Hikone Castle & Mount Koya

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Since my one-night stopover in Tokyo last winter, I’ve been thinking of making a longer trip to Japan and see the most interesting places all over the country. A perfect opportunity came faster than I expected. I was invited to a conference in Hiroshima and I decided to fly in a week earlier. After a lot of on-line research I gave up on crazy ideas like climbing Mt. Fuji alone, and I settled on a more comfortable plan – to get a weekly JR Pass and visit a few places on the route from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

My primary focus would be historic places and interesting photo locations. I’ve just given myself some new camera gear as a birthday gift and I am excited to try some field work.

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Hikone Castle

As I’ve already seen some of Tokyo, I decided to skip it all together. After a lengthy process of getting a data SIM card at the airport, I picked up my JR Pass and hopped on the bullet train. My first destination is the Hikone Castle, some three hours train ride south from Tokyo. I choose to visit this place for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there were no reasonable hotels left in Kamakura, which was my plan A. Secondly, I had to rule out the Five Lakes District below Mt Fuji because it was too far from my next destination, while Hikone was right midway. Thirdly, I wanted to see one of the typical Japanese castles and I was afraid that the most famous one, Himeji, would be too crowded. And last but not least, I found an awesome hotel with a hot pool (my newly discovered Japanese pleasure) overlooking the castle. What a nice treat after nearly a day long journey.

First thing that struck me in Japan was how early it gets dark. I expected to make some sunset photos in Hikone but instead it got dark just after we left Tokyo. Later I found out that Japan has no daylight saving. So when I got to Hikone, I just had dinner, soaked in the hot pool and planned to get up early to catch the sunrise. Although the bed was very comfortable, I was probably too excited (or jet-lagged), woke up around 2AM and couldn’t sleep anymore. Around 4:30 I grabbed my tripod and camera and went for a walk around the castle. The air outside felt great – warm and slightly humid, like on a holiday in Italy. Much better than my air-conditioned room. The streets were quiet and you could hear some kind of cicadas or crickets buzzing in the trees incredibly loudly. I only took a few photos before it started raining and I decided to head back to the hotel because I had no umbrella.

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After a truly delicious breakfast I set off to the castle again, happy that it’s not raining anymore. My luck ended a few minutes after I entered the castle grounds and the rain wouldn’t stop pouring until I left the town. Thoroughly wet, I bought an emergency umbrella and walked carefully, trying not to slip on the stone path.

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Military base in disguise

Hikone Castle is one of the best preserved castles in Japan. While most others have been conquered, or damaged in World War II and re-built from a scratch, Hikone is the same as 400 year ago when it was built, with massive wooden trunks supporting the roof. Some blog posts mentioned, for example, that in contrary to renovated castles, this one has no elevators. Why this is a big deal I understood only when I saw the original stairs – or perhaps slopes – that were probably built as a security measure, since the castle served as a military fortress. Nowadays, narrow stairs are mounted on the slopes, but the climb is still challenging, especially for elderly Japanese tourists who constitute the majority of visitors I encountered. Another thing that derives from the military nature of the castle is that the interior is really hollow. Forget Versailles, this is another kind of castle. A square hall with ryokan-style rooms in the middle. What a contrast with how fancy it looks from outside.

And funny fact no. 1: In Japan, you have to take off your shoes when visiting castles and temples… and Japanese always wear socks. I didn’t. So I ended up walking through the castle barefoot, leaving a wet trail behind.

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The castle is located on a hill overlooking Lake Biwa. Due to the rain I haven’t got any gorgeous views of the lake, but the garden below the castle was beautiful even in the rain.

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It even stopped raining for a moment. But not enough for the atmospheric tea & cake terrace to open. So I headed back to the hotel, excited about my next destination, Mount Koya, that was just a few hours train ride away.

