While we were staying in Osaka, Japan we wanted to make the approximately 2 hour daytrip to Mount Koya (Koyasan). In 816 Mount Koya was settled by the monk Kukai in a 800 meter high valley among the 8 peaks of the mountain. The area is home to more than 100 temples and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We were mainly interested in seeing Okunoin Cemetery. We had seen atmospheric images of bright green, moss covered monuments in a large cedar forest. Stretching on for more than 2 kilometers, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and is home to the graves of more than 200,000 monks. In Okunoin there are no dead, only waiting spirits.
We had a two day window to visit Koyasan during our trip but the first day it snowed and we heard it was quite heavy in some regions. Some people said it was more than they had seen in 80 years so we stayed in Osaka for the day. The second day it was also snowing a little bit but in Osaka it was clear. We checked with our hotel before we headed out to see if we would be able to get to Koyasan. When we got to the train station we asked again. We were assured that everything would be fine.
The train trip was uneventful. We could see a few centimeters of snow in some towns we passed. In order to get to Koyasan you need to take a train from Namba Station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station at the bottom of the mountain. From there you take a large cable car up to the top. The cable car whisks you up the steep mountain in about 5 minutes. We were really excited about taking it!
Our train suddenly stopped a station before our final stop and a conductor hurriedly came in. He asked us how many of us were going to Koyasan. Considering that there really isn’t much of anything else at that train stop, it wasn’t surprising that all of us were. He looked concerned and got off the train. Then he came back. He told us that because of the heavy snow the cable car wasn’t working. Looking outside the window there was just a light covering of snow but on the other side of the mountain it was another story. Nearly 2 feet of snow had fallen in a short time. We didn’t know this at the time but nearly 40 passengers had been left stranded in the cable car for 90 minutes.
The conductor ran off and onto the train several times while my husband who speaks Japanese and one Japanese woman who spoke English tried to find out what was going on. They then did their best to translate what little information we got to the other passengers. The conductor told us that if we still wanted to go up the mountain they would provide taxis or buses for us. Would the cable care be running later that day? They didn’t know. Would we get a refund for the tickets we had already bought? They didn’t know. If we went up the mountain, how would we get back? They didn’t know. They did assure us though that at the top of the mountain everything was open and running. If the taxi driver ran into difficulty, he would turn back and take us back to the train station.
Taxi Ride from Hell
It seemed like it would be ok so we went and got into the taxi. There had been about 30-40 people on the train with us and half turned back. We didn’t know this though since we were in the first taxi. That was something we also didn’t realize! Right away the taxi was all over the road. Branches were on the road and trees were bent over. Every once and awhile the snow would loosen from the trees and suddenly drop onto the road in front of us. On one side of us was mountain. On the other side was a steep drop off with only a small barrier.
Immediately I asked to turn back. We were told it was just a little way further. The car slid across the road. I searched for my seatbelt and realized that while my husband and son had one, I didn't. The taxi driver insisted that I did. I didn't. He told us the road was too slippery for us to turn around. We saw other cars coming down the road and I insisted that he stop and let us go back down with them but he said that if he stopped he wouldn't be able to get going again. It ended up coming out that on a good day this drive takes about 20-30 minutes. We were not close at all. The taxi was sliding all over the place and I was screaming that he needed to stop. I am pretty sure he had never driven in snow or ice before and the drop off the mountain would surely kill us all. He insisted that the cable car was now running and if we just waited until we got to the top we would be able to come back down in the cable car instead of taking another taxi down. I held my son tight and continued to tell him to let us get out of the car.
The spirits of those 200,000 resting monks must have been looking out for us because when we got to a particularly steep and slippery section of road the taxi couldn’t keep going. The wheels spun on the ice and the back end of the car started to slide to the edge of the drop off. When he paused between revving the engine we grabbed our son and our bags and jumped out of the car. Behind us 3 other taxis carrying passengers from the train had caught up and were now also stuck behind him. He and his friend put newspapers under the tires and told us to get back into the taxi so there would be more weight for traction. They also asked us to help push but each time they tried to push the taxi was sliding backwards. Holding on to my son for dear life I refused to get anywhere near that taxi.
After a while a small private bus came along with 7 seats available. With chains on their tires the driver was able to take us and the passengers from 2 more taxis to the top of the mountain. The driver was listening to my husband’s favorite song by his favorite Japanese band. This was surely a sign that we had been saved! The driver of the bus told us that the cable car was not running. The taxi driver had lied about that as well. We wanted to turn back but the driver suggested we go to the top (which was truthfully close now) and relax a bit first. We made it to the top with no further problems. The final taxi was able to make it up the mountain somehow but the other 3, including ours ended up getting towed.
Everything in Koyasan was covered in snow but most of the streets had been cleaned and the buses had chains around their tires so they were running smoothly. The workers at the train station were confident that the cable car would be running again soon. So much time had passed that we really didn’t have time for much sightseeing so we headed over to Okunoin Cemetery right away.
Nine of us from our train ended up at the cemetery: our family of 3, a Japanese couple, a couple from China, 1 student from Australia and a man from Taiwan. The man from Taiwan summed up our feelings very well when he shared that he was really excited about the snow (he had never seen any before) but at the same time he didn't want to die. We didn’t run into anyone else while we were there. We think we are the last group (maybe only group) that was sent up the mountain that day.
Instead of moss covered monuments we were greeted with a winter wonderland. Luckily we had brought our baby carrier with us “just in case”. Our son is 4 and really doesn’t need a carrier but the snow was past his knees in some places.
We didn’t see all the major sites of interest because not all of the pathways were cleared. One of the people we were with also pointed out that we needed to head back to the train station quickly. Once the sun started to go down everything would be getting even icier. We did a quick loop around the main path and headed back. Less than an hour after we had arrived we were leaving Koyasan.
Once we arrived at the cable car station we were informed that it would not be running for the rest of the day. They actually thought it might be out of service for several days and the only way back down was by taxi. Our second taxi driver was less of a macho ass and knowing just how long the trip was actually going to take this time helped our fear a lot. There was some sliding but nothing like before and we were driving into better conditions rather than into worse conditions. Our son though decided that this would be a perfect time to sing for the entire trip. Wanting the taxi driver to be able to pay full attention so we wouldn’t die, we tried everything we could to keep him quiet but he wouldn’t stop singing. Now it’s funny. Then it wasn’t.
Each of us who had made the trip up the mountain made it back down (except for a group of 3 tourists who were staying overnight). While we had chatted away nonstop earlier everyone sat in silence on the train ride back towards Osaka. No contact information was shared. As we pulled up to each of our stops we said our goodbyes and went on our way. Was it worth it? I’d have to say “no”. Koyasan is beautiful and spiritual but I truly feared for our lives. I’d love to go back there some day. Just not in the snow.