Japan City Guides: Koyasan
- Spectacular setting in forested Kii Mountains.
- Headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
- Population around 5,000.
- Founded in the 9th century by Kukai (Kobo Daishi).
- UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Summer escape from the heat below.
- Long avenues of tall Japanese cedar trees.
- Stay overnight in a temple shukubo.
- Within easy reach of Osaka (50km), Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.
- Hundreds of temples and temple gardens.
- More than 800m above sea level.
The sacred mountain of Koyasan (Mount Koya), located in beautiful forested hills 50km south of Osaka in Wakayama Prefecture, is a major pilgrimage site for followers of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
Shingon (True Word) Buddhism is a form of esoteric or tantric Buddhism introduced to Japan by the monk Kukai (774-835) - known after his death as Kobo Daishi - in the 9th century.
Kukai spent two years studying esoteric Buddhism in Xian, China and is a mythical figure in Japanese history, credited with inventing the hiragana script, as well as being a distinguished scholar, court official, poet, linguist and calligrapher.
After being granted permission by the Emperor Saga to build a Shingon temple complex and religious retreat on Koyasan, work began at the site in 816.
Koyasan Buddhist headstone, Wakayama Prefecture
Visitors by road from Hashimoto will enter Koyasan through the vast vermilion Daimon Gate, which is protected by two fearsome, wooden Kongo warriors. There are fine views from Daimon on a clear day.
Konpondaito Pagoda, stands 48.5 meters, and was built as a seminary for estoric rituals and enshrines five sacred images of Buddha. The present structure dates from 1932 as the pagoda has been destroyed by fire on many previous occasions.
Nearby are Kongobuji Temple - Temple of the Diamond Mountain - and the Danjo Garan, the site of Kukai's original temple. Kongobuji Temple, was founded by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the death of his mother and is now the Shingon sect's HQ. Rebuilt in 1861, the temple contains screen paintings by Kano Tanyu and other painters of Kyoto's Kano School.
The Banryutei rock garden in Kongobuji Temple is the largest in Japan with 140 granite stones arranged to suggest a pair of dragons emerging from clouds to protect the temple.
Kondo Hall is supposedly the site where Kukai gave his first sermons and is regarded as one of Koyasan's most sacred places .
Reihokan is a museum treasure house containing works of art from the temples on Koyasan.
The exhibits, paintings, statues, mandala and other religious artefacts such as vajra (ritual sceptres) and rosary beads, are recycled five times a year.
North of Kongobuji is the Nyonindo, on the road to the cable car station. Women were not allowed into Koyasan until 1873 (though the practise continued until 1916) and this small temple marks the spot where women could worship but proceed no further.
Tombs at Okuno-in & Sekisho-in Temple, Koyasan, Wakayama Prefecture
One of seven statues of Jizo close to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi on Mount Koya, Wakayama Prefecture. Prayers for the dead are accompanied by pouring water over the statues as a sign of purification.
The Edo-Period Tokugawa Family Tomb was built by the third Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu. Both first shogun Ieyasu and his heir Hidetada are enshrined here.
Other attractions at Koyasan include the Okunoin, east of the center. This magnificent, mysterious necropolis of vast cedar trees and mossy tombstones is Koyasan's cemetery.
The estmated 500,000 graves include the tombs of such important historical figures as warlord Oda Nobunaga, and the monks Dogen, Honen, Nichiren and Shinran. War memorials and even outlandish company tombs for major Japanese corporations (Kirin Beer, Nissan, Toyota) are also in evidence.
Koyasan bridge and graveyard, Wakayama Prefecture
View Osaka Map in a larger map
Kobo Daishi is not considered dead by his followers but merely in a state of meditation awaiting the arrival of the Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), so believers want to be as near him as possible and thus have their graves built close to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum.
Kobo Daishi's tomb is beyond the Mimyo-no-hashi bridge (no photography beyong this point) behind the Toro-do (Lantern Hall), which contains hundreds of lamps, some of them said to have been burning since the 9th century, plus a sacred vajra and juzu (prayer beads) believed by the faithful to bestow good health on touching them.
Just to the right of Mimyo-no-hashi is a series of black Jizo Statues. Worshippers offer prayers for the dead by ladling water from the river over the statues.
Okunoin is approached on a cobbled path (the stones come from Nagoya's old street car line) from Ichi-no-hashi.
Tourist Information Centers in Koyasan
There are a number of tourist information centers in Koyasan with maps in English, which will also help visitors to book shukubo.
Koyasan Shukubo Association
600, Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Tel: 0736 56 2616
Temple Lodging - shukubo
There are over 50 temples in Koyasan which accommodate visitors for overnight stays, which can include delicious vegetarian food (shojin-ryori) in a traditional Japanese-style tatami room. Guests are invited to join morning prayers at an early hour. Prices are fixed and start at around 10,000 per person with two meals. The Eko-in Temple lodgings can be booked online. The Eko-in Temple offers tatami-mat floors, traditional futon beds, a lovely garden, paper sliding screens (fusuma) and free WiFi!
Koyasan's main festivals are Aoba-san on June 15, which celebrates Kobo Daishi's birthday and involves a number of traditional ceremonies performed at temples around town.
The Mando-e (Rosoku Matsuri) o-Bon festival on August 13 sees thousands of candles placed on the paths of the Okunoin cemetery.
Osaka's Kansai International Airport is the nearest international airport.
Koyasan is an approximately 90 minute train journey from Osaka Namba Station by Nankai Koya Line to Gokurakubashi Station and then cable car to Koyasan.
From Wakayama to Koyasan take the JR Wakayama Line to Hashimoto, then change to the Nankai Koya Line. From Kyoto and Kobe to Koyasan it is quicker to go via Namba Station in Osaka. There are Kintetsu Line trains to Namba Station from Nagoya taking 2 hours or take the shinkansen to Shin-Osaka Station (50 minutes) and then change to the Midosuji subway line for connections south to Namba.
There are local bus services from the cable car station to Ichi-no-hashi. Bicycle hire in Koyasan is another option for getting around and can be rented from the Koyasan Tourist Office.