At Koya-San, We Go Down in Bathes of Glory


After an eminently peaceful, astoundingly expensive (ten dollars for a tiny bowl of udon?!) and overwhelmingly isolated (we had perhaps one conversation with a Japanese person the entire time) stay in Kyoto and Osaka with Guangzhou scholar family Dan, Catherine, and 1.5-year-old Daniel Walker, we parted ways. They flew back to Guangzhou and we, unable to make any friends who might invite us somewhere, decided to buy our way in. The most readily available options were love hotels and temple stays. After a brief discussion, which was brief because Owen kept interrupting to ask for another cracker, we chose the latter.

We took the Osaka metro and a harrowing cable car up to Koya-san, a mountaintop Buddhist temple complex that has become a tourist getaway the likes of which we have never been seen in China. That is to say, it’s both overrun with tourists and exquisitely enjoyable at the same time. It’s quiet, clean, perfectly-manicured, and offers a chance for average schmucks like us to stay overnight in a temple and feel cleansed from our head to our shoulders, knees and toes (bad toddler joke, apologies). Spoiler alert: we totally loved it but made complete asses of ourselves on numerous occasions. Here we go.

I booked the place online ahead of time. When you reserve, you are asked not which temple you want to stay at (there are many), but what type of room you want: Old Japanese, New Japanese, or Modern. The price differential is steep, so we went with the Old Japanese option, thinking maybe we’d be shacking up with a bunch of creaky old guys and sleeping under newspapers for the night, waking only to pee in a fetid hole in the corner. Not so. We were welcomed at the front gate by a friendly monk in pale brown robes who motioned for us to remove our shoes (standard practice in China, taken to a new level of enforcement in Japan). I took off Owen’s before lifting him up into the building, and then I set his small Tevas down on the platform next to me. A gasp from the other shoe-removers set me immediately straight and I plucked his shoes up and placed them on the shoe shelf to my left, but the floor there had been irreparably sullied. Faux pas number one.

We were then shown to our room, but on the way we got a tour of the place. It was nothing short of gorgeous: hand-painted screens decorated every room; the rock garden was mossy and immaculate and filled with chirping birds; the floors were the cleanest I’ve seen anywhere. The friendly monk gestured to a room and slowed his pace, murmuring something I did not understand (maybe he was speaking Japanese?). “Oh, wow, this is our room! Beautiful!” I gushed. “No,” he stifled his monk-giggle. “This is the toilet. Your room is down the hall.” Faux pas number two.

We stepped up into our tatami-mat paradise, which we had all ourselves and which included a small shrine in the corner with an adjacent TV set. Nice touch. As we sipped our welcome-to-the-temple green tea and munched the accompanying tiny red bean cakes, the monk gave us our timetable: men take their bath at 5pm, women at 6, and dinner is at 7. It was 3pm, so we put on our indoors clogs (spotless, provided with the room) and stepped out to explore the place. Immediately outside our room was a large and perfect garden with a pond full is fish. While Owen made his presence known to the koi (each of which was different from the rest, a rainbow of ideal specimens), Nick shuffled down the hall and discovered a vending machine. Inside said machine was not only Coke Zero (Coke Zero! Fantastically hard to come by in China) but also rows and rows of cans of coffee: black coffee, coffee with milk, sweet lattés, short espressos, and all with the option of being dispensed hot or cold. For the hell of it, we bought a hot can of black coffee and drank it, looking out over the silent bonsai forest, the only sound the koi flopping in the brook and our toddler yelling at them all to come closer.

Soon enough, it was time for Nick’s bath. He was gone for half an hour and emerged with a glazed look on his face and declared it phenomenally relaxing. I couldn’t imagine how getting naked with some strangers could be anything short of anxiety-attack-triggering, and waffled about going or not going for a good ten minutes. But he double-dared me, or even double-dog dared me, and I took his word that it’d be great and readied Owen and myself for our washing. While I did this, Nick announced that he’d had his first conversation with a real-live Japanese person since arriving a week ago.

