To the south of Osaka City in Wakayama Prefecture is Mt. Koya, often referred to as Koyasan. In this highland valley lies a complex made up of temples, shrines, and pagodas which date back to the year 816 AD. It became the birthplace and home of Shingon Buddhism--also known as Esoteric Buddhism--founded by Kobo Daishi thousands of years ago. Kobo Daishi was a great Buddhist monk who was on a mission to spread his learnings of consciousness and peace.
For about 1,200 years, Mt. Koya has been a sacred place that welcomes pilgrims and visitors of all races and religions from all over the world. It is regarded as a hub of spirituality, peace, and refuge. Mt. Koya's complex extends 6km (4 miles) east to west and 3km (2 miles) north to south and is the largest religious center of Buddhist study in Japan. Since 2004, UNESCO has deemed Mt. Koya a World Heritage site where beautiful nature sites, Japanese tradition, Shintoism, and Buddhism come together as one.
Mt. Koya’s Main Temple
Built in 1593, Kongobuji Temple serves as the main temple of Shingon Buddhism at Mt. Koya. This building was created by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in honor of his late mother. It features beautiful rooms, corridors and screen paintings as well as the Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest of its kind in Japan (admission is 500 yen). Like most of the surrounding halls, Kongobuji is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Last admission is at 4:30 pm. Its weathered-wood exteriors allow it to retain a traditional Japanese feel. Keep in mind, there is a 2,000 yen combination ticket which grants visitors entry into every temple at Mt. Koya. You may consider this deal, since not far from Kongobuji is another notable religious landmark.
Mt. Koya’s Iconic Pagoda
Konpon Daito Pagoda is another icon of Mt. Koya. Standing 49m (160 ft) tall, the pagoda’s construction began in 816 but was completed about 70 years later. Although it was destroyed by fires a few times in its long history, it was rebuilt in 1937.The structure is simply eye-catching with its vibrant color. Its design will make you want to sit on a nearby bench to stop and admire its beauty. If you take a moment to step into the building, you will see the statue of Buddha Mahavairochana with paintings of eight Shingon patriarchs on the surrounding pillars. Please note that taking pictures inside Mt. Koya’s temples is prohibited.
One of the highlights of Mt. Koya is Okunoin, a cemetery which is about 2 km (1.2 miles) long. A pathway runs between the towering, centuries-old cedar trees that line the cemetary. Here, you can see about 200,000 gravestones and statues that were built to honor those who have passed. Historical and well-known figures including Panasonic’s founder, Konosuke Matsushita, lie at rest here. However, the cemetery is open for common people as well. As long as one respects Shingon Buddhism, everyone is welcome, dead or alive.
There’s some kind of captivating magic that can be felt while walking through Mt. Koya’s forest. Although it is a cemetery, one feels a sense of relaxation and a deep respect for nature.In Japan, we call places like these “power spots,” where one can cleanse themself of bad energy and gain some kind of power. Japanese women are known to frequent power spots, as they are rumored to have positive effects on skin and beauty. Whether this is true or not, anyone can fall in love with these places for many other reasons. I recommend coming in the early hours of the morning when you’ll be able to witness see the sun shining through trees and a morning mist that creates a mystical forest atmosphere.
Compared to Western graveyards, walking through Okunoin at night is not the least bit terrifying, possibly because there are no bodies buried here. Strolling through the cemetery at night is somewhat romantic, as the path is illuminated with lanterns. Trained guides, often temple monks, offer night tours that are 1,500 yen for an hour. According to one of these guides, you must be careful when walking up Okunoin’s steps (pictured) as it is rumored that if you fall while walking in Okunoin you will die in 7 days. Go here for more details.
To Kobo Daoshi’s Gobyo
As you reach the end of Okunoin, you will find Kobo Daishi’s gobyo (mausoleum), where he is said to be in eternal meditation, praying for the welfare and peace of all humanity.For thousands of years, visitors to Mt. Koya have felt Kobo Daishi’s prayer, which, transcending those thousands of years, can still be felt today. My experience here was a highly spiritual one. After leaving this place, I have come to believe that Mt. Koya is a place where one can experience multiple facets of Japanese culture: not only temples and shrines, but also the mysterious power one feels while exploring this historical place.
Getting there is quite the journey.One can image how long a pilgrimage to Mt. Koya would take before the use of bus, cars, or trains. It would take days or weeks to travel to these temples. Lucky for you, Mt. Koya can be easily accessed via the Nankai Koya Line.From Nankai Namba Station:
Take the Super Express Train Koya and buy the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. This will cost 2,860 yen for two days and includes free bus travel around Mt. Koya. This ticket also includes a 20% discount on all entry into Kongobuji Temple, Kondo Hall, Konpon Daito Pagoda and the Reihokan Museum. The train goes directly to Mt. Koya, but you will then have to transfer to a cable car from Gokurakubashi Station.
Note: Right now (18/12/2017), there are some areas which the railroad service is unavailable, but there is a substitute bus departing from Hashimoto station to Koyasan.
Please check Nankai Railway’s website for the latest information.
From a small city of Hawaii now living in my favorite city Osaka for 3 years, Chris is now touring Japan and seeking for life's answers through his travels. Come follow him on his adventures!