Have you heard of Koyasan?
Koyasan (Mount Koya) is a large temple settlement in Wakayama prefecture which is located south of Osaka. There is no mountain called “Koya” but Koyasan, located on an 800-meter-high plain, is the name of the area that is surrounded by eight peaks of mountain. Koyasan is a sacred place of esoteric Shingon Buddhism, founded by Kobo Daishi Kukai at the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185). The year 2023 will be the 1250th anniversary since the Kobo Daishi Kukai was born.
Today, more than 52 of the 117 temples within the temple’s precincts serve as shukubo (lodging facilities), where visitors can stay overnight. Okuno-in and Danjo Garan are the two most sacred sites in Koyasan, and they continue to be worshipped by people to this day. In Okunoin, there are many tombstones, memorials, and memorial towers. Koyasan has inherited the spirit that accepts all regardless of ethnic or religious differences for more than 1,200 years.
It is such a quiet and peaceful place on the mountain where you can free yourself from the hustle and bustle of the city. I am not that a religious person but really enjoyed the serene atmosphere of Koyasan.
How to get to Koyasan?
Wakayama prefecture is located south of Osaka so you may think it is not that difficult to get to Koyasan. Indeed, it is not too difficult to get to Koyasan as public transportation is very convenient in Japan. However, Koyasan is located high up in the mountain so it does take some time to get there from Osaka station. I recommend to take folloing route from Tokyo:
- Take Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka station
- From Shin-Osaka station, take Midousuji line to get to Namba station
- Walk to Nankai Namba station and get onto Nankai Koya line (express) to get to Gokurakubashi station
- From Gokurakubashi station, take a cable car to get to Koyasan station
- From Koyasan station, take a bus to get to the city of Koya
Where to stay in Koyasan?
There are 52 temples that allow vistors to stay overnight but there are a few temples that my friend who works in Koyasan highly recommends:
We stayed in Ichijoin this time. I believe not many people have stayed in the temple before. These temples are very friendly for tourists who want to experience vegetarian meals, architectural structures of historical value, Buddhist statues, and Buddhist services.
There is a model plan for staying in Ichijoin as follows which may help vistors understand what it would be like to stay in the temple.
- Arrive in the hotel around 3 pm and relax in the room
- Take a walk to Danjo Garan which I will explain further below
- Take a bath around 4 pm before dinner
- Dinner starts at 5:30 pm
- Try copying of a sutra (optional) after dinner (optional). Calm the mind and trace the Heart Sutra.
- The lights are turned off at the entrance around 8 pm
- Signal for the start of the morning service at 6:20 am
- Morning services are held every morning from 6:30am to 7:15 am
- Breakfast at 7:30 am
- Asokukan (optional) – Asokukan is a meditation technique of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. At Ichijyo-in, you can experience an introductory version of Asokukan. In a candle-lit room, you sit in front of the “A” character, close your eyes halfway, regulate your breathing, and imagine that you are one with the universe and nature. You can sit in seiza or on your knees.
- You can spend the time until check-out to see the Buddhist paintings and fusuma-e (sliding door paintings) in the temple or read materials about Koyasan in the common room.
- Check out at 10 am
Where to explore in Koyasan?
The city of Koya is small enough that you can explore the entire town within a day.
Two places that you can’t miss out are Okunoin and Danjogaran.
1 .Okunoin – Okunoin is a 2km path extending from Ichinohashi to Gobyo, and its astounding feature is that there are over 200,000 gravestones of daimyo (feudal lords). In addition, legend says that Kobo Daishi Kukai is still meditating there to this day. If you walk slowly, taking a look at the gravestones of daimyo along the way to Kobo Daishi Gobyo, it may take an hour and a half to get to the end of the path.
One reason why there are so many gravestones of famous daimyo (feudal lords) in Okunoin seems to be attributed to the belief in paradise. The idea that Koyasan is the “general bodhi place under heaven” is interpreted as something like, “If the souls of the dead mourn at Koyasan, they can go to the paradise by the great power of the great master Kukai.
Another reason is that Koyasan was originally one of the Buddhist temples supported by the economic foundation of manors that existed in large numbers during the Heian period.
In the Warring States Period, however, the invasion of manors by feudal lords and other warlords became common, and the temple was entrusted with the survival of its territory by having shidan relationships and lodgings contracts with powerful warriors from various regions.
The combination of the temple’s intentions and the warriors’ faith in Koyasan was also a factor in the establishment of numerous tombs of warlords at Koyasan’s Okunoin Temple.
2. Danjo Garan Complex – Shingon Buddhism seminary established by Kobo Daishi Kukai. The Konpon Daito pagoda stands in the center at 48 meters high. In the spacious grounds there are many other halls such as the Kondo and Miedo, creating a solemn atmosphere.
At night, you can stroll to Danjo Garan Complex for the nighttime light-up that takes place from sunset to dawn.
There are also so many other temples in Koyasan which you can stop by while strolling in the town.
Cafe in Koyasan
We also went to the newly opened cafe (opened in August of 2022) in Koyasan called “Koyasan Cafe Shizuku”. You can enjoy vegetarian curry made from local food and sweets using Koyasan’s mascot character in this cafe. Also, the coffee they offer is produced by Sarutahiko Coffee. The coffee was full-bodied and tasted good even for those who is not a coffee drinker.
Other shops in Koyasan
There are also other shops that we stoped by in Koyasan.