Have you ever visited a place where you suddenly feel like your body and spirit are highly stimulated? Yet seconds later, you feel good and at peace but you really don’t know why? All that you know is that the energy vibrating around you makes you feel calm, safe and complete.
Well, this is what you could experience when you travel to Koyasan!
Koyasan is a sacred area located at the center of the Kii peninsula in Wakayama prefecture. For 12 centuries, it has been the most important area for Shingon Buddhism in Japan and many amazing temples were built here.
This area is also quite convenient to explore as it’s just one hour and half away from Osaka. You can visit it as a day trip from Osaka or spend a night in Koyasan. We highly recommend the second option as you will be able to experience a stay in a Shukubo (temple lodging).
Let’s discover together the best places you should visit in Koyasan, but first, we’ll start with a bit of history.
History of Koyasan
We can’t talk about Koyasan without mentioning the popular monk Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. He was born in Shikoku in 774 and went to study in Nara (the capital at that time) where he showed a great interest in Buddhism. In 804, he went to China to learn more about it and 2 years later, he came back to Japan to spread the Shingon Buddhism teachings that he learnt from his Chinese master.
In 816, he received the authorisation from the Emperor Saga to build a sacred temple complex in Koyasan area, in order to develop and spread the teachings of Shingon Buddhism. To select the location of the temple, it is said that Kobo Daishi launched a Sankosho in the sky from China (a three-pronged pestle) and it landed on a pine tree in Koyasan.
Shingon Buddhism is an Esoteric type of Buddhism so it’s a teaching that you can really only understand through practice. Its focus also differs a bit with traditional Buddhism as the goal of Shingon Buddhism is to improve your today’s life today rather than your after-life. Until now, it’s one of the most popular religions in Japan.
Daimon, The Entrance Gate
The huge Daimon gate marks the entrance to the sacred site of Koyasan. It was first built in 1141 and its height is around 25 meters! To get to Koyasan, most people use the cable car but there are actually multiple pilgrimage trails that lead to Koyasan. If you love hiking, you should definitely consider taking one of them.
While visiting the Daimon gate, we met a pilgrim (picture above) who just hiked to Koyasan from the foot of the mountain. What’s even more impressive is that we met Takeshi (picture below) who just finished his 88-temple Shikoku pilgrimage at Koyasan. It took him 3 months to complete the whole trip. So inspiring!
We will now enter the most mystic area of Koyasan: Okunoin cemetery. Okunoin is actually the largest cemetery of all Japan with more than 200,000 tombstones! Some tombs are huge and the bigger ones are usually dedicated to the owners of important Japanese companies like Panasonic but also to shoguns, writers, poets and so on.
Fun fact: the company Yakult (who sell milk drinks) has a tombstone in the shape of its bottles!
If you search well enough, you can even find a tombstone dedicated to a dog. His owners decided to build a special tomb for him and after they passed, they got their tombs placed next to their beloved pet.
As you walk more into Okunoin, you will find a large memorial dedicated to the World War 2 victims.
When you arrive at the center of the cemetery, you will start to feel like you are in another world. You will be surrounded by a beautiful nature and the huge cedar trees will make you feel so small. The snow blanketing our surroundings made our visit even better!
At the end of the trails, you will arrive at the entrance of the most sacred part of Koyasan: the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. It’s believed that he’s in eternal meditation in the mausoleum and in order to feed him, Buddhist monks give him food offerings twice a day, every day! If you want to see this ritual, be there at 6:00am or 10:30am.
No pictures are allowed in the area around the mausoleum but make sure to visit it as it’s the heart of the cemetery.
There are so many interesting details that you may notice on your own while visiting Okunoin. For example, one statue has make up on her face. It’s because it’s believed that if you pray to this goddess, you will become more beautiful. Give it a try! 😉
To make your visit more meaningful and even more mysterious, there’s a monk who organises night tours in Okunoin. He’s super knowledgeable, friendly and he speaks English! Make sure to try his tour as it’s quite a unique experience.
Walking in a cemetery by night might feel a bit scary but it’s 100% safe, don’t worry. 🙂 To book a tour, please contact Awesome Tours travel agency. Here are their contact details:
- Tel: +81-80-3108-4790,
- Email: email@example.com
- Online booking: https://awesome-tours.jp/en/koyasan-nighttour
Kongobu-ji, The Head Temple Of Koyasan
Kongobu-ji is the main temple of Koyasan and the administration center of all the area. Originally, all Koyasan site was named Kongobu-ji without designating a particular building.
