Koyasan… the holy mountain

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Kobo-Daishi (also called as Kukai) it’s a name to definitively you will hear (and read) if you come to visit Koyasan. He was the one that created Koyasan (that means mount Koya) after traveling through China to learn more about Buddhism. Located around in the mountains about 900m of altitude, Koyasan was chosen for being surrounded by eight peaks, that represent the eight petals of the lotus flowers on the top of what Buddha is represented.

In Koyasan we can find the Shingon-shu Buddhism, that more or less means “Esoteric Mantra Buddhism”, that is one sect from the Shingon Buddhism, whose mentor was Kobo-Daishi, that dedicates his life not only to religion but was also with credits as poet, artist, calligrapher and was responsible for the construction of may temples.

In the center of Koyasan, it’s the Danjo Garan, a complex that includes 20 temples. One of them is the Fudo-du Hall, which is not the most impressive but it’s the oldest, and the only one that survived to multiple fires and catastrophes that during centuries destroyed the original constructions. Some of the present buildings are already the fifth reconstruction!!!…

Daito Pagoda
Danjo Garan
Danjo Garan
Danjo Garan

But inside the Danjo Garam, what stands up is the Daito Pagoda (the great Pagoda design by Kobo-Daishi), with its original pagoda shape and the Mie-do Hall with the impressive Buddha statues. But the place itself, with many other temples and buildings all made in wood, surrounded by big cedar trees and umbrella-pine tree offer a pleasant walk.

The massive but mot so elegant Daimon Gate, is the official entrance of the Koyasan temple area, located in the extreme West side of the village. If you walk along the Women Pilgrimage course (Nyonin-michi), which corresponds to the way that the women used to reach Kobo-Daishi Mausoleum, as during many years Koyasan was a place exclusive for monks and access was forbidden to women, you’ll find Daimon Gate along the way. This hiking course can easily be done in 3 hours, and offer a pleasant stroll in the forest, taking ridge of some of the mountains that surround the sacred place of Koyasan.

Women Pilgrimage course (Nyonin-michi)

The Kongobu-ji, the headquarters of all the monasteries in Koyasan, isn’t used anymore by monks but only for special ceremonies. Although you can visit the interior, including the kitchen area, as well the different rooms where the walls are decorated with delicate paintings related to Kobo-Daishi’s life and also nature scenes. But the most impressive is the rock garden (Banryutei), where blocks of granite that mimic a dragon coming out from the water waves.

rock garden (Banryutei) at Kongobu-ji

But from all that Koyasan as to offer, for a visitor, the place that I visit more times was surprisingly the Okuno-in cemetery. Apart from being a nice place to walk, in the middle of the cedar and pine forest, where the stones that mark the graves are covered with moss it’s also the only way to reach the Kodo-Daishi Mausoleum. It’s a kind of magic place, where you easily can spend one hour, exploring the different stone paths, crossing bridges, going up and down gentle steps, observing the thin rays if sun crosses the dense canopy.

After cross the Gobyo-no-hashi Bridge you enter the sacred place, as according to the followers of the Shingon-shu Buddhism, Kobo-Daishi, born in the year 774, is still seated in deep meditation since the retired from the world with the of 62. This makes Koyasan a mandatory point for Buddhist pilgrims, which come here all year round, making this place part of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route.

Okuno-in cemetery
Entrance of the Kodo-Daishi Mausoleum, where the monks repeat every morning the ritual of bring food for Kobo-Daishi
Okuno-in cemetery
Buddha statues at the entrance located before the Gobyo-no-hashi Bridge, where the visitors sprinkle the statues with water symbolising the river crossing that was necessary to do before the construction of the bridge
Okuno-in cemetery

Koyasan has enough to see and to do if you have curiosity or if you feel the connection with Buddhism, and it’s a nice place to stay for three days or more, enjoying the nice vegetarian food, the temple ceremonies, and hikes in nature.

Okuno-in cemetery
Okuno-in cemetery

And Koyasan is also the starting point for the one of the Kumano Kodo Kohechi, one of the routes that crosses the Kii Peninsula, in the southern Kansai region, to reach Kumano Hongu Taisha. Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route is now a World Heritage site classified as “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes” in parallel with Camino de Santiago.

Koyasan visitors ticket pass:

It costs 1500 ¥ that can be used in several days… it worth it if you want to see all the temples as also join the Jukai Ceremony (accepting the 10 Buddhist precepts that cost 500 ¥, ask at the Daish Kyokai).

  • Kobo-Daishi Mausoleum, Okuno-in cemetery and Lantern Hall: free
  • Danjo Garan: free, but to get inside the Daito Pagoda or Mie-do Hall is 200 ¥ each.
  • Kongobu-ji: 500 ¥

Everyday you can hear the morning chants in the shukubo, but you can also experience this magic and hypnotic moment in Kododaisho Mausoleum, everyday from 6 until 7 in the morning, for free.

