Koyasan (Mt. Koya) is surrounded by 1,000m class mountains. Kukai, a Buddhist monk, established Koyasan as a central training area of Shingon Mikkyo, one of the major Buddhist groups in Japan, in 816. Over 1200 years later, people can still continue to pray to Okunoin in the place where Kukai fell into deep meditation back in 853. Here’s your complete guide to explore the area.
1. Start from Kudoyama, the entrance of Koyasan
When we arrived at Kudoyama, the entrance to Koyasan, we went to Niukan Shobu Shrine, a shrine which Kukai built before he started Koyasan. It takes 7 hours on foot on the gentle path from Niukan Shobu Shrine to Koyasan. The shrine was not as big as I had expected, but I was so moved to see how Kukai had respected the original Japanese religions. He was thankful to be given the Koyasan area to establish Buddhist temples after learning and training in Buddhism in China.
2. Enter the Daimon wooden gate
Our startpoint to see Koyasan was Daimon, a large wooden gate, watched over by two fierce looking statues, Nio Guardian Kings.
3. Stop to check Danjo Garan
Danjo Garan is a central training area of Koyasan with about 20 towers and halls. I liked most of this area, because I could see what it must have looked like 1200 years ago. On the 16th of every month, monks gather at Sannoin building to do Houraku Rongi, a discussion of Buddhist doctrine. I was lucky to see it. The voices of 20-30 monks resonated with the entire site. It was the first time for me to see monks walking around inside the building reciting the sutra. The site of Danjo Garan is so huge with various kinds of buildings. There are some modern buildings, but mainly very old and traditional wooden houses and temples. The area was surrounded by the forest, so we could enjoy the nature too.
4. Visit Kongobuji Temple
Kongobuji Temple was built in 1593 for Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s mother. Hideyoshi Toyotomi was head of one of the major clans in the 16th century. It seemed more like a place to discuss politics and economics rather than a religious place. Each building had a practical and solemn atmosphere. The main building of Kongobuji Temple is Kondo. The entrance fee is 200 yen and open hours are 8:30 – 17:00.
5. Goal to Okunoin
Okunoin is the most sacred place, which is the site of the mausoleum of Kukai dating from 853. I didn’t take photos of the area (as it is forbidden), because it’s a holy space for Kukai who is a founder of Shingon Buddhism and is believed to rest in eternal meditation. I visited Okunoin once in the daytime and then once at night, to see the difference. The path was wide and lit with street lights so if you follow the main street to Okunoin, you won’t miss anything.
6. Clime Kongo Sanmai In
It was a nice walk from the main street to visit Kongo Sanmai In which Masako Hojo, a wife of Kamakura founder Yoritomo Minamoto, built for her husband in 1223. The street to Kongo Sanmai In was steep, narrow and surrounded by green forests. Locals were taking a dog for a walk and the atmosphere was very slow and quite relaxing. Okunoin and Shukubo in Koyasan were astonishing, but the most cozy place for me was Kongo Sanmai In. One attractive aspect was the arranged flowers at the entrance. It was very natural and there seemed to be no intention, but the color balance and the amount of flowers matched the profound entrance. We could feel the aesthetic sense of the person who had arranged the flowers. Tahoto was built in 1211 and although it had been painted beautifully, it was already fading. The structure was well constructed and it was fun to see the 13th century technology. This Tahoto is the oldest building in Koyasan. We walked along the short mountain path behind the Tahoto. There was a handsome stone-floored temple to the south-east of the main building.
7. Enter the Reihokan Museum
I had heard there were a few hundred gods in Buddhism. I could not even remember the main gods, but I really enjoyed the Reihokan Museum to see various kinds of Buddhist statues and part of the temple’s great art collections. In the 13th century, people felt grateful to see those statues in a temple without bright lights. I strongly recommend to visit Reihokan Museum to view these exotically designed statues.
The Reihokan Museum has had very old statues since the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries). Each of the statues has a different background and history. I didn’t have much chance to see Buddhist statues of the Heian period in Tokyo. I mainly had chances to see Buddhist statues from the Kamakura period, which was a warrior era, and in that case the expressions were very strong and powerful. Heian period statues had really soft and gentle expressions. Some wooden statues made in the Heian period were huge and solemn. In those days, there were many disasters which people couldn’t solve with the technology of that time. The statues have painful and distressing expressions and are earnestly asking for help. I could feel the strong motivation that created such beautiful arts.
8. Wander the streets of Koyasan
Over one hundred temples spread out on the mountaintop in Koyasan. A temple town has developed since Kukai started to train here. Koyasan is one of the major tourist areas in Japan, but the souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes have a calm and peaceful atmosphere. We could see around with a relaxing mood. We took a rest at Kasakuni, a Japanese sweet shop, having seats by the furnace. The inside was small, modest and clean to eat sweets.
In Koyasan, we saw many unique designs of buildings and cute statues and arts, and I was eager to buy something with beautiful designs that I could keep for a long time and use carefully . Finally, I found an incense shop, Koyasan Taishido, in the middle of the main street. Koyasan Taishido was selling a huge fragrant wood for 30 million yen. My kids and I were so excited to see it, but we had no clues as to why the wood cost the same as a house. I bought a white and rectangular incense pot. It was not made in Wakayama, but I really liked the smooth and elegant design.
How to reach
It takes about 2 hours from Nankai Namba Station in Osaka to Koyasan Station by train. It is better to take public transportation to visit Koyasan. It takes about 6 hours by train from Tokyo though. You would enjoy the natural scenery from a train window in Wakayama. Public bus was available in Koyasan and the town is a nice size to see around on foot. You could leave your baggage at a guest house, Koyasan Station or the Tourist Information Center. A tour bus to Koyasan is also available from Nagoya and Osaka Stations.
My children were accustomed to long-distance driving, so I decided to visit Koyasan by car from Osaka Station. It was a wrong decision. The highway in Osaka was so complicated, the road was narrow and people were driving aggressively. Unfortunately, the car navigation system was not kind enough for Osaka beginners, so it was really hard to drive.