By Deborah Howell

We wanted to eat and I’ve like the locals, so Yuki makes a quick roadside stop for Octopus cakes. This is the treat that kids–especially from Osaka–love the most. Imagine something that looks like dumplings but is actually a type of donut cake, filled on the inside with octopus and octopus juice. Drizzle something that looks like Hershey’s chocolate over the top, warm it in the oven, and there you have it. This was the only thing so far in Japan I’ve actually had to spit out. And believe you me, we’ve tried some strange looking -‘and truly gooey things! Just couldn’t hack the octo cakes.

Photos: Octopus Cakes and Buddhist Blessings, Priceless Koyasan Beckons

Lol Enormous grapes, Asian pears and succulent melons are found along the roadside stands and samples of whole fruit are cut up for you to eat even if you don’t buy anything and even if you have octo cake breath. (So of course we always bought something.) We stop for roadside ramen at a typical local hole in the wall. Wow.

That is some seriously good ramen with fish sausage, paired with fried rice on the side. Blake orders a melon drink the color of the slime in Ghostbusters. Of course he loves it.

Now we come to the holy mountain town of Koyasan, founded around 835 AD. It’s where the temperature drops and our Japanese experience deepens exponentially. We enter a mausoleum for the elite called Okunoin (hidden place) where dozens of generations of royalty have laid their ancestors to rest. This mausoleum is fully outside in the woods, shaded by a canopy of 300 foot cedar (pine) trees that goes on forever. It was absolutely like walking through a dreamscape. The moss-covered ceremonial statues and headstones are all works of art in their own right, and the ones dedicated to babies who were lost too early in life break your heart.

We wandered through indoor and outdoor shrines in this hallowed atmosphere for hours, gasping at things so beautiful you couldn’t help but vocally express your wonder out loud. So surreal was this forest haven we expected to see fairies and gremlins flying around, paying their respects. Though I can share certain photos with you, other spots we visited were so holy that picture taking was not allowed.

I wish I could take every one of you by the hand and walk you through these woods so you can feel the sense of awe and wonder as we did. And take you into the basement of one shrine I particular, where there were thousands upon thousands of tiny brass Buddhas lining the cave-like walls of this dark, candle lit inner chamber. Each Buddha has a name on it, representing someone who is buried in this park. The Buddhas are purchased by the families to have something above ground that represents their loved one’s spirit–and to ensure it goes on.

Back upstairs and into the woods, we came to a long fountain area where there were dozens of large stone Buddhas in a row, with a trough of water beneath. Here you take a cup fastened to the end of a long stick, dip the cup into the water and then splash the water onto the Buddha. Each cup of water is in remembrance of a lost friend, family member or pet, and it’s a powerful experience to recall each person you’ve loved and lost in this way. One by one, cup by cup.

By the way, if you were wondering, there are female Buddhas as well as male ones. My favorite female Buddha is the one who represents art and music. She makes me smile every time I see her countenance , and I hope to take a bit of her mellow spirit with me when our time here has ended.

We would have gladly stayed much longer, but we didn’t want to be late for dinner. In his inspired planning of this trip, Yuki has included an overnight stay at a small working temple owned and operated by Buddhist monks. Stunning in its simplicity, this inviting compound combines respect for hoary tradition with the finest modern conveniences.

We left our sneakers outside the lobby, put on our slippers and wandered around our new surroundings. There were some rules to follow:

please don’t wear your kimonos to the ceremony in the morning, please don’t roll your suitcase through the hall but carry it, please wash thoroughly before entering the hot baths. We were happy to comply–one look in these monks’ gentle eyes told us that things are important and these rules are for a reason.

Our room was actually more like a Japanese home, with several rooms covered with tatami mats on the floors. (Socks or slippers only,

please.) You could slide the wall screens in any number of configurations for privacy or to make the space one big room. The porch area had floor to ceiling sliding windows looking out onto a perfectly manicured garden and koi pond. I could spend a week just sitting on the stone steps leading to this garden, lost in the majesty of it. A quaint tea house completed the picture, nestled into the mountain above the pond.

This was it. The exact picture I had of rural Japan in my mind before coming here, and as we moved through these rooms in our kimonos, tears of gratitude kept springing to my eyes.

The Buddhist monks do not believe in the taking of any animal life, so the menu here is all plant-based. Our servers came silently into our room and as we sat in the garden, slid the screens to shut off a room for dining and laid out our meal for us on small orange lacquer trays.

We sat on floor cushions, poured some green tea, and began exploring the lovely creations before us in a myriad of small bowls and vessels.

It looked like an art exhibit in a high end museum. And felt like a high end movie. Don’t tell anyone, but the Howells cheated halfway through our meal and brought in some low chairs in order to sit more comfortably with our long legs.

Favorites treats before is included sweet red beans, streamed yams, seaweed salad, miso soup, brown tea soup, coconut tofu, eggplant bundles, fried lotus root, sweet tomato gellee’, ginger root, bean paste cakes, and many other things we couldn’t possibly identify but enjoyed immensely. Washed down with local sake and Asahi beer, we certainly felt no deprivation and didn’t miss meat, fish, or eggs n the least. So proud of Blake, who tries absolutely everything set before him instead of turning up his nose because it light look foreign to him. He’s absolutely loving the culinary experience here and takes photos of everything before ingesting it with gusto.

After dinner, we finished our sake in the garden, talking quietly and planning our next day’s adventure. It’s been a full week away from TV, commercials, and most especially a welcome break from the political race, and we all are better off for this news fast.

Hiroko and I headed for the hot baths together, now a comfortable routine for us. As I headed back to our rooms, I saw a smile on my husband’s face like never before. “We couldn’t re-create this trip for a trillion dollars,” he said, shaking his head in wonder, gazing out at the koi pond. “Once in a lifetime,” I replied gratefully.

The next morning, Saturday August 27th, 2016, was my birthday. It began in splendid fashion, with a 6:30 Buddhist ceremony in the temple on the premises. So pretty. So simple. So powerful. The unison chanting of monks is a wondrous thing, indeed. Much can be gleaned just from the chanting, bells and occasional gongs calling the spirits to our small congregation; you don’t need to know the language to feel elevated and enlightened. As a matter of fact, the longer I stay in Japan, the more enlightened I feel. It makes me want to be the best possible human I can be. Hoping to hang onto this feeling once we return home.

Each person in the congregation takes a turn at the front of the altar facing the monks to bow, kneel, and transfer incense from one vessel into another where it’s lit by fire. We felt honored to take part in this ceremony wth the others, guide by Hiroko and Yuki. After all have taken their turn, an elder monk gave his message to us (to make this life on earth count as much as you can) and to remember and honor friends and family members who have gone onto the next life. Then we were invited to take time to walk around the temple on our own and enjoy the relics and stunning art pieces within it. What a blessed way to begin a birthday and another year on the planet.

Once again our room was set for a meal by the time we got back from the ceremony, and it was probably the best b-day breakfast of my life.

You could taste the love and tenderness within each small beautifully wrapped bundle of goodness.

Powered by plants, we reluctantly take leave of the temple and head northwest toward our next stop, Kojima City, which is located in the Okayama prefecture.

See more of my adventures through Japan here.


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