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Koyasan ... an island of quiet not far from Osaka.

A 1,200-year-old center of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan is an island of quiet contemplation near Osaka, Japan's fastestgrowing technological center. Tucked among the high wooded ridges of KoyaRyujin Forest Park, the village is on a plateau ideal for walking. At one end is a complex of spectacular temples up to 700 years old. At the other is the grand cemetery of Okunoin.

You could sample Koyasan on a long day from Osaka, but part of the experience is spending a night in one of 64 temples (shukubo) offering Japanese-style lodging and simple vegetarian meals. Such lodging is a bargain these days: in Koyasan, shukubo charge 7,000 to 15,000 yen (about $60 to $125) per person, usually including breakfast and dinner.

Your biggest problem may be language. Few people speak English, and simple tasks often become adventures.

By train, then cable car, bus, foot Travel light. Take a warm jacket, wear comfortable slip-on shoes, and carry a small overnight bag; leave heavy luggage at your Osaka hotel.

Start at Osaka's Namba Station, where the Nankai Koya Line operates both express trains (departing three times daily; about $15 one way; trip takes 75 minutes) and locals (departing every 30 minutes; $8.50; takes 25 minutes longer). Either fare to Koyasan includes the train ride to Gokurakubaishi, then a 5-minute cable car ride to Koyasan Station on the plateau about 2 miles from the village. Show your ticket to leave the station.

Green buses all go to the tourist information office for just over $2. The tourist office (open 8:30 to 5 daily) can direct you to your temple lodging. While the tourist office was not signed in English when we visited, it's in the first building in from the corner, next to a fire station.

If you stay in a shukubo, it's early to bed, early to rise . . .

Your overnight stay in a shukubo is not only a chance to sample traditional Japanese hospitality, it's also an invitation to experience a Buddhist service.

If you plan to arrive during cherry blossom season (mid-April into May), or in mid-autumn, when the mountains are brilliant with reds and golds, or on a national holiday, it's safer to reserve well in advance, by mail. This is timeconsuming; allow at least three months.

Otherwise, it's best to wait until you arrive in Japan, then visit one of the offices of the Japan National Tourist Organization and have someone there call the Koyasan tourist office directly

What can you expect? At most temples, rooms are small and simple: tatami mats, a low square table, a few pillows, a chest or closet for your clothes, a small towel, and a robe (yukata).

Dinner may be served in a dining area or brought to your room on a tray Mealsstrictly vegetarian-are the same as the temple priests eat.

At our temple, low gongs were struck at 4 and 5 A.M., and both monks and Japanese pilgrims were up and bustling to make the 6 A.M. service in the ornate gilt temple. Visitors are welcome, and while you won't understand the prayers, the ceremonies with their chanting and bell ringing offer a glimpse into the Buddhists' world.

Walking through town, amid a complex of ancient temples

Mostof the more than 120 temples in Koyasan proper are open from 8 or 9 A.M. to 4 or 5 pm.; entry costs $1 to $3. There are some stops that you shouldn't miss.

From the tourist information center, walk west on the main street a short block to the entrance to Kongobuji Temple. Built in 1592, its squeaky-floored hallways lead past elaborately painted chambers and carefully landscaped gardens to the great hall, where you can meditate while sipping tea and munching candies.

Back on the street, continue west to the first corner on the left, where a wide walk leads into the Danjogaran complex. Oldest building here is a small age-blackened temple built in 1198. Also look for the Kondo, the complex's main temple, and the Daito, a two-story vermilion pagoda. Across ftom the southeast corner of the complex is the Reihokan Treasure House ($3.50 entry). Here you'll see rare artworks from Koyasan temples, including four imposing 12th-century carvings of devarajas (heavenly kings). Collections of armor, scrolls, and paintings give a sense of what this region was like.

More than a millenium of serene meditation

Many Japanese visitors in Koyasan wear white shirts and hats and carry staffs with red cloth tops and bells, These pilgrims visit the temples, but their ultimate destination is the cemetery of Okunoin.

In the tourist office, ask for the number of the bus to Okunoin-mae (about $1.50). There, a wide walk leads north through a modern addition to the immense cemetery; at the main intersection, turn left (follow red arrows) to connect with the main path.

You'll be walking under ancient pines and cedars, on a path lined with thousands of pagodas, stupas, and lanterns. In early morning, the forest is often shrouded in a mist perfumed, at times, with cedar smoke or spicy incense.

At the end of the path is the Torodo, a hall filled with thousands of softly glowing oil lamps. Some have burned for centuries two for 900 years.

Behind the Torodo is the wooden mausoleum of Kobo-daishi, Koyasan's founder. Followers believe that in 855 he entered a state of meditation that continues today.

Before you go

For help with reservations or tours to Koyasan, write to the Japan National Tourist Organization, 360 Post St., #401, San Francisco 94108, or 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Japan
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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