Koya San

Words: Vincent Flanagan | Photography: Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji | Date:

In the early 9th century a leading Buddhist monk in Kyoto, the Imperial Capital at the time, learned of small mountain top plateau surrounded by 8 small peaks and said to resemble the shape of a lotus plant. This learned and reverent monk,  Kobo Taishi, was given Imperial sanction to establish a monastic complex on the plateau and became known as Koya San (Mount Koya ). This small town is located South East of Osaka city in Western Japan.  There are now over one hundred temples in this sacred town surrounded by deep forest.  It is the centre of the Shingon Buddhism Sect and a special place of pilgrimage for their many faithful followers. The natural serenity of the surrounding forest mixed with the spiritual significance of the town make Koya san a memorable and worthwhile destination.

Pilgrims heading towards Koya San on different routes from across western Japan converge at Kawachi Nagano in southern Osaka.  It is a rough place where the local folk have a no nonsense attitude to both work and play and their dialect is as direct as a thrusting samurai sword. There is not the subtle formality here as you would encounter in Kyoto or Nara.  We begin our ride from this town and like the pilgrims we must venture over the mountain behind us, cross a valley and travel up the steep slopes towards the temples on the mount. Then forge a different trail back to our start point.

The start point is the train station, it too is a junction for two railway lines and also place to begin the journey to Koya San. There were some other cyclists there and it was interesting to read their expressions as we looked at each other, acknowledged each other, and wondered where might you be pedaling to today. We slowly ride away from the busy station round-about and look for the old road Rte 170 as it heads southwest towards the coast.  Japan is an ever changing place with constant renewal and development. In the city what was once rice fields have been covered over and morphed into medium housing developments. New roads and structures are constantly appearing. Road atlas is out of date with in 10 years.  Yea, better update that $3000 navigation system on the dash board. That said, the abundance here of roads both new and old gives us an enormous option to choose a route that can be amazingly free of traffic. Our legs reacting sluggish in the cool late winter air and keeping an easy tempo so not get too bushed before we begin our first real climb. All of us are unfamiliar to this part of the route and rely on our cue sheet not to get waylaid. Even on a weekend the cars are not so numerous or bothersome.

Part1 – Nabetani Tohge

At the foot of the climb up to Nabetani Pass there is a road sign indicating the road is closed on the other side. A collective groan is ushered by all, but on closer inspection and reading of the fine print, we learn all is well if we hurry. We catch the eye of a roadworks guard-man with his traffic directing light-sabre, keen for a conversation with an unlikely mob of fellows such as us. He asks where we are from and where we are going. A toothy grin comes to his weathered face when we tell him our plan. His eyes widen, then he laughs and shakes his head in disbelief but at the same time he is so welcoming and earnestly wishes us all the best as we begin the slow cadence up the road toward the first pass.

Far behind us, somewhere on the plain, is a large factory, one among the many in the large urban sprawl of Sakai city in Osaka prefecture. This factory is one many readers are indirectly very familiar with. It was in this factory where your index shifting and dual control levers were designed and developed.  This road winding its way up through the dark closed cedar forest was one where they were honed and tested. For many years riders on the Shimano racing team have come this way on their training rides. Nabetani Tohge to Osaka pros is as symbolic as Col de la Madone was to Lance.

We now begin to make our own rhythm as we click into the right gear and bring the pedals round and round. I watch young Yufta ‘s high cadence whom, despite that harsh winter, isn’t showing any signs of strain as he floats up the climb. Further back down amongst the tree trunks Daisuke’s pink jacket is becoming more and more minute.

At the top we will say goodbye to Osaka prefecture as we enter into Wakayama and the south side of the mountain opens up to a wide valley and both sides dotted with Mikan Orchards. They are a mandarin type citrus. They are in season over the winter months. This area is nationally renowned for its sweet and delicious mikan. Over the New Year holiday when many folk return to their homes, much like at Thanksgiving, people will be sitting under the low table in their living room, a heat lamp beneath keeps the legs warm, a large quilt covering the sides. On the tabletop is always a large basket of mikan, ready for the family to enjoy while playing games or watching TV.

At this time of year with no fruit left on the trees as we quickly make our windy way down from the pass, on each and every corner there is a convex mirror. A wonderful aid and I always take a quick glance to check for oncoming traffic and the direction of the road.  We come to another road works guard man and he waves his light sabre signalling us with horizontal waves to slow down, then as we approach closer, waves us through with sweeping swooshes to the side. We have made it in time and can continue on our planned route down toward the valley floor. There are many tight corners and few long stretches and that keeps our top speed low, but makes for great cornering practice.  The corner mirrors are just the sweetest things, if it is not pelted with BB’s.

