At 6.20am the ageing PA crackles to life. Ten minutes to prayer. Ten minutes to prayer. I am on a flattened futon on a woven straw floor, bright light shining through the paper walls. On the other side, a postcard Japanese garden: stone path, small pond, a red bridge and towering cedars.
Minutes later and I’m winding through the corridors towards the temple meeting room. A thermometer on the wall puts the temperature at 26 degrees, already, at an altitude that puts us around ten degrees lower than most of Japan. Others join me on the corridor, their eyes bleary and their movements slow.
We’re all guests at Sekisho-in, one of around a hundred Buddhist temples within Koya-San that offer lodgings, here for the Obon candle festival the previous evening. For around £100 we get to share space with working monks, eat with them and worship with them, high atop a sacred mountain around two hours and 867 metres above Osaka.
It’s beautiful and serene and a long, long way from the frantic neon and sapping heat of Japan’s cities. But it’s 6.25am nonetheless, and most of us are looking terrible. With no dress code specified we’re a refugee-camp assortment of shorts and pyjama bottoms, of inappropriate t-shirt slogans and bright-green house robes. One girl has Every Little Helps emblazoned across her chest, apparently unaware of its sprawling corporate associations. With a dawning horror I realise that I’m wearing the Rage Against The Machine top with the nuns cradling shotguns.
The temple itself is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful room we’ve seen in two weeks of travelling across a country with many, many beautiful rooms. Hundreds of lanterns criss-cross the ceiling, glowing a deep and vibrant orange, and statues and alters surround on every side. There’s around sixty of us attempting to kneel on the floor: only half are succeeding, the rest shifting uncomfortably atop numbing limbs. In an alcove at the centre six monks chant ceaselessly, their voices weird and guttural but compellingly hypnotic, a poetry of twining sounds that, after twenty minutes, seems to have lessened the pain.
Breakfast is a guidebook-image of wooden bowls filled with coloured matter that no-one can quite identify: three London bricklayers opposite reminisce at length over Coco-Pops. It strikes us a few minutes in that theirs are the first British voices we’ve heard besides ours in seven days, and they seem so brash and out of place in these surroundings. Later we notice we’re barely speaking above a whisper: I sneeze and feel impossibly guilty.
As we pack our bags and retrieve our shoes and fail again at a farewell in Japanese we realise that we’ve never felt so peaceful – that, however briefly, we’ve found an interval from life. And then we’re back on the Shinkansen, the world outside a blur of motion as insomniac Tokyo rushes up with manic fervour to consume our senses anew.