Grizzled veterans of Japan travel are likely cringing right now. Really, Donny? Mt. Koya? I thought you focused exclusively on off the beaten path destinations. What gives? Hasn’t this mountaintop Buddhist enclave gotten enough attention already? Honestly, here the answer is a resounding no. While those of you who visit Japan regularly are probably well aware of Mt. Koya, there are huge hosts of first time visitors to Japan who are utterly oblivious to this sacred site. Moreover, I’d also bet a good portion of the minority that do know Mt. Koya are oblivious to the fact that you can spend a night at one of the temples.
Now, I am most certainly a seasoned connoisseur of hidden gems in Japan. Left to my own devices, I’ll default to locations much like this time lost shrine in the hills of Yokosuka. Despite my personal proclivities, I’ve also made a commitment to getting more folks off the so-called Golden Route (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka) and out into the prefectures. As such, I’ve been peppering my more obscure introductions with ones more mainstream visitors can appreciate. In this regard, Mt. Koya strikes the perfect balance between the mainstream shrines, the temples of Kyoto, and some of the lesser known spots that I typically favor.
So, for those of you who are unaware, let’s dive into what makes Mt. Koya worth visiting. Regularly referred to as Koyasan in Japanese, this collection of countless Buddhist temples is the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhism sect. The complex was founded in the 800’s by none other than Kukai himself. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, know that Kukai (posthumously also called Kobo-Daishi) is one of Japan’s most influential figures. In addition to being instrumental in bringing esoteric Buddhism to Japan, Kukai is also often credited with the invention of the kana syllabary as well as a number of engineering feats. Basically, he’s about as important as a man can get.
While Mt. Koya is indeed an attraction unto itself, the main reason that you would want to consider visiting is that the area has some of the best temple lodging experiences in all of Japan. What’s more, following Mt. Koya’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, many of these formerly domestic-oriented establishments have overhauled their operations to accommodate overseas guests. If you’re keen on trying some traditional Buddhist cuisine or meditating alongside some Buddhist monks, you absolutely need to spend a night on Mt. Koya.
How to Get There
Stop! Logistics time! Mt. Koya is located south of Osaka down in Wakayama Prefecture. The Shingon Buddhism temple enclave is most conveniently reached from Gokurakubashi Station. To get here, you’ll want to take Nankai railways from Osaka’s Namba Station. While you’d do well to refer to the ever-helpful Jorudan when it comes to departure schedules, also note that there are a few limited express trains that go all the way to Gokurakubashi Station. If you somehow don’t manage to take one of these, you’ll need to instead make a transfer at Hashimoto Station along the way.
Once you arrive at Gokurakubashi, you’ll need to transfer over to a cable car that will transport you to the top of Mt. Koya. All in all, this leg of the journey should take you only a few minutes. Once you have arrived at the summit, you will need to take a ten-minute bus ride to reach the central area where Mt. Koya’s many temples are located. Thankfully, there’s ample English language guidance so you shouldn’t need to worry too much about navigation. Frankly, it sounds a lot harder than it is. Note that the cable car and bus will cost you 500 yen and 300 yen, respectively.
What to See on Mt. Koya
While the main draw of Mt. Koya is undoubtedly overnighting at one of the many temples, there are many amazing additional sites to check out. In the interest of brevity, I’ll present these gems in a choose-your-own-adventure style so that you, the reader, can pick out which you’d like to check out. As always, I’ll include a link to a Google Map as well as a short summary for your ease of understanding.
When it comes to Mt. Koya’s many attractions, it’s hard to beat this one. Allegedly said to be the largest cemetery in all of Japan, Oku-no-in is home to over 200,000 grave markers. Additionally, visitors will also find the final resting place of Kukai here too. Technically speaking, this is not a grave as adherents of Shingon Buddhism believe that Kukai is merely meditating and will one day reawaken. While you can visit Oku-no-in during the day, I suggest taking a nighttime tour that the ekoin. Alas, while the darkness does add a uniquely spiritual vibe to Oku-no-in, you’ll need to pass on seeing the 10,000 lanterns on display at the Torodo hall. While I’d certainly not fault you for opting not to, it might be a good idea to visit both at night and during the day.
Originally constructed in 1593, this mammoth temple later merged with many of its smaller neighbors to become the complex that it is today. Since the fusing, Kongobu-ji has come to be recognized as the head temple of the Shingon Buddhism sect. The temple complex is open to the public for a minor fee and spots a number of picturesque sliding doors. Here, you’ll also find the Banryu-tei rock garden out back which is the largest of its kind in all of Japan. As if this weren’t enough to warrant a visit, know that Kongobu-ji also features a colossal kitchen that you can explore. From what I read elsewhere, the expansive facilities can prepare food for up to 2,000 monks.
According to one of the many folk tales out there about Kukai, the monk allegedly flung a sankosho ceremonial tool towards Japan while learning Buddhism in China. Years later when he was back in Japan, he came across the instrument in the branches of a pine tree on Mt. Koya. Not one to ignore the omens, Kukai decided to make the peak the home of his new sect of Buddhism. If you believe the story, Danjo Garan sits on the site where the sankosho landed. The grounds are home to a magnificent two-story pagoda. The 45-meter-tall structure has fallen victim to fire several times over the years and is not an original, nevertheless, this pagoda remains an awe inspiring site.
To be frank, I did not have time to visit this museum during my visit. Typically, I would go the extra mile to check it out however I was visiting with my Yamabushi friends as part of a study session on best tourism practices. If you want to check out the Reihokan during your time on Koyasan, you should know that the permanent exhibition displays some Buddhist statues, mandala, and other such religious paraphernalia. If you plan on going, be sure to snag yourself one of the 1,500 combination tickets that allows for entry to all of Mt. Koya’s attractions.
Other Nearby Attractions
If you’re going to go out of your way to travel all the way down to Wakayama Prefecture and Mt. Koya, I highly recommend that you check out the Kumano Kodo. This ancient highway connects the various points of interest on the Kii Peninsula and has been used by pilgrims for over a millenia. While you certainly don’t? need to trek the entire route, I cannot more highly recommend that you consider exploring a portion of the trail. Of the many experiences I’ve had while on the road in Japan, Kumano Kodo easily ranks among the top (and that’s saying something coming from me).
Sadly, during my recent visit to Wakayama, I was not able to get enough solo time to thoroughly experience all that needs to be said about the Kumano Kodo. As such, I will be returning in the near future to finish what I started. So, until then, you’ll be on your own when it comes to figuring out how to best handle the logistics of the Kumano Kodo. That said, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll have a lengthy guide ready for you guys within the year. You have my word.
If you’d like to learn more about the Kumano Sanzan, a trifecta of sanctuaries along the Kumano Kodo, refer to this guide. It will provide you with all you need to know to experiences the shrines without needing to actually trek large sections of the ancient highway.
Until next time travelers...