Down into the village of Koyasanguchi we go, we pedal by shops and houses unchanged from the day they were built forty or so years ago. Left behind by city job searching children, residents here are the elder ones and seems like the clock’s stopped for decades. We stop to wait by a toy store, the boys reminisce about the little vending machine you put a coin or two into, twist a knob and out drop a bubble with a toy inside. The machines here are the same, the coins and toys are different now. I wonder where are the children who would come here to browse and play.

PART2 – Koya san

We snake our way along a narrow road filled with traffic. We are weaving our way forward between the cars, the housewalls, power poles and guardrails. This is only for a short distance and then we are free again as we turn onto the main route that leads up to Koya san. This part, by the river is the original route up the sacred mountain. To the left the steep hillside is covered with concrete, a bumpy and rough surface sprayed on top to prevent landslides, other side below is the river, way down below. At one point, as we hug the very edge of the road we have to duck to miss a rocky outcrop.  We leave the traffic behind again after crossing the river one last time.
From the bridge we tilt our heads back as I point out the road leading up. We could follow the guard rails snaking their way up the mountain side. Narrow and ridiculously steep. I looked back at them and I will always cherish their collective expressions. What the fuck… The cars and buses are taking a newer wider road to the top, we like the pilgrims of old will follow an original route.

As we were making our way up and up, straining against the pedals, all of us out of the saddle, not to accelerate, but because we have to put all the weight down onto the pedals to turn the cranks. Been out of proper gear long time ago. Still, just in case try to shift down…to no avail…repeatedly, searching for that miracle last gear. Our sounds of labour were being punctuated by that of another, we could hear the sweet, rich and vibrant Hooo- hokekyo, hooo- hokekyo of the Japanese nightingale. We were making our way up the Nightingale valley, the whole way up this steep section their chorus kept us company. It was a marvellous way to ease the tension. When the gradient eased up and we were able to continue sitting down another sound came through the trees. A squealing searing scrapping sound, the wheels of a train as it crawled up the tracks and around the curves. The Koya train line brings many pilgrims and tourists from distant Osaka in just under two hours. They come by regular train to Gokurakubashi station then change to a funicular train which carries them  to the top. It was many years past while on this wonderful train ride through the mountains I saw this road and thought, “where’s my bike”. At first you cannot see the train line but then a break in the trees and a bend in the road it brings you down toward the station. Suddenly our passage is interrupted by the remnants of a landslide. A mass of rocks and trees has covered the whole road blocking the way for cars but it gives us some good dismount and portage practice.  Back on our bikes we continue our methodical climb up through the forest towards our goal and nearer the top we make out some smaller peaks through a fine descending mist. Then a faint tolling of a temple bell can just be heard, maybe it is a sign welcoming us now we have made our ascension into the 1100 year old town of Koya san.

It’s misty, cold, and damp at the mountaintop, very fitting, seems like it should always be damp at these historical sacred places. The impression of riding from south Osaka to Koya san seems so much farther than the actual distance distance shown on the cycle computer, it worn us out more than what it should have. And probably a good timing for some food, since we are in a remote parts of the country, if we miss this tourists destination, we could be riding without proper food for hours. We enter a restaurant, or more like a cafeteria. Nothing fancy or especially regional. Basic noodles…good filler, easy to go down, easy on tired stomach, and instant energy.

During World War 2 most of Japan was denuded of trees. There was an exception to that, the grounds of temples and shrines were sacred and so too were the trees insitu.  Now whenever you visit such places you will be struck by the enormity of the cedar and cypress trees in place.  Here atop this 800 metre high mountain are scores of such trees and beneath them are the numerous temples with their gates, belfries, main halls and Pagodas, There are many with exquisite gardens as well. One very special place in Koyasan is Okunoin a centuries old graveyard, with the remains of many famous figures from Japanese history including the Samurai leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi. So too are the mummified remains of the founder Kobo Taishi. This is not a spooky place but one of calm and serenity a place where you can feel one with nature and if may be a higher spiritual being. On the streets we see many monks, their heads covered with woven straw hats that make them look like walking shiitake mushrooms.

Despite the cold there feet are bare except for some woven straw sandals.We glide by a religious paraphernalia store and my senses are arrested by the sweet pungent aroma of incense wafting from inside.