In 1869, the current temple of Kongobuji was born from a combination of 2 old temples. We advise you to visit it as you will find here a lot of useful information about Kukai and about the history of Koyasan.
In Kongobu-ji, you will also find beautiful paintings illustrating the major life events of Kobo Daishi. It also features the largest rock garden in Japan but we couldn’t actually see it properly as it was covered by the snow. 🙂
According to the legend, the Sankosho that Kobo Daishi threw from China landed in a pine tree where Danjo Garan is located today. It is said that the pine tree is still growing there and as the Sankosho has 3 prongs, the pine tree here also has 3 needles (instead of the usual 2 needles).
One of the most impressive buildings in the Danjo Garan complex is the red Konpon Daito pagoda. The construction of this 49m high pagoda was initiated by Kobo Daishi himself but the building was actually completed by his successors. Make sure to visit the inside of the pagoda to see the beautiful statue of the Cosmic Buddha (note: no pictures allowed inside).
You can also find a lot more buildings in the Danjo Garan complex, including the Kondo Hall, a few smaller pagodas…
and even a shinto shrine!
The first building constructed by Kobo Daishi was actually that shinto shrine called Miyashiro shrine. It can be a bit surprising as the aim of Kobo Daishi was to spread Shingon Buddhism and not Shintoism right? The reality is that Shintoism and Buddhism coexist in harmony in Japan and Koyasan is no exception. Some may say that they complete each other.
Kobo Daishi built the Miyashiro shrine to enshrine Kariba Myōjin, the deity that guided him to Koyasan with his 2 dogs (one black and one white).
It also enshrines Niu Myojin, the deity that bestowed the land of Koyasan on Kobo Daishi.
Temple Lodging (Shukubo) In Ekoin Temple
In order to fully understand and appreciate the culture of Koyasan, we highly recommend that you stay at a Shukubo for a night. This is truly an amazing experience that you can’t miss out on.
One of the most popular temples that offers Shukubo stays is Ekoin. It’s a gorgeous temple and the monks here are very friendly; a few of them even speak English.
The head monk of the temple is actually quite young and one of his passions is car racing. You may even catch a glimpse of his super cool car in front of the temple.
During your stay, you will be served Shojin Ryori which is a typical buddhist cuisine that is completely vegan. For each meal, you will get an incredible variety of dishes and they are all delicious! They are mostly made by local products including wild mountain vegetables from Koyasan.
Before dinner, you will be able to experience a meditation session with a monk. He will introduce you to the basics of Shingon Buddhism and he will explain to you how to relax by focusing on your breathing.
In the morning, you will be able to participate to the daily buddhists rituals with the monks, including the fire ritual!
It was really amazing because you are quite close to the monks and you feel like you are part of the ceremony. Here’s what the fire ritual looks like:
How To Get To Koyasan
To get to Koyasan, you will need to get to Gokurakubashi station from Shinimamiya station in Osaka.
As you can see, you have to either take the Nankai Koya line and transfer at Hashimoto station or take the direct Limited Express Koya line.
Once you arrive at Gokurakubashi station, take the cable car and you will be in Koyasan area in 5 minutes. From there, you can take a bus to get to the places you want to visit.
Koyasan World Heritage Ticket
Before we leave you, here’s a tip that may save you money! There’s a ticket called Koyasan World Heritage Ticket and you can buy it from Osaka at the following stations: Nankai Namba, Shinimamiya and Tengachaya. It costs 3080 yen and it covers:
- A round trip from Osaka to Koyasan.
- Unlimited use of the bus in Koyasan. Some places are a bit far from each other so it may be useful.
- Discounts on admission fees for places like Kongobu-ji, Konpon Daito Pagoda..
Great deal, right? The ticket is valid for 2 consecutive days so if you decide to stay in Koyasan overnight, you can use it the next day to get back to Osaka.
I hope you enjoyed this article about Koyasan in Wakayama prefecture. It’s truly an authentic place that you should try to visit during your trip to Japan. In addition to the unique travel experience, you will be introduced to esoteric Buddhism and, who knows, it may inspire you to change your life for the better! 🙂
To visit a similar spiritual place surrounded by gorgeous Nature, have a look at Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata.