The Zen of Japanese Trains
Without warning, the train pulled to a stop and refused to move. I had no idea where I was. I hoped I was still en route to Koya-san, Japan’s holy mountain. Here sleeps the Kobo Dashi, revered for bringing Shingon Buddhism to Japan, and who has spent the last one thousand years waiting for the Buddha of the Future. Monks still bring food twice a day to his mausoleum, the Oko-In.
Catching a train in Japan boarders on a leap of faith. At every station the signs are a complex system of interlocking lines in a rainbow colours, and what little I could read proved no help. I was never entirely convinced that either the train or myself knew where we were headed.
Yet, as the saying goes, the journey is often more important than the destination. Whizzing across the country in the famed bullet train, at one stage I passed palm trees and open water – not to mention a fleeting view of Mt Fuji. Now, speeding through Osaka’s outskirts, the train passed industrial areas and modern housing estates, interspersed with mazes of alleyways lined with traditional wooden houses. Vegetable plots and tiny rice paddies filled any spare space. As the sprawling city was left behind, the view outside the window became one of farmland, and this is where the train came to an unexpected stop.
As the train continued to not move, the carriage emptied, and a smiling conductor kindly evicted me. Despite not speaking any English, somehow he reassured me that everything would be alright. As everyone else melted into the countryside, I was left sitting on my bags on an empty platform, with only the buzz of insects and the call of birds for company.
I dripped with sweat. Silent fields stretched to the horizon, and I watched the rise and dip of conical hats as farmers worked fields cultivated for centuries. It was a scene immortalised by the anime of Hayao Miyazaki (famous for classics such as Spirited Away and My Friend Totoro). For all I knew on leaving the train I had walked into a dream-world, onto a station which did not exist. Any moment the lamps beside me would come to life and hop away, guiding me to my destination as the night closed in on a cloud of fog.
Fortunately, a train arrived before the ubiquitous vending machine had been entirely emptied of its
offerings. As the land climbed, the summer heat faded. After passing orchards filled with fruit trees heavy with blossom, I entered a world of primeval forests filled with pine and cypress. At Gokuraku-bashi Station, the black-robed monks with their shawls of saffron, along with the pilgrims and tourists, were ushered into a cable car. This leapt into a wall of green, carrying us all to the top of the Holy Mountain.
The train had repaid my faith.