PART3 – Kongo

On the edge of town we come up a rise to an entrance to a small tunnel, on either side of the road the forest with countless cedar trees, their trunks slender but tall, letting very little light through to the ground. It is dark here and the cloud above looms very low almost smothering us. Through the tunnel all we can see is this whiteness, there is no horizon, no silhouette, nothing.  We just glance at each other and go “whoa”.   We pause before we enter into this void. Part way through, the road dips down and at the entrance we take a sharp left and then road drops dramatically down. No point stopping to enjoy the view. The fog has obliterated the view. Off we go, immediately we are on the brakes leaning right then left hanging onto each others wheels as the road twists and contorts, the surface is changing from rough to smooth, wet and dry in some places. You must always be vigilant for a loose rock or branch that has fallen from above onto the road. Don’t want to hit one of those at 65km/h. We lose half of the day’s elevation gain in 10 minutes. Then the road eases along side a river, we are close to the valley floor and following the river. In the summer time riding close to the river is always 5 to 10 degrees cooler than elsewhere. But in winter it just feels even colder.

At the next junction we go right and go upriver slowly climbing the whole way. It is noticeably warmer down here and we peel off the layers and begin to race each other a little bit. We are only past halfway. We pass through small villages admire all the old large houses. Their heavy tiled roof stand the test of time and withstand any typhoon that may blow over. Though it is their weight which can causes the collapse in an earthquake.  Folk’s laundry is hanging out to draw.

Little toy sized tractors are parked in their sheds. It is still too early to till the soil in preparation for the rice crop.  We hardly see a soul the whole time and that includes a car. Since we left Koya san and come 30 km only one car has came by.

Energy levels are starting to drop, Seiichi and Yufta are wanting to know how much further to the top of the next climb, Yuji is wishing aloud for a” jihanki “ A blessing or a curse, it is hard to decide, the proliferation of vending machines in Japan. You are able to go for a ride and not worry about liquids, since you will inevitably come across a vending machine. What’s the curse you may wonder, the waste they encourage, both trash and electricity.  The blessing, on a freezing cold day in the middle of nowhere, your fingers and lips numb from the cold. You can, at the push of a button, immediately have a “hot” can of sweet coffee, tea, cocoa or even corn soup.  It’ll even say “good morning” and “good evening” depending on time of the day. It is a different culture here.

Sugared up, we head off again about to tackle our day’s longest descent.  All the better with the sun, now out, the roads dry and a marvelous view to be admired. This was a great example of the sweet expression,” it’s all downhill from here”. This time we did stop to admire the views, the clouds and the sunlight as they played.

Daylight was coming to an end but our ride wasn’t.  We still had to cross the river in the valley below and get back over the first mountain range we crossed through Kongo san. The long shadows of the afternoon danced with us as we began our way up out of the town into more orchards and chicken farms and finally into the dark conifer forest. The hillsides here are typically steep and roads here climb by means of short pitches following the contours until it switchbacks around. A straight stretch longer than 1 km is rather unusual. I like these kind of climbs since the viewpoint ahead is never constant. You can often see a guardrail of the road, up above you, and before you know it you are there looking back down. This our final climb everyones fitness levels for this time of year clearly became evident and despite every ones equal desire to get up this hill some would endure it for longer than others. We were on route 310 on the south eastern side of Kongo san. It’s claim to fame being the highest peak in Osaka prefecture. We soon splintered into solitary riders our minds filled with either dread or elation. My demons from Mizugaki well and truly exorcised. The climb is much longer than I remember being more that 10 years past since I flashed up here. At one of those breaks in the trees I look back down and across the valley. I pause and watch the shadow of the mountain slowly creeping across it’s floor. Below I make out that little pink speck flitting along , so much like a butterfly.

Then I look back and see Yuji coming up, today I let my old competitive juices get me going again. I push off, beginning to count 100 hundred strokes as I stand on the pedals. I know it’s not much further and I only want to end this part as quick as I can. I reach into my pocket and grab another snake to munch on, keep the sugar levels up, two more corners and I can make out the tunnel entrance. I’ll stop there and wait for everyone else.  Not long really for Yuji, soon comes Yufta then Seiichi, Daisuke finally makes it just before that big shadow reaches the other side.  Together now we have a race, this one was not against each other but the light.   We surge through the tunnel and hit the rain slick roads on the other side, picking our lines through the plethora of road markings painted across the tarmac.  We are just pushing it as hard as we can. Tired but elated for there is no need to further conserve ourselves, because it really was all downhill from there……

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