My favorite part of the trip was the time we spent in the mountains. I loved how green and vibrant the landscape is, so different from most of Utah. The mountains had a calm to them that I found to be really pleasant.
One of the most memorable mountain experiences was our stay on Koyasan. Mount Koya is the heart of Shingon, or esoteric, Buddhism in Japan. Koyasan has hundreds of temples—some are preserved as museums, but many are still working temples, full of monks and prayers and ceremonies. Some of the working temples let out rooms to travelers, and we stayed at one of these for a night. The rooms were traditional, with tatami mats on the floors and a low tea table. The wooden floors creaked, and the exposed beams in the ceiling smelled nice, and the garden was very peaceful.
Before dinner, we visited Okunoin, which is a massive Buddhist cemetery and arboretum. The ancient headstones are covered in lichen and moss, and lie quietly under the towering cedars. Being there was a powerful experience. This very much felt like the sacred sites we had come to see.
While we were at dinner (a vegetarian kaiseki meal, which was delicious and featured soy milk stew) a nice person came into our rooms, moved the table, and spread a futon on the floor. After dinner, a stroll about the garden (where we encountered the sign warning us about the Bear Infestation, which we never saw a trace of), and a soak in the baths, those futons felt pretty heavenly.
The next day we explored the town and visited Kongobuji Temple. This is a huge temple with many painted screens called fusuma which depict the founding of Shingon Buddhism on Koyasan. We visited the raked gravel garden, and then the pagoda up the hill. In the afternoon, we took the funicular to get off the mountain, and then caught a wood-paneled train in order to meet the bus and make our way to Nara.