Koyasan (高野山) is a small, sacred place, which has existed since 816AD. It is one of the holiest places in Japan, nestled on a plain and surrounded by mountains.
It is the headquarters of the Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism, which has a large following in Japan, and is considered a place of pilgrimage for many Buddhists.
The Journey to Koyasan
As a Buddhist – a subject that is fascinating and I’d love to write more about – I became aware of Koyasan while researching Japan, prior to my 2016 trip with my then fiancée. The idea of a peaceful, spiritual break during an often fast-paced trip that took us to Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima was really appealing.
We travelled to Koyasan by rail, departing Nankai Namba station in Osaka, travelling via Gokurakubashi station to Koyasan. The first part of that journey is on the Nankai Electric Railway on the Nankai-Koya line, with the second part on what the Japanese call a ‘cable car’ – basically a mountain railway.
On arrival at Koyasan station we then got onto a bus, which dropped us off a few stops later and allowed us to walk to our temple accommodation.
JJ TRAVEL TIP: While it is possible to travel to Koyasan with large suitcases (as my then fiancée and I did) it is recommended, if possible, you travel instead with a backpack.
Arrival in Koyasan
As we walked through Koyasan, the refreshingly cool mountain air was already soothing my skin and my soul. As I appreciated this the first thing that struck me was “wow, I cannot believe that somewhere so peaceful, so tranquil, exists here!”
You see I’d spent much of the preceding week having my five senses assaulted during every waking hour, that’s just the way that Tokyo is. I’d never seen so many people in my life. Koyasan is nothing like that.
Here there is an absence of significant vehicular traffic. On our arrival I saw more monks walking around then I did cars, it was so quiet and peaceful that I was aware of the sound of their wooden clogs shuffling along the ground at quite some distance.
Owing to the elevation the cooler mountain air here was much less humid than I’d experienced elsewhere in Japan. That in itself was a huge natural welcome to the place.
The whole aura was one of peace.
Koyasan is home to scores of working temples, halls and pagodas – not to mention Buddhist statues. Many of the temples have accommodation and allow visitors to stay.
I would suggest if you decide to stay it’s helpful if you at least have some kind of interest in Buddhism or mindfulness. These are working temples, not hotels, and Koyasan is a serene and sacred place. As such staying in Koyasan is not cheap.
My fiancée and I stayed in Saizen-in. The cost was around £200 for one night and included vegetarian breakfast in a communal dining area (on the floor) and an exquisite, intricately made, vegetarian dinner served in our room (by a monk). The meal was a work real of art, nine little bowls each containing different food. Every last bit was eaten!
Surprisingly, they offer alcoholic drinks with dinner for guests. We stuck with non-alcoholic, deciding it was more appropriate to observe the Buddhist belief in keeping the mind and body free from harmful intoxicants.
What you will miss out on if you visit for the day is morning prayers and the tranquility that comes with spending the night here.
Some temples also hold an evening fire ritual, which anyone can attend. If you do decide to stay you might want to learn some basic Japanese phrases (which I’d strongly recommend anyway for anyone visiting anywhere in Japan) as nobody at our accommodation spoke any English.
You don’t need to walk far in Koyasan to see the sights, everything is within a reasonable distance. Just across the road from our temple, for example, was the magnificent Konpon Daito, a towering pagoda symbolic of Shingon Buddhism.
For me one of the most interesting parts of Koyasan was the path walk through through the Okunoin Cemetery, surrounded by forest. It’s the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones. Many monks and landlords have been buried here in order to be close to Kobo Daishi (Kukai).
The main path is around two kilometres in length, leading to the highly impressive Okunoin Temple, the site of the Kobo Daishi mausoleum. There is a shorter 1km path you can also take, which starts near the bus stop.
JJ Travel Tip: When crossing the first bridge of the path visitors should bow to show respect to Kobo Daishi (Kukai). Remember this is a sacred religious place.
The Okunoin Temple is the eternal resting place of Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Daishi is one of the most revered people in Japan and the Okunoin Temple is one of the holiest places, it is the pilgrimage place for many.
Instead of having died it is said that Kobo Daishi rests here in eternal meditation as he awaits the Buddha of the future.
It is forbidden to take photographs of the Okunoin Temple, either inside or out. If you want to see it, you’ll need to visit there yourself. Inside the temple was spectacular, beautifully decorated gold ceilings, monks meditating, the opportunity to pray and one or two Buddhist charms available for purchase.
I donated a few yen and had a short, silent, prayer.
We stopped by a group of Japanese people who’d made the pilgrimage and were chanting rhythmically at the rear of the temple, which was a lovely moment.
Elsewhere, Koyasan also offers a few small shops and places to eat and drink. Despite being summer the roads were fairly quiet everywhere. The absence of bustle itself was so soothing.
For me, the highlight of Koyasan was morning prayers at Saizen-in. They lasted around half an hour and took the form of two monks chanting rhythmically in the dimly candlelit temple, with incense lingering in the air. The effect was meditative, the most relaxed I felt during my whole time in Japan.
To this day I will sit on a meditation cushion listening to Japanese monks chanting, close my eyes and visualise being there.
I hope I have managed to convey a sense of what Koyasan is like. It’s not quite ‘off the beaten track’ as many people do visit, however nor is it a tourist trap.
If you are interested in Japanese culture, particularly Buddhism, then I thoroughly recommend a visit here.
This holy, sacred, serene place will certainly not disappoint.