About Esme

Author Archive | Esme

EKOIN, MOUNT KOYA: SLEEPING AMONG the MONKS

This post is part of a Japan Trip series.

CHUBU AND KANSAI REGIONS

The trip from Kanazawa to Ekoin in Mount Koya entails riding two JRL trains, a subway, a local train, a cable car and a bus.

This better be good.

mount koya cable car

MOUNT KOYA (KOYASAN)

Mount Koya is the center of Shingon Buddhism, and a small temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters. Approximately 50 of the temples offer lodging (skukubo) to tourists. An aficionado of bizarre hotels, I could not resist the chance to stay in a Buddhist temple during my trip to Japan. I figured when I was booking it that sleeping on the floor of a monastery in a remote village atop a mountain would be either the best or worst experience of the journey.

EKOIN

The bus deposits me across the street from Ekoin, a 1,000-year old Buddhist Temple  (booked through Booking.com for $115) and likely the oldest lodging at which I’ve ever stayed. I drag Bagzillo and the rest of my luggage up to the entrance.

Bagzillo at Ekoin

Pretty much everyone else on the cable car carried only a large backpack. I realize how ridiculous I’m going to look with my three pieces of designer luggage (for a one-night stay) to a group of guys who have shunned worldly possessions.

My room at Ekoin is sparse (as one would expect in a Japanese Buddhist monastery) but it offers a fantastic view of the sunny garden. Unfortunately (and I knew this in advance) the rooms do not have bathrooms: unisex toilet stalls are located down the hallway and the communal showers (one for men; one for women) are situated on an entirely different floor. I find a household hand towel disgusting, so I’m less-than-enthusiastic about the idea of sharing shoes, a toilet and shower with a bunch of backpackers.

Ekoin Mount Koya guestroom

I have very little need for stuff here at Ekoin, so instead of unpacking my stuff (where would I even put my stuff?) I hurry to Okunoin, Mount Koya’s most sacred site, to experience it before dinner is served. More on Okunoin in the next post.

Dinner is served at the early hour of 5:30 at Ekoin, probably because there’s not a helluva lot of nightlife in Mount Koya (no clubbing tonight). My monk — all business — rushes into the room and instructs me to sit down. I take my seat on my towel (like in kindergarten), facing the window so that I can enjoy the view only to be informed by my monk that I’m facing the wrong direction. I rotate 90 degrees, now staring at the blank, lime green wall instead.

I was thrilled to learn at check-in that beer is served with the vegetarian dinner, upon request. I requested. If I can eat nothing else during this current culinary adventure, I know I’ll enjoy a cold bottle of Asahi.

Ekoin dinner Mount Koya

Play:

There are black noodles (I don’t eat black food), some weird shaped stuff, fruit (not a big fan of fruit) and something indistinguishable. Thankfully there’s also steamed rice (of course), miso soup (of course) and my new favorite food, Japanese tofu. So the meal isn’t a total bust.

After dinner I have the bright idea of returning to the Okunoin Cemetery (next post). Back in my room shortly thereafter I change into my official Ekoin yakuta (not as nice as the one in Takayama, but much easier to tie) and rest on my futon bed, which would be comfortable enough if the pillow wasn’t stuffed with what feels like pellets of rabbit food. It actually crunches audibly every time I move my head.

I turn on my laptop and voila! a wi-fi connection. I send a tweet back to the U.S.:

Hey @VerizonWireless: How come I get better wifi service in a Buddhist monastery on the top of Mount Koya, Japan than in my Chicago condo?

They don’t answer me.

MORNING

Waking-up at 6:00 a.m. is easy when you go to sleep at the nerdy hour of 9:00 p.m. I join my fellow guests to observe the daily prayer service.

Ekoin Buddhist Ceremony

It’s interesting enough for a half-hour but any longer than that and I think the nasal, monotone chanting would send me into a seizure of some sort.

Play:

Afterwards we follow the monks next door to the daily Goma fire ritual. From Wikipedia:

The ritual is performed for the purpose of destroying negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and for the making of secular requests and blessings; these are in the form of pieces of lumber with prayers written down by individuals and stamped with Acalanatha’s seed syllable.

Ekoin Fire Ceremony Mount Koya

Guests can purchase the “pieces of lumber”, write their prayers on them, and submit them the evening prior to the ceremony to be included in the burning (which feels a little akin to the Catholic Church selling indulgences). I beseech Buddha for better wifi service back in Chicago.

READ the entire Japan Trip series.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

WHAT TO DO IN KANAZAWA IN A DAY

This post is part of a Japan Trip series.

DAY TWO

Today is the day. I really am going to explore Kanazawa.

Kanazawa map

OMICHO MARKET

Who — other than Hugh Hefner — eats a dozen oysters for breakfast? The denizens of Kanazawa, apparently. Gross.

Clearly the Omicho Market is the place to be this morning — and probably every morning — in Kanazawa. Young, old, professionals, tourists, men, women — everyone’s here and they’re either eating or yelling, buying or selling.

Play:

Feeling left out, I purchase a disk-shaped, deep-fried object for $3. I don’t know what this is.

