The mountain of Koyasan (Mount Koya) in Wakayama Prefecture was traditionally considered sacred, and is a major pilgrimage site for followers of the Shingon school of Buddhism. Mt. Koya is a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.
Koyasan is on the beautiful forested Kii Peninsula, more than 800 meters above sea level, making it a refreshing retreat from the heat of summer. Koyasan features long avenues of tall Japanese cedar trees, and hundreds of temples and temple gardens.
Koyasan is easily accessible, being only about 50km south of Osaka. Visitors often stay overnight in temple accommodation, known as shukubo.
Shingon (True Word) Buddhism is a form of esoteric or tantric Buddhism introduced to Japan in the 9th century by the monk Kukai (774-835), who was known after his death as Kobo Daishi.
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 - Things to see and do
Visitors by road from Hashimoto enter Koyasan through the vast vermilion Daimon Gate, which is protected by two fearsome, wooden Kongo warriors. There are fine views over the surrounding Kii district from the Daimon Gate on a clear day.
Konpondaito Pagoda, stands 48.5 meters (159 feet), and was built as a seminary for esoteric rituals and enshrines five sacred images of Buddha. The present structure dates from 1932 as the pagoda has been destroyed by fire many times.
Nearby are Kongobuji Temple ("Temple of the Diamond Mountain"), and the Danjo Garan, which is 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 headquarters of the Shingon sect. 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, including paintings, statues, mandala and other religious artefacts such as vajra (ritual scepters) and rosary beads, are renewed five times a year.
Daishi Kyokai (open 8.30am-5pm) - here laypeople can receive the Buddhist precepts (jukai) in a short 30-minute ceremony. The ceremony takes place on the hour, except noon.
North of Kongobuji is the Nyonindo Temple, on the road to the cable car station. Women were not allowed into Koyasan until 1873 (though the practice of prohibiting their entry continued until 1916) and this small temple marks the spot where women could worship but proceed no further.
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.
Okunoin, (or the "Inner Temple") is Koyasan's cemetery: a magnificent, mysterious necropolis of vast cedar trees and mossy tombstones east of the center of Koyasan.
The estimated 500,000 graves in Japan's largest cemetery include the tombs of important historical figures. The most famous is Kobo Daishi, whose mausoleum is here. It is also the resting place of warlord Oda Nobunaga, and the monks Dogen, Honen, Nichiren and Shinran. War memorials and even some outlandish company tombs for major Japanese corporations (Kirin Beer, Nissan, Toyota) are also in evidence.
There are guided night walks in English through Okunoin. Tickets can be bought at Eko-in Temple and begin at 7.15pm very night, depending on the availability of a monk to guide your group, and the weather.
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 in Okunoin, beyond the Mimyo-no-hashi bridge (no photography beyond 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 Bridge 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 from from Ichi-no-hashi Bridge, on a cobbled path (the stones come from Nagoya's old street car line) .
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
The Koyasan Audio Guide (in English, French, Korean Japanese and Chinese) can be rented for 500 yen a day from the Tourist Office.
Temple Lodging - shukubo
There are over 50 temples of the 117 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 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 even free WiFi!
Other shukubo in Koyasan include Daien-in, Fudo-in, Fugen-in, Muryoko-in, Nan-in and many others. Please see eng.shukubo.net for a full listing of shukubo lodging in Koyasan.
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.
Koyasan Access - Getting to Koyasan
Osaka's Kansai International Airport (KIX) is the nearest international airport. A direct limousine bus connects Kansai International Airport and Koyasan. The fare is 2,000 yen or 1,800 yen (online) one-way. The bus leaves from Terminal 1, 1st Floor, bus stop number 6 and arrives at Okunoin at 11.55am. The return bus leaves Okunoin at 1.30 pm arriving at Kansai International Airport Terminal 1 at 3.15pm. The service is scheduled to operate from April 1 - November 30.
* No service April 29 - May 1; May 3 - 5; Dec 1 - March 31).
See willerexpress.com for further details.
There are a few flights daily from Haneda Airport to Nanki-Shirahama Airport with is about 3 hours from Koyasan by hire car.
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.
Car hire is a good option for exploring the Koyasan and nearby Kumano Kodo area. Cars can be hired from Nanki-Shirahama Airport and Kii-Tanabe Station. The drive from Kii-Tanabe Station to Koyasan is a pleasant three hours.