About Mount Koya
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. We experienced our first ever Koyasan temple stay two years ago, and vowed to come back this year for longer as our previous one night stay just wasn’t enough!
How to get to Koyasan
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
Where to stay
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.
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)! We weren’t expecting it, but it snowed our first night there! Luckily our temple room was really warm and cosy, and the snow just made our stay even more magical!
What to do in Koyasan
Oku No In
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 and evening light is so beautiful. 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.
Kongō Sanmai-in temple
Built in the 1200’s, Kongō Sanmai-in temple was our first stop on our day exploring the mountain. Tranquil and calm, Kongō Sanmai-In is a world heritage site, and the only temple lodging in Koyasan that also houses a national treasure.
I’ve never stayed here so I can’t comment on the temple lodging, but the grounds are beautiful! The garden was covered with a light dusting of snow when we visited and although pretty freezing, was 100% worth exploring in the cold.
One of a kind, the Kongō pagoda is one of the last examples of the Tahōtō style that fell into disuse after the Heian period and is entirely made of hinoki (Japanese cypress).
The head temple of shingon buddhism, Kongōbu-ji temple is a must visit while you’re in Koyasan and is my favourite temple in the area
Dating back to 816, Kongōbu-ji temple is the oldest building in Koyasan and is rich with history. It houses some of the most beautiful, original painted sliding doors. Gilded golden doors, elegantly painted cranes and sweeping plum and willow trees grace the temple walls. As you walk through the temple (partially outside), you eventually come to the Banryutei Rock Garden – The largest rock garden in Japan.
How to get there: Catch the Nankai Rinkan Bus from Koyasan Station and alight at stop Kongobuji-mae.
Opening hours: 08:30 – 17:00 / No closing days
Admission: 500 yen
Dai Garan complex
Before I start describing the Dai Garan complex I need to relay the story of Kobo Daishi.
Kobi Daishi (the founder of Shingon Buddhism) brought the practice to Japan from China. Legend has it that while he was deciding where to set up his headquarters that he threw a sankosho (a buddhist ceremonial tool) from China, and it landed in the branches of a pine tree atop a mountain in Japan. And so Koyasan as we know it was formed and the Dai Garan complex is home to that (apparent) legendary pine tree.
It’s also home to two of Koyasan’s most prominent buildings – The Kondo hall and the huge, bright Konpon Daito Pagoda.
How to get there: The dai Garan complex is located opposite the Reihokan museum
Opening hours: No closing times
Admission: Admission to the grounds are free
Jukai Ceremony at Daishi Kyokai
While we were in Koyasan we decided to partake in a Jukai ceremony, which ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of my 6 months travelling.
Jukai is a formal ceremony usually administered to Buddhist laypeople, however partaking in Jukai doesn’t make you Buddhist unless you choose to practive it.
The ceremony takes place is a really darkly lit room (not as ominous as it sounds I swear), where you recite back to the priest chanting the ten Buddhist precepts. At the end of the ceremony the priest calls you to collect your certificate of participation and then you’re free to head off an practice Buddhism (or not, if you so choose) as you wish!
How to get there: Daishi Kyokai is a short walk from the Senjuinbashi intersection and just opposite the Kongobu-Ji temple.
Opening hours: The Jukai ceremony is held hourly between the hours of 09:00 – 16:00 (except 12:00).
Admission: 500 yen
Other places we visited by didn't photograph
I really hope you found this post on Koyasan helpful!
Any other questions you have about exploring Mt. Koya, Kyoto or travelling in Japan let me know in the comments below and I’ll try my best to help!
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