I consume the disk-shaped, deep-fried object with pleasure. I don’t know what that was.

KANAZAWA CASTLE

Next stop on my Kanazawa whirlwind: the Kanazawa Castle!

Did I miss something? A big yard, a big door, a big wall. Big deal. I guess the grounds are nice.

KENROKUEN GARDEN

The Japanese — you may have heard — take their gardens seriously. Kenrokuen Garden is classified as one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens. Ponds, streams, waterfalls, trees, bridges, teahouses, pagodas, stone lanterns — Kenrokuen is no doubt a special place (exhibits A, B, and C below):

Kenrokuen Park Kanazawa

Kenrokuen tree Kanazawa

I am especially drawn to the trees above because they remind me of coronary angiograms (I like hearts). Their branches are supported by a process called yukitzuri which prevents the boughs from breaking under the weight of snow. Mid-November is supposed to be the best time to visit Kenrokeun Garden as the leaves are at their peak of color and the yukitzuri ropes are alit with white lights.

Kabazawa Kenrokuen tree

21ST-CENTURY MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Anybody can drop in whenever they want. – museum brochure

Well, not really. Exhibits are from 10:00 – 6:00 and the museum is closed on Mondays. But I don’t mean to nitpick — I appreciate a welcoming museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously — which is why I’m fond of the 21st-Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The experiential exhibits are quirky and clever and obviously selected to engage us otherwise lazy, passive observers, forcing us to question our sense perception. We shout into tuba-like pipes; read tiny, silly signs through telescopes; peer up from the bottom of the swimming people at the people peering down at us from above; watch the sky change through a hole in the ceiling and wander through the shifting Colour Activity House by Olafur Eliasson.

THE NINJA TEMPLE

Final stop on my Kanazawa spree: Myoryuji, a Buddhist temple built in 1585 that served as a place of worship and protection from the shogun for the regional ruling family. Its construction includes multiple escape routes and means of defense, hence its sexy nickname, the Ninja Temple. It’s very Spy vs. Spy.

Reservations are required. The tour begins with the participants sitting on tucked legs (ow!) atop a thin tatami mat inside the shrine as a guide delivers a 20-minute presentation in Japanese. We gaijin are thankfully given an album to leaf-through, which explains what we will be seeing for the remainder of the tour (which is also conducted in Japanese).

The construction of the Ninja Temple is quite cunning, complete with escape tunnels, hidden staircases, pits, trap doors, lookout stations, secret passageways, and a ritual suicide chamber (gift-wrapping rooms are SO passé). From the outside the structure appears to be only two-stories (in accordance with the shogun’s building restrictions) but it is actually comprised of seven layers tucked into four stories. The entire tour lasts an hour.

KANAZAWA AT NIGHT

And at the end of the day? It’s back to Daiba for more Yebisu drafts and tofu salad, of course.

READ the entire Japan Trip series.

 

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

CLIMBING ADAM’S PEAK IN SRI LANKA

First post of a Sri Lanka Trip series.

CHICAGO, ONE WEEK PRIOR TO DEPARTURE

I pull-on my egregiously masculine hiking shoes, tighten them around my ankles for support. Secure my earbuds and start my How Was Your Week? podcast. Look at my watch. 7:07. Let’s do this.

13 steps up. 13 steps down. 13 steps up. 13 steps down.

My cats look at me suspiciously. That Lady has finally lost it.

Practicing Climing Adam's Peak on My Stairs

I am conducting a test run, here in my condo, of climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) is a mountain in Central Sri Lanka that is a holy site to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims: the large footprint at the top was left by either Adam, Lord Shiva or Buddha, depending upon who you ask. Climbing Adam’s Peak is an important pilgrimage for many Sri Lankans, especially Buddhists.

The trek to the the summit of Adam’s Peak is greater than 7,000 feet — over 5,200 steps. I’ve calculated that climbing my loft stairs (13 steps) 100 times is the equivalent of climbing one-quarter of Adam’s Peak. Minus the altitude change, not factoring in the freezing temperature at the top and overlooking the fact that it’s a consecutive 5,200 steps up.

Adam's Peak Sri Lanka

I finish my trial hike in around 30 minutes, a little winded but not entirely exhausted. I guess that’s that. I guess I’m climbing Adam’s Peak.

CHICAGO, DAY OF DEPARTURE

I have only one hour until my taxi arrives.

“What do you mean you don’t have knee braces?” I ask. REI, a massive, two-story shrine to trekking, sells every imaginable item a hiker would ever need. Except knee braces (my knees were a little tender the day after my stairs experiment). Instead, I buy special socks to protect my toes, a shirt that “breathes” and official hiking pants.

Crap! Parking ticket. I stop for one minute…

Run to Kaehler Luggage. No knee braces here. Dammit. Down to 20 minutes.

CVS! CVS has knee braces. I throw them in my basket, tossing in Pop-Tarts, Pringles and vodka as I jog to the counter. I’m going to need all of this stuff if I’m really climbing Adam’s Peak.

Read the entire Sri Lanka series.

 

Read full story · Comments { 8 }