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Mount Koya

Mount Koya, or Koyasan, is a unique mountain village with perhaps the highest concentration of Buddhist temples ever. It was established around the year 800 by religious leader Kobo Daishi and became the centre of Shingon Buddhism (read more about it here). It’s on the UNESCO world heritage list. As it takes a few hours to get there from any major city, it’s not among the most frequent tourist destinations. However, it seems to be gaining popularity among western travelers, as the possibility of spending a night in one of the local Buddhist temples is very tempting.

I planned to arrive to Mount Koya early enough to be able to get some sunset photos. However, I was so tired that I just collapsed and woke up for the dinner. Afterwards, I set off to the main sight of Mount Koya, the Okunoin cemetery, which is the largest cemetery in Japan, with more than 120 000 tombstones, old and new. My research said that the cemetery is particularly beautiful at night, and it proved to be true.

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Temple lodging

I spent the night at the Daienin temple. The routine in all temples is pretty much the same. You get a traditional ryokan-style room (with a futon mat on the floor), an early dinner and an early breakfast. All food is vegetarian and quite delicious. In the evening you can bath in the shared hot pool (gender separated) and very early in the morning you can attend monks’ prayer ceremony. The ceremony may seem a bit lengthy for someone who is not particularly spiritual and doesn’t understand Japanese, but it definitely is a worthy experience. Prayer rooms are beautifully decorated and smell nice, like incense.

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Garan temple complex

If you’ve stayed at a temple, your morning starts pretty early. By 8AM you’re done with breakfast and ready to go sightseeing. The advantage of the morning is that the tourists who are coming just for a day trip haven’t arrived yet. My plan was to start with the cemetery but it started raining again, so I turned around and headed to the other side of the village, towards the Garan temple complex. I had some discount coupons for entrance, which were included in the train ticket, so everything was really cheap.

On the way I stopped at the Kongobuji Temple which has a stunning stone garden and ryokan-style rooms with beautifully painted panels (forbidden to photograph, but you can google it).

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The Garan complex includes two big temples and a plenty of smaller ones. I didn’t really investigate into their history and purpose, there’s not much info in English anyway and all the names and stories are just too confusing for a non-Japanese visitor. Instead, I enjoyed the beauty and atmosphere of the place. Most visitors were Japanese and some of them were obviously on a spiritual pilgrimage, focused and sometimes chanting prayers in groups. Mount Koya is one of the most sacred places in Japan and it’s visited by many worshipers who come to perform small rituals, such as displaying messages near temples.

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Okunoin

Okunoin is a large cemetery with an incredible atmosphere day and night. At noon, it was obviously busier than during my last visit but it kept the special atmosphere and didn’t feel crowded. There are two walking paths through the cemetery, I took the longer one that winds amidst ancient tombstones for almost two kilometers. It is absolutely stunning and incomparable to anything I have ever seen. The atmosphere might be similar to the old Jewish cemetery in Prague – but hundred times bigger and located in a beautiful forest.

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Larger tombs, perhaps those of powerful figures, include a big torii gate and a couple of high column structures. There are thousands of Buddha statues everywhere. Many are dressed into red bibs, for reasons unknown to me (if you know, send me a message). The red really stands out among all the grey and green.

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The end of the walk is getting crowded. The two paths join before the mausoleum where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Mount Koya, “rests in eternal meditation”. Hundreds of people come here to pay homage and perform rituals. A river separates the mausoleum from the rest of the complex. Beyond the bridge, it is not allowed to take photos. The mausoleum is located behind a big temple. The walk around is impressive. Japanese visitors are chanting, burning aroma sticks, reading mantras from books, and ringing bells… I won’t stay long because this place should be kept for those who came here for a spiritual reason.

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Apparently, the legacy of Kobo Daishi is strong, many people come here in their life, and wish to be buried here in their death. Even big companies have built tombs at the cemetery and you can also see memorials to dead soldiers. The cemetery is constantly growing. Looking at the new graves you can imagine how it looked when it was all new. But I think it just gets better with age…

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