In order to take a break from modern Osaka, I ventured to a secluded village up in the holiest mount an of Japan for a spiritual rejuvenation. Mount Koya (or Koyasan) is the birthplace of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan that was founded by Kobo Daishi* over 1,200 years ago. Today, the UNESCO-designated World Heritage site has 52 shukubo open to visitors. Shukubo are temples that historically offered overnight lodgings to pilgrims, with the majority of them welcoming tourists today. The shukubo experience includes sleeping on a tatami mat floor in a 1,000-year-old temple, eating a vegan feast cooked by the resident monks and participating in certain Buddhist rituals. A trip to Koyasan is an authentic spiritual trip that refreshes the soul.
For my recent trip to Osaka, I carved out two days to make my way up the mountain. Normally, this trip would take 90 minutes on an express train from Namba station on the Nankai Koya Line. Unfortunately, two weeks before I arrived in Japan, a typhoon disabled the cable car service between Gokurakubashi and Koyasan, approximately a 5-minute journey. Now, visitors must take the train to Hashimoto station and then take a bus up the mountain to Koyasan for an additional 1 hour, for a total travel time of almost 3 hours. Once I arrived after the expedition to Koyasan bus station, I boarded another bus heading toward Okunoin Cemetery where my shubuko, Kumagaiji Temple (founded in 837AD), is located. This temple features classic Japanese architecture and simple facilities with shared bathrooms and an onsen** among guests. After checking in to my traditional room, I was ready to take in the sights around this sacred village.
My first stop was Kongobu-ji Temple, which is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism featuring the Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest rock garden in Japan, and a portrait of Kobo Daishi. The temple visit consisted of walking around and appreciating the gilded door screens in each room adorned with paintings of nature. The temple was decorated sparsely and had few visitors since I came on a weekday, so I had most of it to myself. Next, I walked toward the Garan complex through a pathway littered with autumns leaves that were turning brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow. The Garan complex contained numerous buildings and structures built by Kobo Daishi and is where majority of the Buddhist services in Koyasan are held. Of the structures that are there, I focused on Chumon, Kondo, Rokkaku Kyuzo, Konpon Daito, Daito Bell and Hasu-ike.
- Chumon is a twin-tiered, five-sectioned tower standing at the lowest point before the entry to the Kondo.
- Kondo is a building that serves as a central hall on Mount Koya.
- Rokkaku Kyuzo is a hexagonal depository of scriptures where there are handles near the base, which can be rotated. This is done to denote that one has completed the pious act of reading the scriptures once through.
- Kopon Daito is a 145-foot pagoda that is a representation of the universe in Shingon Buddhism, and it played a role as the central training dojo for the Shingon Sect.
- Daito Bell is the 4th largest bell in Japan, and it rings five times a day.
- Hasu-ike is a picturesque lotus pond that houses a small shrine that was thought to clear the drought of 1771.
Each structure had historical and religious significance; however, it is best to appreciate the exteriors as there is not much to see inside. Walking around the complex allowed me to take in the fall weather and the beautifully laid out structures while dodging an arsenal of camera wielding elderly tourists.
Another short walk from the Garan complex was the Daimon Gate or a tori gate that marks the entrance to Mount Koya. There is an inscription on the gate that reads “Kobo Daishi appears each morning, makes the rounds, and offers us salvation.”
At a certain point, I got templed out as the moderate autumn temperature dropped and the sun started to set. Buses are not as useful in Koyasan as they come by infrequently, so I ended walking back to Kumagaiji Temple, a task that I dreaded after a long day. Along the way, I passed by Koyasan Reihōkan with just 45 minutes left before closing time at 5pm so I quickly ventured in. Luckily there were only a handful of people mulling around so I was able to breeze through this small museum. There are three exhibition halls that house Buddhist and cultural artifacts and paintings from various temples in Koyasan. It was nice sit and rest my weary feet while I ponder the significance of each artwork in silence. As Kumagaiji Temple has a strict time for dinner, I hustled back to make it in time.
The highlight of the temple stay was the vegan feast. As I reserved the best room in the temple, my dinner was in the main living room with another guest from Chile. The rest of the guests ate in a large communal tatami room nearby. The vegan feast was impeccably prepared and just as delicious. It was a special moment to be in this historic temple enjoying a meal prepared by monks in front of a Kobo Daishi portrait.
I had signed up for a night tour of the famous Okunoin Cemetery since it would be less creepy in a group than venturing there by myself. Okunoin Cemetery is a dramatic Buddhist resting place containing over 200,000 unique gravestones and monuments in the forest and the final resting place of Kobo Daishi. Since it started pouring rain at the beginning of the tour, the whole event was more atmospheric and at times, pitiful as we were getting drenched. After walking endlessly on a path guided by stone lanterns to Kobo Daishi Mausoleum, the group disbursed as we each made the 1.5 mile walk way back to the entrance. The atmosphere was surprisingly serene until random instrumental music came on out of nowhere to scare the bejesus out of me. At that point, I speed walked like an Olympian out of the cemetery not wanting to make any new friends that night.
Before sunrise the next morning, I, along with other bleary-eyed guests, made our way to the ceremonial room for a 6am fire ritual. This daily spiritual event cleanses the soul and keeps evil spirits away. We were asked to write our wishes onto a wooden tablet and throw it into the fire at the end of the ceremony. As tempting as sleep is after an exhausting day, this is one ceremony that cannot be missed. After the ceremony, the temple served all the guests a vegan breakfast in the large communal room and bade us a good journey.
After leaving my luggage for the morning with our gracious hosts, I made my way back to Okunoin Cemetery before all the tour groups arrived. I highly recommend getting there as early as possible as tours started to pour in after 9am ruining the serene atmosphere. As the mist faded away and sunlight streamed through the trees, it was magical to be in the middle of this forest resting place. I did not get a sense that this was a cemetery, but more like an eternal bedroom for the soul. I revisited Kobo Daishi Mausoleum and the Torodo Hall: The Hall of Lamps and purchased some blessed charms from the mausoleum as a gift. Apparently, these items should be very effective considering the venue. (Cameras are not allowed in the vicinity of the mausoleum and Torodo Hall for religious reasons….although I found images of these sacred places on Instagram anyway.)
I waited around until 10:30 when the daily food offering was being made to Kobo Daishi, who the monks believe is still alive to this day. This was an interesting daily ritual and made me ponder whether the monks truly believe in eternal life as Buddhism is more about reincarnation. As my time in Koyasan wound down, I was glad that I made this trek up the mountain. I left Mount Koya with a sense of relaxation and peace that I have not had in a while. A visit to the sacred mountain of Mount Koya should be on your next trip to Japan.
* For additional background on Kobo Daishi, click here.
*An onsen refers to a Japanese hot spring or the bathing facilities or inns frequently situated around them. Many shubuko will have an indoor onsen as private bathing facilities are rare at temples.