As my train pulls out of Hashimoto, Kansai’s urban sprawl gives way to the vibrant green of rice paddy, then to mountain woodland as the train climbs, the station signs marking the steady gain in altitude. I am leaving the world behind and ascending to the home of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, hidden in the mists of Wakayama Prefecture: Koyasan.
Monks at Okuno-in Cemetery, Koyasan -- Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Crystalline Radical
Koyasan was founded in the 810s by the monk Kukai (later known as Kobo Daishi). According to legend, he was led to this quiet valley by a mountain spirit disguised as a hunter and felt it an auspicious place to begin building. At the height of Koyasan's popularity, the mountain was home to over a thousand temples, of which only a hundred survive today. In 2004, Koyasan was named a World Heritage Site, in recognition of its central role in the history of religion in Japan.
Most modern tourist pilgrimages involve less mystery, although the journey will take around two hours from Osaka’s Nankai-Namba station. Five express trains depart each day direct to the cable car at Gokurakubashi; otherwise, you'll need to change at Hashimoto. The Koyasan World Heritage Ticket (¥2,860) allows two days of travel on train, cable car, and buses, and gives discounts on admissions. You can also join the Koyasan Choishi Stupa Route walking trail from stations after Kudoyama (about 23.5 km in total).
The Steep Ride up to Koyasan -- Photo from Flickr cc by Tatyana Temirbulatova
The Garan Temple Complex and Kongobu-ji
Koyasan’s central point is the Koyasan Danjo Garan, a complex of twenty temples dominated by the bright red, 49-metre-high Konpon Daito Pagoda. This pagoda represents the central point of a mandala, or representation of the cosmos, covering the eight mountains of Koyasan and the whole of Japan. Some of the temples here have admission charges, but the area is atmospheric enough to explore, and we have the place to ourselves on a February weekday.
The Garan and Konpon Daito Pagoda -- Photo from Flickr cc by Akuppa John Wigham
Nearby is Koyasan Kongobu-ji Head Temple (admission ¥500), the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, which dates from 1593. Here you can see gorgeous painted sliding doors (fusama) depicting cranes, plum, and willow trees. The willow room has a dark history. Warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s nephew was ordered to commit suicide here after being accused of conspiracy, the death contributing to the downfall of the Toyotomi family. Also interesting is the Edo-period kitchen. Its blackened beams and giant kettles, capable of cooking rice for two thousand people, are a testament to the importance of Koyasan Kongobu-ji as a working temple.
Rock Garden at Kongobu-ji Temple -- Photo from Flickr cc by Jordi Marsol
Temple Lodgings at Koyasan
The light fading, I check into my room at Ekoin Temple. Staying at a temple (shukubo) allows a glimpse into the lives and routines of the monks. Around fifty temples offer the service, which can be booked through this website. The room is simple but comfortable, with tatami flooring, sliding doors, and a kotatsu heated table and kerosene heater to keep us toasty in the mountain chill. Visitors can enjoy a great view of the temple garden, and free wi-fi throughout.
At 5:30 pm, two monks return carrying an elaborately-stacked set of red lacquer tables – our evening meal. Shojin ryori (devotion food) is vegetarian and uses no strong-tasting ingredients. The spread includes vegetable tempura, a warming hot-pot, fresh fruit, and the local specialty Koya-dofu, a kind of freeze-dried tofu. Light and delicious, the meal was the perfect amount to see me through the cold night. After a relaxing soak in the communal bath -- and the thrill of walking through the dimly-lit temple in my yukata robe and slippers, breath steaming before me -- I called it a night. I had to be up with the dawn to witness the temple’s morning prayers.
Shojin Ryori - traditional food - at Ekoin Temple -- Photo by Caroline Hutchinson
At 6:30 am, we assemble on the tatami flooring before the main hall. Four monks enter, kneel, and begin choral chanting, creating a powerful atmosphere of reverence and devotion. Next, we move to the goma fire ritual. Here, a consecrated fire is built up to several meters high, and wooden plaques bearing wishes from individuals are held in the flames, which represent Buddha’s purifying wisdom. In the half light and morning chill, accompanied by chanting and percussion, the fire and smoke are hypnotic.
My final stop was Koyasan Okuno-in, the cemetery where Kobo Daishi is laid to rest, along with over 200,000 graves which have been built around his mausoleum. For the full experience, follow the winding stone path from Ichinohashi-guchi between ancient cypresses, countless weathered gravestones, moss-covered statues and stone lanterns. In the clear cold air of the late morning, we slip almost without thinking into reverent whispers, although we are almost the only people there.
Okuno-in Cemetery -- Photo from Flickr cc by Alexis Lê-Quôc
Among the tombs are many famous historical figures such as warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and graves for corporate giants such as Nissan and Toyota. Despite the quiet, you will see recent signs that the living have passed through, leaving offerings of sake and snacks on the gravestones, and knitting red bibs to give the thousands of tiny Jizo statues comfort.
A Well-Groomed Jizo Statue at Okuno-in Cemetery -- Photo by Caroline Hutchinson
Crossing Gobyonohashi bridge, you should bow to show respect to Kobo Daishi; photography, food, and drink are prohibited beyond this point. If you’d like to test your virtue, look to the left for the Miroku Stone, said to feel lighter to those pure of heart (it felt heavy to me). Behind the Toro-do, or Lantern Hall, is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, where he is said to be not dead, but in a meditative trance awaiting the arrival of the future Buddha.
Having paid my respects to Kobo Daishi, my pilgrimage comes to an end, but I feel a twinge of regret that I descend this holy mountain. Koyasan has given me a rare glimpse into a timeless life of devotion and ritual, a Japan far from the crush and neon of its hyper-modern cities. And that, at least until I hit Nankai-Namba station at rush hour, brings me some inner peace.