My trip to Wakayama was nothing short of magical. Overnight in a Buddhist temple deep in the mountains, soaking in an isolated island onsen and hiking the sacred pilgrimage site to the tallest waterfall in Japan – I don’t think I could have planned a better summer getaway.
The journey started from Namba Station in Osaka. Limited Express Koya 1 – with extra-large windows to enjoy the fleeting views of a scenic route in the mountains, and comfortable seats with velvety crimson upholstery – weaved through the thick verdant forest on a slow crawl. As we were approaching Gokurakubashi – final stop where you’re supposed to mount the cable car that takes you up to the sacred mountain – a thoughtful audio (in English and French!) told us about the history of Koya.
This mountain temple town, currently the World Heritage Site, is the holy site of Shingon school of Buddhism. Wandering priest Kobo Daishi – one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan – founded Koya-san in the 9th century and his devotees have been following the esoteric practices of the sect ever since. Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum is located on the grounds of Okuno-in Cemetery, the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining two-kilometer-long path. It is believed that Kobo Daishi didn’t pass away, but is simply resting in eternal meditation (since the year 835), as he awaits the future Buddha, and provides relief to those who ask for salvation in the meantime. Every day, monks bring meals to his mausoleum which can only be opened by the head monk. For this reason, Koya-san is considered to be one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage destination.
Back in the day, pilgrims took up to 10 hours to hike up to the sacred mountain. We chose to embrace the technological development of the modern world and traveled up the mountain on the bright red funicular – so steep it almost felt like a vertical elevator.
Many might think that the village where monks live might be intimidating, unwelcoming and difficult to navigate, but it’s actually quite the opposite. You see, Mt. Koya has been hosting pilgrims (tourists of the yesteryear) for centuries, so atmosphere here is very welcoming and everything is thought-through for the comfort of a traveler. You can get English maps from the small Information Center and ask the guide how to get to your lodging, and then board the local bus to take you there or any other sight.
Serenity is an epitome of your trip to Koya-san. The moment we are dropped off in front of our shukubo (temple lodge), the fresh scent of pine trees filled my lungs and I felt at peace. We chose to stay at Eko-in Temple which has been hosting visitors for over 1200 years. Incredible, isn’t it?! You get a unique chance to experience what life at a Buddhist temple is like, while being completely free to participate or not. You eat specially prepared vegetarian meals that the monks typically eat every day for dinner and breakfast, you can participate in the meditation session and copy sutras in Japanese calligraphy, take night cemetery tour as well as attend early morning prayers and fire ceremony. In short, the cultural experience is incredible.
We were welcomed by the young monk (again, in perfect English), and after we left our shoes at the entrance and put on Japanese indoor slippers, he escorted us to our room. Eko-in temple is a lovely balance of the traditional and the modern. Since this was a very special trip, I decided to splurge and booked the “delux” room which was quite spacious and had ensuite bathroom equipped with all the usual Japanese high-tech amenities. You also have an option to book smaller room with shared bathroom. Everything at Eko-in is super clean and comfortable, and there were a lot of bathrooms so in case you are looking for a more pocket-friendly stay, I’d choose that option.
The temple and grounds are meticulously cared for and quite breathtaking, with a few small gardens and koi pond – a perfect place to switch off, relax and reflect (unless you’re tempted to use the free wifi that is available). I really enjoyed just wondering the creaky wooden hallways and taking in all the different details, and spending time in our lovely washitsu room. The crouched table accented with a tea pot, the tatami mat spanning the room, the sliding doors adorned with fusuma (painting on sliding door), and tokonoma (a recessed space along the wall used to display a scroll and flowers) were some of the highlights of the traditional layout of our lodging.
After spending some time perusing corridors and hallways, we headed out to explore Okuno-in Cemetery. The beauty of staying in Eko-in is that you’re within 3 minute-walk from this historic site. Exploring the cemetery is like peeking into a lost and mysterious realm. Incense hangs in the air, and you can almost feel the millions of prayers said here clinging to the gnarled branches of the 300-year-old cedar trees soaring into the sky. Graves are marked by mossy pagodas and red-robed Jizo statues and the walk is full of striking scenery the whole way through. I’d highly recommend visiting just before sunset. By this time, the crowds are gone and the way the golden light hits everything is absolutely magical. An image I always hope to keep in my mind is the way the light filtered through the massive cedar trunks in beams carried by the incense smoke and how the subtle rays made thick fluffy moss seem to glitter. You’d think standing at a cemetery this big would make me feel terrified, but I felt nothing but almost palpable happiness and inner peace.
Although I could have spent couple more hours wondering the eerie walkways of the cemetery, we had to get back to the temple – 05:30 pm meant dinner time, and honestly, I couldn’t wait to indulge in the shojin-ryori, vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist monks. While guests staying in smaller were feasting at the communal dining hall, we were served in the comfort of our room. I didn’t expect the menu to be so extensive: multitude of vegetarian dishes featuring perfectly cooked seasonal ingredients (including local tofu specialties such as goma-dofu and koya-dofu), with subtle and balanced flavors. Everything was delicious and beautifully served, and we washed it all down with some warm sake.
Eko-in is also the only temple that offers night tours of the cemetery. After the satisfying dinner (and a bottle of sake), we more than enthusiastically joined a tour of a friendly young monk Nobu who led the way through cemetery, telling us about the history of Koya-san and Okuno-in, teaching us about Shintoism and Buddhism, as well as trying to entertain us with some
scary amusing stories.
We passed a row of statues that people throw water on and pray for their ancestors before passing over the bridge to the main shrine, a threshold that marks the most sacred part of the mountain (this is also the point beyond which you are not allowed to take photos). A group of Buddhists were chanting together at a nearby shrine next to the statues ready to go into the river and get purified. Perhaps the most wonderful moment of my entire almost two years in Japan was when we reached refined Toro-do, the Lantern Hall named after its 11,000 lanterns. Two fires burn in this hall; one has reportedly been alight since 1016, the other since 1088. Behind the hall is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.
Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a still forest, the darkness of the night being illuminated by the warm, subtle lighting of the lanterns hanging off the hall, and reflecting off the soft golden lotus statues that adorned the front of the mausoleum. Nobu-san ended the tour by instructing us to close our eyes, and visualize our dream as he read a special mantra intended to ask Kobo Daishi to make it come true. The entire experience was otherworldly. The sights, sounds, smells and colors all harmonized more than any word can describe, and something that will stay in my memory forever.
We walked back to our temple and slid into our soft futon beds (already set out for us by the monks after dinner) and drifted to sleep. I don’t remember when was the last time I slept so well.
Next morning, I woke to the soft padding of the guests’ feet. We all met at the meditation hall of the Eko-in temple for the morning service followed by the ‘Goma fire ritual’, both enhancing the soothing and invigorating meditative experience of the previous night and making the entire experience very very special. Breakfast was served immediately after the ceremonies and we were then able to explore other temples of Koya-san, before venturing to our next destination.
If you have time to wonder around, I’d recommend visiting at least Danjo Garan Complex, which is the first place where Kobo Daishi erected a temple atop Koya-san. Perhaps one of the most striking features is the giant vermillion pagoda Konpon Daito, last rebuilt in 1937.
Sadly, by 11:00 am we had to board our bus to the station and leave this tranquil bubble. At the risk of sounding cliché, saying good-bye was hard, although we were also looking forward to our next destination – resort on an island featuring cliff-side hot spring pool. But I’ll save that story for another time…
Useful Tips To Plan Your Trip To Koya-san:
- There are 52 Japanese temple lodgings in Koyasan. You can easily book your shukubo via http://www.booking.com. Plan ahead as the rooms usually book up pretty fast.
- Before you book, make sure to check curfew and general rules of the place, especially if you plan to attend the night cemetery tour!
- Eko-in Temple is one of the few shukubo lodging that offers a couple things exclusively. In addition to attending their daily prayers, you are able to attend a Fire Ceremony right after. Also, they provide meditation lessons in the afternoon and a night tour of the cemetery in English. You can book a tour even if you are not staying at Eko-in.
- Another temple that I liked a lot was Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin. It is the only temple in Koya-san which has an outdoor onsen and has gorgeous interior.
- The total travel time from Osaka to Koyasan takes about 2 hours. Please consult with Hyperdia app for exact schedule.
Have you ever been to Mt. Koya? How did you like the entire experience? I’d love to know!