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Exploring Koyasan, Japan’s Most Holy Town

Don’t call it Mount Koya. This sacred complex in Wakayama Prefecture is much more than just a mountain.

By 8 min read

Moss covers weathered tombstones, monks stroll dutifully between temples, and visitors are welcomed to meditate to Buddhist mantras. This is Koyasan, a community in the mountainous peaks of Wakayama Prefecture where Buddhist monks dwell.

Look in any guidebook and you’ll see this area in western Japan referred to as “Mount Koya,” which is what Koyasan translates to in English. But Koyasan isn’t simply a mountain. It’s a full-scale town nestled in between eight mountain peaks.

When you find yourself at a crossroads in life, a visit to Koyasan provides you the space to meditate on how to move forward.

It is here that an esoteric religion called Shingon Buddhism is practiced and many covet the town as an escape from reality. A peaceful atmosphere envelops the area as the local population of monks and their families go about their quiet lives.

When you find yourself at a crossroads in life, a visit to Koyasan provides you the space to meditate on how to move forward.

Where Buddhism and Shintoism meet

A drawing of Shingon founder Kobo Daishi hangs in a Koyasan shop window.

After inheriting this esoteric Buddhism in China, a monk by the name of Kobo Daishi founded Koyasan as a place to practice Shingon Buddhism in Japan in 816. According to the mythical legends, Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai) threw a charm from China that landed in a tree here, which is how he chose it as the sect’s new home.

After seeing how the mountains formed a lotus shape around the town, it was settled. The lotus is a favorite motif of Buddhists—for how miraculous the thought that something so beautiful could blossom from muddy water.

To fully understand the local lore, a trip to Koyasan should start with Niutsuhime Shrine in the town of Katsuragi. Perched on the community’s outskirts, this Shinto shrine is where the Japanese gods gave Kobo Daishi their blessing to import Shingon Buddhism from China.

Niutsuhime Shrine.

It is a symbol of the fusion of cultures. Beyond the shrine’s half-moon bridge and grand vermillion gate is where Japan’s nature-based gods and Buddha coexist.

After completing 100 days of training, monks come to thank Koyasan’s guardian gods who are enshrined here. The symbolic gesture signifies the monks’ transcendence of the role of a human being into a priest within whom the gods’ power now resides.

The area’s strong mysticism radiates outward before you even enter Koyasan proper.

Jisonin Temple, the women’s sanctuary

On the outermost edge of town, sits Jisonin Temple, the official starting point for those who decide to hike up to Koyasan. The temple has very distinct enma prayer boards—they’re all shaped like women’s breasts.

Jisonin is a temple where women come to pray for fertility and reproductive health.

While the bosoms at Jisonin have gained global attention, its historical significance is much more important. Women were prohibited from entering Koyasan until 1872 and since Jisonin is on Kudoyama—a small town at the base of the mountain—it was the closest place women were allowed to stay.

They are not something to be gawked at. They are a tribute to women’s divine power as givers of life.

Now that women can enter the community freely, the temple has become a place to pray for fertility and women’s health.

The breasts that are synonymous with Jisonin are not something to be gawked at. They are a tribute to women’s divine power as givers of life. Kobo Daishi’s mother once called this temple home as it was the closest she could be to her son. She is now worshipped here as somewhat of a patron saint similar to the Virgin Mary.

Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery

Upon finally entering Koyasan, you’ll notice a solemn stillness in the air. That heavy weight of silence is most striking at Okunoin, a web of over 200,000 grave markers within a dense forest. It’s said to be the largest cemetery in the world.

Quiet. Peaceful. Sacred.

Rows upon rows of monumental tombstones line a stone path through the cedar trees. These are the graves of devotees who were so moved by Kobo Daishi’s work that they wanted to be close to him in the afterlife. Thick moss encroaches on the tombs, slowly coating them in a blanket of passing time.

At the pathway’s end is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi where he sits in eternal meditation. Shingon practitioners do not believe he is dead. In fact, both breakfast and lunch are delivered to the venerable monk in a daily ritual called shojingu at 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

Okunoin during the day versus at night.

At night, the cemetery transforms into an eerie realm of darkness. Thankfully, there are kind monks who will light the way via the Okunoin Night Tour. A solitary English-speaking monk will guide you through the grounds imparting Buddhist knowledge and telling scary stories.

