I can’t believe it was over a year ago that Jim and I packed our backpacks for an overnight trip from Kyoto to Mt Koya. It just so happened that Jim’s birthday landed half way through our three-week tour round Japan, and I wanted to arrange something pretty memorable for him.
Often described as the most spiritual area of Japan, Mt Koya is home to an active monastic centre founded by Kobo Daishi, and is the headquarters of the Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddism. It also happens to be one of the best places to arrange a temple stay, which is something I’d been dying to do since my first ever trip to Japan.
It’s a pretty lengthy trip to Koyasan no matter where you start out, but most people head there from either Kyoto or Osaka. We’d been staying in Kyoto the past 7 days, so our journey went something like this: Kyoto station – Shin-Osaka – Shin-Imamiya – Gokurakubashi – Koyasan, with a lot of changes, a lot of hastily purchased snacks and a lot of incredible mountainous views.
It’s a long journey (around 3 hours), but one of the most picturesque journeys we’ve ever taken. As much as we enjoy the convenience of the shinkansen, there’s nothing like taking the slow route on a local line – You get a glimpse of tiny towns, mountainous views and so much cherry blossom you’ll be sick of it.
Upon arrival at Koyasan station, the roads to the centre are too treacherous to walk, so we took a bus for a further another 20 mins or so towards Okunoin where we disembarked pretty much directly outside Shojoshin-in, our home for the night.
I remember that first evening so clearly – It was just starting to rain and the mountain was covered with a light mist. It was quiet, eery and it felt like we were stepping back in time about 150 years.
We were greeted by the lovely man who ran the bookings at the temple, showed to our ryokan style room, rolled out our futons and warmed up with a cup of steaming green tea.
After recovering from our journey, we wandered out into the early dusk to explore Okunoin, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. To get to the Mausoleum it’s a 2km walk through the pine wood covered cemetery (the largest in Japan with over 200,000 tombstones), a deadly quiet walk where we only ran into two other people and the only sound was the slow dripping of rain from the trees.
Photography is prohibited from the point of Gobyonohashi – The bridge that separates the Okunoin cemetery from the innermost grounds of the temple, so I’m afraid we can’t share any photos of the Torodo hall and the mausoleum with you. For us though, it was this cemetery walk that we found most beautiful, especially in the early evening when the lights are just starting the glow through the mist. I can’t really describe how obsolete you feel amongst the towering pine trees, so I’ll leave the photos to do the talking instead.
To stay in a traditional, working temple, to be cooked for by the resident monks, and being invited to pray with them at dawn is an experience that’ll stay with me for an incredibly long time.
The temple we stayed at was Shojoshin-in, which we organised through Japanese Guest Houses, and we couldn’t recommend it enough.
Be aware if you do visit Koyasan, that being on top of a mountain the temperatures tend to be around 5 degrees lower than Kyoto and drop further in the evening, so make sure you bring plenty of warm clothes (or do as we did and spend all evening soaking in the hot onsen)!