The people around me on the ride to the base of Koyasan  was an amalgamation of every type of person I had encountered on the train ride to get to the station where this train ride had started. Bundled in parkas and layers, small Japanese families, young Korean and Canadian couples, and solo guys with oversized backpacks were scattered down the passenger car with perhaps mild anticipation of the Buddhist village at the top of the mountain.
Two hours away from Osaka, the train pulls into a station seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We all collect our belongings and walk out onto the platform. Maybe fifteen or twenty travellers headed to the station’s only exit that led to the station of an inclined railway. No other exits were around – us travellers were all destined for the top of this mountain.
We entered the cable car and spread ourselves out over the plethora of seats. It’s another fifteen minutes and we arrive at yet another station that exited directly in front of a bus stop. A sign at the only exit out reads “no walking beyond this point.” Amongst the other stationary buses and parked cars, everyone boarded the bus. Yet again, we were all destined for the village beyond the sign.
The bus ride highlighted the setting that I and my fellow travellers would be exposed to for the next 24 hours. Giant cedar trees lined the road as it twisted and curved around the snowy mountainside. Snow falling from the trees gave the occasional glimpse of the blue sky above. The chill of the wind every time the bus door opened pierced through my Canada Goose parka. I assumed this was the payment for having booked this trip in the middle of February during one of the worst winters in Japan.
Conveniently, there was a bus stop in front of the temple I was going to stay for the night. If Koyasan is known for anything other than its historical Buddhist history, it’s for the stays at the 60-some temples scattered around town hosted by the monks that live there. As I stepped off the bus and it rode off towards the end of town, it was like someone accidentally sat on the TV remote and everything seemed to get progressively quieter.
Behind the evergreens was the snow-topped wall of the temple I was staying at . I followed the freshly-shovelled path next to the wall towards the gate where an older man was shovelling the snow. “Ah,” he said as I approached, “staying here?” I’m pretty sure my 40L backpack was a dead giveaway. Or that the temples probably doesn’t get young adult foreigners walking up to them asking to join their congregation.
I nod and he points behind the wall. “Register, please.” He throws the shovel down and walks to one of, what seemed like, twenty doors on the side of the building. Like most other temples, there was a rack for shoes at the main entrance of the building. Two pairs of runners were nestled amongst the slippers for guests to use. From beyond the main entrance was a small entrance hall where a young, slightly overweight monk opens the door and invites me over to a table where he was sitting. As I ventured inside, I could hear deep chanting from somewhere beyond the hall. Surrounding the entrance hall were small rooms where I occasionally caught glimpses of other young disciples sitting in prayer.
Registration occurred in silence – not out of upmost respect or anything like that but probably because of the language barrier. Out of our mutual convenience, he had a sheet with all the rules written in English; he pointed to each rule one-by-one and looked at me with a smile. I nodded back with a smile as well as each rule seemed to get progressively longer. No wearing outside shoes. Makes sense. Dinner is mandatory and starts at 5PM. Mandatory food? Yes, please! All guests must join morning prayer at exactly 6AM. Well, I guess there were some concessions to make; it was another day of the trip where I would have to set the alarm.
The monk showed me to my room for the night: through another hall (which I guessed where some sort of celebration took place) and up the stairs. The first door already had two slippers in front of it – the couple whose shoes I saw earlier, I’m guessing. I end up staying in the next room over.
What I remember the most was seeing the silhouette of the tree in the courtyard as the sun, having broken through the clouds, beamed into the room, and settled invitingly on a kotatsu resting on the tatami . The monk toured me around the room, sufficiently-sized for a single person travelling, and pointed at a sign reminding guests that dinner was at 5PM. As he closed the door, I finally noticed how warm the room was – temples, like most old buildings in Japan, do not have central heating. Heat was usually sourced from items like a butane space heaters and if there wasn’t anything like that around, in the harsh cold winters you would definitely notice the lack of heat. The sun, however, had brought with it its radiant warmth. Taking off my parka and moving the kotatsu, I laid on the warm tatami and admired the blue sky and snow-covered tree branches just outside the window. The winter sun covered me with its refreshing warmth and golden hues. The quietness was well-deserved; you would have to be straining to try and hear the noises from next door or the chanting from the temple below.
The door slamming next door woke me up from the first of many transcendent naps at this temple. It was actually a 20-minute nap but I woke up as though I had the best sleep in the world . It was just after 3PM and I remembered reading online that the temple I was staying at was next to Okunoin, the largest cemetery in the country. ‘I remembered’ was the key point: there was no wi-fi at this temple and neither 4G or LTE was hitting my personal wi-fi device. Finally, or tragically depending on your perspective of things, I was forcibly disconnected from the rest of the world for the next 24 hours.
It was still relatively cold but now that the sun had come out, the 20-minute walk to the entrance to the cemetery felt invigorating. There were not a lot of people milling around, mostly locals shovelling the sidewalks, but having come from the tourist-heavy areas of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka it brought a new perspective of the busy-ness of urban culture in Japan. It wasn’t until I had reached the entrance of Okunoin and its line of tombstones and lanterns heading into the cemetery that I finally saw (maybe) less than a handful of tourists.
The pathway into Okunoin meandered through the snow-covered ground and snow-topped tombstones before journeying into the forest of Japanese cedars – as large as the West Coast redwood – where even more shrines and tombstones were scattered. The sun was setting early and beams of golden rays shot across the path; snowflakes appeared suspended in the beams of light as though they were the resident spirits floating peacefully above the ground. The sound of footsteps imprinting the snow or the snapping of twigs and branches broke the tranquil quietness that haunted the woodland.
It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the surroundings and the serenity that is hosted. Many tourists come here to see the temples and mausoleums that house important figures of the Japanese Buddhist faith. Some come to see the graves of important Japanese individuals like Basho, the famous Japanese poet known for his haikus. While I may have had those points in mind when I thought of coming to Okunoin, they were set aside in favour of almost-mindless wandering through the stone-and-tree wilderness . As I crossed the Gobyonohashi Bridge that led to the Okunoin temple proper, a monk recites a short prayer towards me and it was at that point a mild shudder waved through my body – and then I was perhaps at the most serene state-of-mind that I had ever been in for a long while.
 Koyasan would normally be translated to Mount Koya, but the term ‘san’ doesn’t mean mountain. It’s similar to those honorifics you add to people’s names like Suzuki-san or Matthew-san and so forth.
 Shojoshin-in was the temple I stayed at and (10 out of 10) would recommend again.
 A kotatsu is a Japanese table covered with a thick blanket. Below the table is a heater. In the winter cold, as explained in the text, this is a Godsend as the warmth of the heater is kept insulated by the blanket.
 The only other time I had this experience was waking up post-surgery. This sleeping method is more preferable than that.
 Although (and if you’ve ever travelled with me, you can attest to this), I am very oblivious to things that might be obvious to others. I blame it on being extremely interested in the little things that others may not care about. At one trip – my only trip, to be exact – to the British Museum, I was so amazed at the designs of what they put into the coffins (like golden scarabs and the like) that I completely missed out on the mass of people surrounding the sarcophagus of the late King Tutankhamun. Supposedly, King Tut’s tomb is one of the highlights of the British Museum so I’m guessing another trip to the British Museum is warranted.