The cemetery offers a different ambiance when visited during the day versus at night. “Otherworldly” doesn’t even begin to describe it. When you should choose to visit depends on whether you’re afraid of the dark or welcome it.

Buddhism as art

While Okunoin is Koyasan’s most well-known draw, Danjo Garan is the town’s literal centerpiece. It was here that Kobo Daishi’s charm supposedly landed from China.

The complex is spread across a large cluster of temples, each showcasing beautiful wooden architecture. Inside the magnificent Konpon Daito pagoda, however, lies something that transforms Shingon imagery into art.

A large golden Buddha sits at the center surrounded by four equally as ornate Buddhas and a circle of columns. The floor-to-ceiling columns and statues form a three-dimensional mandala adorned with colorful paintings of the divine. Shingon Buddhist or not, the sophistication of this fine art masterpiece is simply awe-inspiring.

Danjo Garan’s three-dimensional mandala (above) and Buddhist tapestries at the Reihokan Museum (below).

The Reihokan Museum houses more impressive sculptures and paintings. Behind its walls, centuries-old mandala textiles and menacing deity statues tower over visitors. Their sheer size is almost overwhelming and it’s hard to believe how perfectly they have been preserved.

Everywhere you look in Koyasan, you’ll see pieces of immaculate artistry. Detailed dragon carvings adorn the outside of the Kongobuji Head Temple while the inside is filled with hand-painted sliding doors and an expansive rock garden. This is traditional Japan at its finest.

Doing an overnight temple stay

Stay at a temple and eat Buddhist vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori.

Half of the allure of visiting Koyasan is staying overnight at a temple. Sleeping in one these shukubo, as they’re called in Japanese, and reciting morning mantras is like being an honored guest in a sacred ceremony.

Tatami floors and dimly lit rooms decorated with consecrated altars feel as though they exist in another space and time.

There are around 50 shukubo in Koyasan and most of them are welcoming to foreigners. Fudoin Temple and Rengejoin Temple are popular choices for English speakers. Both provide monastic meals in the Buddhist vegetarian style called shojin ryori. The dishes change with the seasons but usually incorporate local vegetables and goma dofu—creamy sesame tofu famous in Wakayama Prefecture.

Suddenly, you’ll find that you are no longer sitting inside a temple in Japan, but somewhere undefined within the cosmos.

Rocks are meticulously raked to form Sanskrit letters in the garden of Rengejoin as the chief priest lectures to guests in English. At Fudoin, antique wooden halls and a library curated with philosophical texts provide a gateway into the unknown.

Some temples offer experiences such as ajikan meditation, or incense making. In esoteric Buddhism, incense is used to purify the body, mind, and clothing. By mixing several scents together, you can make your own customized smell.

The “Uyunte” incense making experience.
Rengejoin Chief Priest Ryusho Soeda giving a lecture about meditation in English.

Through ajikan, you learn to connect with the whole of the universe. With eyes closed, focus in on the sound of the monks’ chanting. Suddenly, you’ll find that you are no longer sitting inside a temple in Japan, but somewhere undefined within the cosmos.

“Compared to our giant universe, my existence is so small and so humble,” Rengejoin Chief Priest Ryusho Soeda explained. “But no matter how small you may be, you are not alone. You share a part of the cosmos within you and through meditative breathing, you can resonate with the moving of the universe.”

It’s hard to imagine returning to “normal life” after a visit to such a hallowed place. Being surrounded by the mountains of Koyasan is enough to change anyone’s life outlook. This return to nature teaches us how unnatural modern society is, but despite all the distractions, we can filter out the noise and stay true to ourselves.

How to get there

From Gokurakubashi Station, you can take a cable car to Koyasan.

Koyasan is easily accessible by train from Namba Station in Osaka. Simply take the Nankai Koya line to Gokurakubashi Station.

Gokurakubashi literally means the bridge to paradise. An apt name, as you’ll take a cable car from here, ascending into the mountains to reach Koyasan Station. From there you can reach all of Koyasan’s attractions by local bus.

Holiday in Koyasan giveaway campaign

The town of Koya and Nankai Electric Railway are giving away roundtrip tickets between major Nankai Stations and Koyasan plus a two-day free pass for local Koyasan buses to 10,000 lucky winners.

The giveaway also includes a ¥3,000 voucher for a temple stay and lunch and another ¥3,000 voucher for any shops or cafes in town. Check this link and apply before Nov. 8, 2020! The application is in Japanese, but Google Translate works perfectly fine.

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