Staying overnight at a Buddhist temple in Koyasan was one of my favorite moments from my Japan trip. Visiting the sites and temples of Koyasan was equally rewarding. Koyasan (Mt. Koya) is the epicenter of Shingon Buddhism. Kukai (Kobo Daishi) developed the secluded temple town of Koyasan back in the 9th century. Koyasan is surrounded by 8 mountain peaks, representing the 8 pedals of a lotus. The lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols in Buddhism and an important symbol in the religion.
I first found out about Koyasan when researching pilgrimages after I walked Camino de Santiago. Koyasan is the beginning and end point for the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. We didn’t get to do any hiking or explore the trail network in Koyasan, but I’m hoping to return soon.
Getting to Koyasan from Kyoto is no easy feat and took Julia and I a total of 4 hours on three trains, one cable car, and a bus. Using the JR rail pass, we took a shinkansen to Shin Osaka from Kyoto. From Shin Osaka, we took the local Osaka Loop train to Shin Imamiya. From Imamiya, we purchased a World Heritage pass that would grant us access the rest of the way. A direct train took us from Imamiya to the base of Koyasan, before we took a cable car up the mountain, and finally a bus to the center of Koyasan.
When we finally arrived in the city center of Koyasan, the first thing we did was grab lunch. We found a great ramen place kitty corner to the tourist center. Koyasan has a great busline that takes you from one end of the mountain to the other. It’s also a very walkable area, with a paved sidewalk leading from one end to the other.
After lunch, Julia and I walked from the center of Koyasan to see the closeby Garan temple complex. The development of Garan began in 826 when Kobo Daishi decided it was the perfect place to center his religion. The are now more than 100 temples in Koyasan. Our first stop was at Kongobuji, the head temple in Shingon Buddhism.
From Kongobuji we continued on to Garan, the central temple complex of Koyasan. There are a number of small temples along the path through Garan as you first enter, but all eyes gravitate towards Kondo Hall and Konpon Daito Pagoda. Kondo Hall is a very important temple and is where important ceremonies are held. Fire has burned Koyasan many times, and these temples have burned with the mountain. Kondo Hall has been rebuilt many times, with the current building having been constructed in the early 1900’s. Next to Kondo Hall is the Konpon Daito Pagoda. This 45 meter tall pagoda features the cosmic Buddha Dainichi Nyorai. This pagoda also features a three dimensional mandala.
After spending a half hour inside of the Daito Pagoda, Julia and I explored the rest of the Garan complex. The old temples set in the lush forest of Koyasan had a very magical feel to it. It was getting late and cold, and we had to make it to our temple by 5 oclock. We did a little more walking around Koyasan before deciding to head back to our temple for an evening of shojin ryori and the warm water of the onsen.
After a night spent at a Koyasan temple and a morning of prayer, Julia and I ventured out into the cold morning towards Okunoin Temple. You can take a bus from to Okunoin Temple, but Julia and I decided to walk there through Okunoin’s cemetery. Okunoin Temple is the resting place of Kobo Daishi. It is said that Kobo Daishi did not die, but instead is suspended in an eternal state of meditation. Okunoin is the destination for many pilgrims in Japan and is considered to be one of the most sacred and revered sites in the entire country.
The path to Okunoin through the cemetary consists of three bridges, with the first bridge denoting the official entrance.
The Okunoin cemetary is the largest in Japan with over 200,000 grave sites. For those seeking salvation, being buried close to Koba Daishi was a desired place to rest after death.
After walking for nearly 2 kilometers through the Okunoin cemetery, we reached Gobyonohashi Bridge, the third and final bridge before Okunoin. From this point on, all food, drink, and photography are prohibited. Okunoin Hall has a presence that not quite possible to put into words. Entering the resting place of Kobo Daishi is an experience I’ll never forget.