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Kansai Scene Magazine

Magnificent Mount Koya


Magnificent Mount Koya

Seeking enlightenment for the New Year? Consider a winter pilgrimage to Koyasan, the Japanese headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, which this year celebrates its 1,200th anniversary.

For the past 1,200 years, the quaint temple village of Koyasan has sat quietly up in Wakayama’s misty Kii Mountain Range; a training ground, sanctuary, and home for Shingon Buddhist monks, and a tranquil retreat for a handful of visitors looking for a place to quieten the mind and escape the urban rat race.

This secluded six-by-three-kilometer mountain prayer ground has lured pilgrims on their path to enlightenment since its establishment 1,200 years ago by Kukai (774–835), the eighth patriarch of Shingon Buddhism, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi (Grand Master). Even today, followers of the Shingon Buddhist sect will make the journey along the Koyasan choishi-michi, a 24-kilometer path from the base of the mountain to the mausoleum of founder Kobo Daishi in Okunoin graveyard. This spiritual mountain village was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.

This recognition, however, has brought with it floods of curious visitors, and coupled this year with local and national promotion of the area as part of its 1,200-year celebration, Koyasan has become a true tourist hotspot. But don’t be dismayed – there is more than enough enlightenment to go around.

It is, however, a good idea to pick your time to visit wisely. While eager crowds now flood the tiny town in spring and autumn, eager to make the most of temperate weather while experiencing Mt. Koya in its seasonal colors, the cooler mountain-top temperatures in the summer also attract visitors seeking relief from heat and humidity. So if you’re prepared to bundle up, winter may just be your best bet for experiencing the original, still, quiet, meditative atmosphere of Koyasan.

Entrance to Eko-in Temple in Kota

Entrance to Eko-in Temple in Kota. Photo: Jason Haidar

“The snow is the best in December,” said Nobuhiro Tamura, a young monk at Eko-in temple. “Some photographers stay here for a week to wait for the December snow. In December it is light and powdery, but snow in January and February is wet, heavy, and muddy!

“But it is really cold, especially at night,” he warned. “You should definitely ask the temple you plan to stay at in advance about their heating situation,” advised the 31-year-old with a grin.

One flow-on effect of taking in more tourists over recent years is that many temple rooms have become equipped with a few more mod-cons, portable gas heaters included.

Another flow-on effect of the new wave of foreign tourism to Koyasan is that Nobu was granted an opportunity he wouldn’t otherwise have had – to find his calling as a monk at Eko-in temple.

“My case is unusual. Normally, the monks here, they are from temple families – Japanese monks get married. So it’s tradition for a son or daughter to take over the family temple, and if they want to do that, they have to come to Koyasan to study for some years first. But I’m quite unusual. I’m from a regular family.”

Nobu was born and raised in Kobe, and his father is a businessman. He became friends with the son of the head priest at Eko-in temple in high school, before spending a year and a half studying in the UK. The English he learned living in Europe proved to be an asset when his high-school friend’s priest father asked him to come and work a part-time job at Eko-in helping English-speaking guests.

Eko-in monk Nobuhiro Tamura. Photo: Jason Haidar

Eko-in monk Nobu. Photo: Jason Haidar

“I needed to translate what the priest was saying to the guests, and while I was translating I learned a lot about Koyasan and about Shingon Buddhism. So one day the priest asked me, ‘Would you like to become a monk?’ So that’s how I became a monk,” explained Nobu proudly.

Approximately half of Koyasan’s 120 temples open their doors to visitors to stay overnight, allowing them a glimpse into the life of a monk, a chance to eat shojin ryori (traditional vegan temple cuisine), and take part in early-morning prayer sessions. Eko-in is the only temple in Koyasan that also conducts a goma (fire ritual) at 7:00 every morning (7:30 in the winter time) “to burn away sins and impurities,” informs Nobu.

Another unique Eko-in experience – Nobu takes his guests on night tours of the mysterious and enigmatic Okunoin cemetery, Japan’s oldest and largest graveyard. Holding more than 200,000 graves dating as far back as the 11th century, the picturesque burial ground stretches 1.9 kilometers from the entrance at Ichi-no-hashi bridge to founder Kobo Daishi’s place of final repose – a place where some believe he is still hidden away deep in meditation despite the passing of 1,200 years.

Rising out from behind and between mounted tombs, moss-covered gravestones, and torii gates on either side of the cemetery’s neatly paved paths are ancient cedar trees, thick and tall, that allow only patchy light to pass through, making the place tricky to photograph when the sun is out, but much easier under a cloud-covered winter sky.

Beautiful stone lanterns line the walkway that winds through the peaceful resting places of emperors, princes and princesses, and feudal Japanese samurai lords, including the graves of Japan’s three unifiers: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. But you don’t have to be a famous historical figure to be buried at Okunoin, in fact you don’t even have to be Buddhist.

“If you like the philosophy of Kobo Daishi, you can have a tomb here. Doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Buddhist, we don’t care at all. If you are rich or poor, we don’t care,” explained Nobu humbly. Although you do need a bit of cash to secure your slot – a standard three meter by three meter plot with the gravestone will set you back ¥3 million, and you can rent the space for 50 years. After 50 years your family can take it over as long as they make another contract and pay the going rate.

On his Okunoin tours, Nobu mixes in cemetery folklore with basic teachings of Shingon Buddhism. As for the fun folklore, Nobu tells three stories. The first is that somewhere in Okunoin there is a rock that, if you put it to your ear, you can hear the sound of hell.

“I don’t recommend you to try it,” chuckles Nobu.

The eeriest is about the Okunoin well. “There’s a well in the cemetery where some people, they can not see their reflection in the water. There’s nothing. It means they are going to be dead within three years.” If you’re fortunate enough to find your reflection in the well, you still have to pass the stairs test on the other side of it. The superstition is similar – if you trip and fall on the stairs, you are dead within three years. So if you opt for the night tour, wear decent shoes, and don’t forget your flashlight.


Booking a Temple Stay

The official Koyasan reservation service ( will not operate from Dec 26th Jan 5th so it is recommended to contact temples directly, or use another booking site such as Rakuten, JAPANiCAN, TripAdvisor, or
Email to make a reservation at Eko-in temple.

Area Highlights

Okunoin – Japan’s oldest and largest cemetery situated at the very east end of the village (walking distance from the town center and all temples).

Konpon Daito (Main Great Stupa) – Coated in the blazing “shrine orange” color, this 48.5-meter tall structure stands out from the other wooden structures in the area. Said to be the first two-story pagoda in Japan, with the current reconstruction dating back to 1937.

Banryutei Garden – the largest rock garden in Japan (2,340 square meters). Made of 140 pieces of granite rocks, the design is of a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds to guard the inner building.

Getting There from Osaka

Nankai Koya Line from Namba Stn to Gokurakubashi Stn. At Gokurakubashi, transfer to the cable car. From the top station, take a five-minute bus ride into the town centre. To save money, consider using a Koyasan World Heritage Ticket or a Kansai Thru Pass.
























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