this leads into the point of today’s story: forced to consider the logistics of traveling with a toddler, I really, really was not sure I wanted to go to Koyasan.

The guidebook sounded romantic and promising: a remote and sacred center for a sect of Buddhism tucked into the mountains.  Autumn’s full splendor would be on display, peppering the monasteries with bursts of flaming fall color.  There was an enormous and ornate cemetery that would almost certainly be shrouded in ethereal mists. And then, the fine print: it would take two (or three, if we read the transfers wrong, and we did) regular trains, a funicular cable car, and a bus to get there from Nara…and we would have to hope that the bus station would have lockers big enough to store our backpacks, as we would be moving on to Osaka that night.

But Tom really wanted to go, so I said “Well…we’ll never get this chance again. I trust you.” Everyone out there who knows me well just gasped and clutched their collective pearls; to say that I’m a control freak is the understatement of the century. It’s silly, and I should know better than to worry, because Koyasan was my favorite part of Japan.

The baby helped.

This little munchkin was 8 weeks old, in town with his family for a blessing ceremony.  Astonishingly, his family and older sister were more excited to see blonde, shaggy, American Maggie than we were to see a newborn decked out in his Year of the Tiger finery.

The foliage was pretty sweet, too.  It was the vibrancy that we had hoped for in Kamikochi without the pesky issue of being soaked to the skin.

But the cemetery was the real highlight.  The town buses ran hourly and we tried desperately to figure out what the schedule was and could not, so we gave up and walked into town for lunch.  On the way, we saw the bus we needed and jumped on the opportunity, thus resigning ourselves to a meal of bus station Pringles a few hours later (having saved all our healthy rations for Maggie).

The monuments ran from the tasteful…

To the odd…

To the REALLY odd (side note: I would like to revise my original “Cremated and buried in a Chock Full O Nuts can” burial plan to “enormous rocket monument”) …

And back to odd yet tasteful.

Fortunately, we pantomimed just enough at the bus station to upgrade our tickets to the express instead of the local into Osaka.  Alas, we still had to descend in the funicular.  Check out the grade on this:


Koyasan wasn’t quite the ethereal experience we had envisioned; you can’t be a major center for anything religious and not attract a crowd of respect-payers and onlookers.  But there was a peacefulness and serenity there, and even though we only stayed for a few hours it was an intensely fulfilling way to spend our last full day in Japan.


One thought on “Koyasan

  1. Koyasan was one of my favorite bits of Japan too, and I definitely remember the rocket tomb. I stayed the night at one of the local monasteries, where they fed me vegan substances that defied description or identification and woke me at dawn to pray with them.

    My old roommate who lives in Japan wrote a humorous writeup about Koyasan: http://www.chasethegaijin.com/blog/2010/golden-week-mountemplefest-2010-day-3-if-kfc-sponsors-my-shrine-maybe-ill-be-cooked-with-11-herbs-and-spices-instead-of-being-cremated/

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