Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day 48: Climbing to Koya-san

Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Biked 90km (55 miles) from Nara to Asuka Mura Village, then up the mountain to the Buddhist town of Koya-san. Biked for 7 hours total, including 3 hours up the mountain, the last of which was in the dark. Spooky!
We said goodbye to Nara in the mid-morning, retracing our steps from yesterday's ride to Horyu-Ji, then continuing on to Asuka Mura. A candidate to become a World Heritage Site, the quaint village of just over 6,000 residents boasts a pleasant Buddhist temple and some unusual ancient granite stones. No one knows the origin of the mysterious, colossal rock structures, which may have been ancient burial sites, or places for communal worship, or the result of a group of early Japanese stone cutters with plenty of time on their hands... We visited Ishibutai Kofun, where Sho used the massive stones as a launching pad for some impressive leaps.
Rice fields stretched around us. Mountains loomed in the distance. And one of those, Mt. Koya, waited for us. Today's destination was a collection of over 100 Buddhist temples in the heart of Mt. Koya's 8 peaks. The base for the Shingon Buddhist sect, the town of Koya was founded almost 1200 years ago by the monk Kukai, after he returned from a spiritual journey to China. Many temples offer lodging for visitors, and Sho and I had a reservation at one. We looked forward to the unique experience of participating in a few chants and meditation sessions.
But we had to get there first. I knew we had pushed our luck by staying in Asuka Mura until mid-afternoon, and I pushed the pace as we got underway. Unfortunately, the route was hilly from the start, and the muggy 90 degree weather sapped our strength, so we plodded along at a modest pace, despite our best efforts.
I had actually been looking forward to another challening ride up a mountain. I was confident that we could make the long, steep climb up Mt. Koya without too much difficulty, after our successful week of riding over the Japan Alps. The main question today was, Can we make it before night fall? We rode hard over the rolling terrain for 2 hours from Asuka Mura before reaching the base of Mt. Koya at 5pm, where I nearly made a significant mistake. We came to an intersection with a sign that pointed us in a different direction from the route my GPS said we should take. Assuming that there must be two alternative routes, I ignored the sign and followed my GPS's instructions. After a few minutes of riding, I realized that I'd just forgotten an important lesson from this trip: when in doubt, ask a local. So I did just that.
The old man raised his eyebrows and murmured, "Wow, look at that!", ogling our connected bikes as we pulled to a stop in front of his house.
"Is the temple town of Koya this way?", I asked, as he took a closer look at Sho's bicycle.
"Nope. You're headed to the highest of Mt. Koya's summits. There's nothing up there but forest. The road is narrow, steep and has a lot of debris from rock slides on it. The temple town you want is back the other direction."
I had entered "Koya-san" in Japanese into my GPS, which is the name of both the Buddhist temple town and the mountain, and the GPS had chosen to send us to the mountain top! Relieved at having caught the potentially awful mistake, we turned back with a grateful thank you to the man who had just saved us from an unplanned overnight stay on an exposed mountain top. He gave Sho a hearty "Gambatte!" ("good luck") as we pulled away.
The first hour of climbing through the forest covering Mt. Koya's lower reaches was beautiful, but a bit disappointing. Full of modest ascents followed by easy flat and down hill sections, I murmured to myself, "This will be a piece of cake," happily ticking away the miles at a solid clip. But at 6pm, with just over an hour of light left, the mountain got serious. No more easy slopes and refreshing downhills. The real climbing had begun with regular doses of long, winding 10% grades mixed in with the "easy" sections at 6 - 8%. Instead of zipping along at a healthy clip, we were now trudging up at a crawl, sweat dripping down to sizzle on the hot pavement. We pushed down hard on the pedals, struggling to maintain forward momentum up the steep, unforgiving, narrow road. My body protested at having to work so hard at the end of a day of riding. Sho complained that he was ready to stop for the day. And most annoying of all, cars constantly passed us from both directions, headed to and from the popular tourist destination. Unlike the deserted climbs through the Japan Alps, where we could swing out and back on the empty road to generate momentum, the traffic forced me to maintain a straight line squeezed to the far side of the road, allowing little room for error next to the sheer drop off a few feet to our left.
Another hour of hard pushing up, up, up, and we were still climbing. The sun's rays faded away behind the mountain's forest canopy, and we were still climbing. We turned on lights at the back and front of our bikes to make sure the cars could see us. The traffic was dwindling, and we experienced long stretches of riding through the oppressive darkness, intensified by the overhanging tree cover. My front light cast out a constant stream of strange, spooky shadows as I jerked the bike back and forth with each heavy pedal stroke up the incline. Eery sounds emanated from the darkness and echoed across the black expanse just beyond the road's edge.
"Dad, this is really spooky. I don't like it," Sho complained.
"I don't like it either, buddy. We'll get there soon," was all I could offer in response. I began to talk to the mountain and to myself, annoyed at my hubris in thinking we could make it to Koya before dark. And we pushed on. Despite his complaints, Sho didn't give up. And despite my annoyance at my overconfidence, I knew that we had a safe place to stay waiting for us at the top. We pushed on.
And finally, after another of a seemingly endless series of steep switchbacks, we rounded a corner and came upon a huge, brightly lit red Buddhist gate. Called Daimon ("big gate"), it glowed against the dark forest background and offered a hearty welcome to tired wanderers. We had made it to Koya! An hour after dark and completely spent, but we had made it.
We found our way through the compact mountain town to Renge-Jo-in, the temple where we had a reservation. Thankfully, they had saved dinner for us: a collection of delicious flavored tofu, miso soup, mountain vegetables, rice and hot tea. Famished from the exhausting ride, we wolfed down everything while still in our sweat-soaked biking clothes. Lounging in the temple's hot onsen bath afterward, our bellies full and memories of the spooky alpine ride already fading, we smiled at one another.
Sho laughed, splashed me with water and said, "Another day, another adventure, huh?!"

1 comment:

  1. How was Koya-san climb? I imagine that it was not easy. Besides, it is hot these days.

    Looks forward to seeing your report.

    T. Ishida