In the evenings, there a Cemetery Walking Tour (2000 ¥) guides by monks that can tell you the myths and superstitions of the cemetery as well to understand a bit more about Kodo-Daishi and the Shingon-shu Buddhism. This tour is organized by Eko-in, and departure from there.

Each 21st day of each month, it’s considered a special day as it’s the day of the anniversary of the death of Kobo-Daishi, and Koyasan receives more visitors to assist to the special changings that include particular rituals way more rich and complex that the usual morning chants. So if you can manage to be in Koyasan in this day you can attend the chants that start at 9 o’clock in the morning. In the evening before (20th) there is also a special ceremony at Kododaisho Mausoleum around 7:30/8:00.

Koyasan Bus pass:

The trip from the cable car until Okuninmae (basically until the end of the village) costs 420 ¥ (one way).

There are passes (3 days = 3000 ¥) but the Kaoyasan as about 3 km from the Dai-mon Gate to Okuninmae, where is the entrance Okuno-in cemetery, and that can be made easily on foot.

Where to sleep in Koyasan:

But most of the visitors stay in Koyasan only one night and choose to stay in the traditional pilgrim accommodation, the shukubo. It’s for sure a remarkable option but a bit pricy, so I choose to stay in a guesthouse, that in fact is very rare in Koyasan.

Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu, it’s located in Okuninmae (very close by the Okunomi cemetery and from a bus stop), 200 meters from the bus stop, and offer rooms and dorms in capsule style. The building is super cool, design by the Japanese Alphaville Architects. They offer also an amount of detail infromation about Koyasan, religious activities, mediation, hiking trails, etc…

Where to eat in Koyasan:

As many people (almost everyone) stay in one of the 52 shukubo (temples lodging) that include breakfast and dinner, there are not many options for dinner in town. But the convenience stores (there are at least 3) provide quite good options for food.

But for lunch, if you want to try the monasteries food, shojin-ryori, a totally vegan meal compost by several small dishes matching the five cooking methods (raw, stewed, boiled, roasted, and pickling) five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), and five colors (green, yellow, red, black, and white). A work of art!!

The Sanbou Restaurant offers delicious shojin-ryori meals. At first glance, the meal set available look a bit small but it a perfect portion and provides the chance to taste a wide variety of flavors as well the different kinds of tofu. The prices range between 1250 ¥ to 4000 ¥. The Sanbou Restaurant doesn’t have a sign in Latin characters but is located very close by the Ichijo-in Shukubo (check the image below). It’s only open for lunch (from 11:00 until 14:00). Try the famous goma-tofu, very silky tofu made from ground sesame paste!!! Something new!

shojin-ryori meal at Sanbou Restaurant
Sanbou Restaurant

Koyasan for the sweet tooth:

There aren’t many shops in Koyasan but the ones that exist, apart from restaurants are dedicated mostly to sell religious souvenirs (some of them a bit cheesy) as well as sweets, that apparently are the most popular souvenirs from Koyasan. There are several options, but my favorites were the yaki-imo made from sweet potato and cinnamon and the amazake manjyu, filled with sweet bean paste.

Some of these sweet shops are also factories, so try to find one of them (you can see people work inside, as here everything is fresh. Try Mirokuishi, a traditional Japanese confectionary, located on the main road, more to the East part of Koyasan…. and there you can also get a tea if you chose to eat the sweets inside!!

yaki-imo on the left andamazake manjyu in the center where my favourite sweet from this confectionary, where you can drink tea for free while taste the sweets

Mirokuishi, a traditional Japanese confectionary

Koyasan Curry… a vegetarian version of the traditional Japanese curry, that is sold packaged and just needs to be heated and accompanied with rice. A good souvenir form Koyasan!!

How to go from reach to Koyasan:

There are two options to arrive to Koyasan by public transportation:

  • Taking the Nakai Line, direct from Namba to Koyasan… this is the best option if you want to stay more than one night in Koyasan, or if you plann to move forward, instead of getting back to Osaka. It cost 1390 ¥ and includes the cable-car to Koyasan. The trip takes in total 2h.

At Koyasan station you need to take a bus to your accommodation… it’s a 2.5 km distance to reach the center of Koyasan, and 5 km to reach the easternmost point of Koyasan.

The bus from Koyasan station (the terminus of the cable car) to Okunoin (cemetery) cost 420 ¥, one way.

  • Buy the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket, which is the best option if you just want to stay one night is Koyasan. 2900 ¥ and includes the return train trip, the cable car and the bus pass to move around Koyasan for two days.

Note: The Nakai Line trains to Koyasan departure from Namba Station, but don’t mistake with JR Namba. Nakai is a private company and has it’s own station (the JP rail pass ins not valid here) that is linked with JR Namba by the Namba Walk, a long-long tunnel that takes around 15 minutes to walk, where you can find shops and restaurants along the way.

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