As it went:
Guy in the bath next to Nick: “Hello!”
Nick: “Hello!”
Guy: “You what country!”
Nick: “America!”
Guy: “Yankees!”
Nick: “Playoffs!”
Guy: “Ichiro!”
Nick: “Japan!”
Guy: [pointing to a younger guy] “My… family!”
Nick to other guy: “”
Other guy: “Hi.”
Nick: “You are [pointing at first guy] son?”
Other guy: “No. I am… college.”
Nick: “College?”
Other guy: “College.”
Nick: “You’re in college! Your major is what?”
Other guy: “Uh… criminal… Mmm? [long pause] Criminal.”
Nick: “Oh. You are criminal!”
Other guy: [nods]

And then it was my turn. I was glad to have Owen with me, as he acted as both a distraction and a modest cover-up for the 10-foot-walk from the changing room to the tubs. First we scrubbed ourselves under warm showerheads, and then I lowered myself up to my neck in the hot, square stone tub. Owen sat on the edge (it was too toasty for him) and splashed the water that came gushing out in great gallons from a spigot on the wall. Two other women, one old, one young, joined us and we exchanged minimal words: “How old?” “One-and-a-half.” “Oh.” Splash, splash. I stayed in until I turned completely pink and thought I might pass out from the awesome tranquility of it all. Then I used my child as a cover-up again and dressed, emerging in the quiet hall to the tinkling sounds of dinner plates being placed on a table for us.

Dinner was an affair. We sat on the floor in front of a low table that held a black lacquered tray filled with dishes: fifteen bowls, each a different size and shape, greeted each of us. Inside each bowl was a tiny, perfectly arranged portion of food, most of which was unidentifiable but vegetarian, thank goodness. A monk walked us through it all: “This is crushed lotus petal with wheat gluten and pine needle syrup, this is enoki mushroom tempura with green tea salt, this is eight kinds of pickled ginger, here is your tea, please enjoy.” We stared for a while, afraid to ruin it and unsure of where to start. I bit into a crispy mushroom with green tea salt and swooned. Every morsel was a surprise, and most of it was delicious (the exception being a sort of gluey black sauce on the eggplant that made my mouth pucker for days). Owen ate heartily of the wheat gluten (which was variously and brightly colored and cut into intricate leaf and flower shapes), and we leaned back with the hedonistic pleasure of eating vegetarian haute cuisine in the place of our usual travel dinner of greasy vegetables over rice.

At this moment, Owen realized that all the screens in the dining room featured birds, and he was inspired to start a long and complicated interpretative dance focused on these birds. Look, I’m just his mom; I don’t claim to understand. Anyway, he shimmied and dipped and glided around the room, swooping and singing with the gusto of a Japanese crane, until he lost his balance and landed headfirst in the water pitcher. We had not drunk any water, so it was full. A liter of it soaked the tatami mats before we could right it. We sopped it all up and squeezed the water into our empty bowls and made a hasty exit to our own room. Faux pas number three.

The room came equipped with robes, which Nick and I donned for after-dinner hangout time. Crisp, soft and with a nifty belt, it was easily my favorite thing I’ve ever worn. We slept on the floor, on bedding the monks had set up for us. The Japanese futon is perhaps the ideal bed for an active toddler, as it provides ample thrashing room but no possibility of falling off. And so we slept, a deeply relaxed and happy trio, on the floor together, waking only briefly around midnight when rain pounded gently on the temple roof.

Morning brought us big, satisfied yawns and a breakfast of artfully-displayed leftovers (we discovered that salty pickles and rice are much less palatable at 7am than 7pm), and then we paid the bill and made our reverse trek back to Osaka, the warmth of the baths still in our bones, the sting of vinegar still on our mouths, and the awful, unshakable feeling that way up on the mountain, a monk was painstakingly drying out all the tatami mats in a certain dining room.

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