Koyasan is the founding location of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. A priest then known as Kukai, and posthumously referred to as Kobo Daishi (The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching,) learned the esoteric ways of Shingon Buddhism in China before traveling to Japan in 816 and getting approval from Emperor Saga to build a mountain retreat on Mount Koya. The temple grounds were officially consecrated in 819 beginning an ongoing tradition lasting more than a millennium!
Koyasan, or Mount Koya, was my favorite off the beaten path destination in Japan. In fact it might be the favorite place I went in the whole country! After road tripping from Matsue to Izumo, Iwami Ginzan to Onomichi we were finally at our last stop, Wakayama. Wakayama prefecture is on the southern central edge of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The main reason for stopping in Wakayama was to take a day trip to Koyasan and discover the marvels that put it on UNESCO’s list of sacred sites and pilgrimage routes.
Shingon translates to “True Words” in Chinese and “Mantra” in Sanskrit
Getting to Koyasan
The best way to get to Koyasan is by train. Trains go to Koyasan from Kyoto, Osaka Airport, Nara, and even Tokyo!
More information about the train schedules can be found at Nankaikoya.jp/en.
Drive to Koyasan like we did. The mountain roads are narrow but well maintained
Public trips from Kyoto and other cities are available but you will pay a premium
Since Koyasan is close to Kyoto why no add it to your 3 day Kyoto Itinerary!
When you arrive in Koyasan you’ll see Daimon, a beautiful gate, near the edge of the mountains announcing your entrance into this sacred region. The road slopes downward into a small village with temples lining either side of the streets. Rumor has it there are now over 130 temples in all of Mount Koya and many of them are free to enter! There are also a number of temples that are off limits to tourists and others that cost a few hundred yen. When we visited all the temples were free to celebrate the New Year.
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After getting to the main village I recommend stopping at Konpondaito Pagoda, The Garan and nearby buildings. You can explore the living quarters of monks and even taste some local green or ginger tea. When walking around these historic buildings you’ll find intricate screens and beautiful designs. Many of these have accompanying signs that say “no photos” so you’ve gotta check them out yourself.
One of my favorite parts of this group of temples was the zen rock garden. I had seen one at the Yuushien Japanese Garden but this was much more peaceful tucked away in the mountains. Quiet and solitude embraced nature throughout this sanctuary. For me this experience of walking through these halls made me think about what it would be like 1200 years ago living a peaceful life in the mountains.
Koyasan was inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004 as part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”
The main attraction at Koyasan is Okunoin, a mausoleum dedicated to Kobo Daishi where devotees believe he is in a state of eternal samadhi or mediation beneath the mountain. The pathway leading up to Okunoin is called Sando and takes you through a beautiful forest that reminds me of the Pacific North West’s Hoh Rainforest. Massive trees tower above you providing shade even on a bright shining day.
The true beauty is that Sando is in fact home to over 200,000 graves! Buddhists of all castes ranging from military commandos and wealthy elite to common folk are all buried here. For
the last 1200 years this peaceful forest has been the final resting place for the faithful. UNESCO recognized this cultural importance back in 2004 and now travelers like you and me can visit.
Over 200,000 graves in Sando at Mount Koya, Japan
Walking along the path you’ll find thousands of ancient, moss covered gravestones. Most of them are known as Gorintō or 5 tiered pagoda. Each layer is a different shape representing the elements important to Shingon Buddhism: cube (Earth), sphere (Water), pyramid (Fire), hemisphere (Air), jewel (Ether)
The trail winds in and out of the trees as go deeper into the forest. After about 30 minutes of walking you’ll find Torodo Hall, the main temple building. It is here that worshipers come and pray with the meditating Kobo Daishi.
When arriving at Torodo you’ll see many signs stating clearly “No Photos.” A series of stone Buddha’s will sit beside the path with holy water trickling below. Line up to splash water on each of these saying a prayer for your loved ones.
After this prayer walk across the bridge to the main hall. You’ll find plenty of collection boxes offering incense and candles to help you pray. We were fortunate enough to have an elderly Japanese woman take us around and teach us the prayers. Although she didn’t speak any English so without Andrew there to translate it would have been tough to figure out the steps. Her daughter explained that she comes to Koyasan once a month and makes a habit of helping strangers pray. We were grateful for her assistance as she guided us into a basement prayer room with thousands of small BuddhasLinger as long as you want in this peaceful sanctuary. You can truly become one with nature here so its easy to understand why Kobo Daishi chose this as his spot for eternal meditation.
Walking back to the road you can follow the same wooded path or take the left fork as we did. You’ll pass a beautiful pyramid of tiny graves and quickly come upon newer gravestones. Many of these appear to be sponsored by big businesses like Toyota or Sharp. If you’re in a rush to head back then follow our same path but if I could do it again I would have enjoyed strolling back through the forest more than walking along the road.
We only had the day in Koyasan but there is plenty more to see if you have the chance to spend a night or two. You can arrange a temple stay, tea ceremonies or just explore the serenity of this beautiful mountain but however you visit I’m sure you’ll love Koysasan!
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