Located in the heart of Wakayama prefecture, on top of a mountain, lies a village tucked away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Osaka City. Here you will find a huge temple settlement known as Mount Koya (高野山, Kōyasan), which is the centre of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. Koyasan is on the beautiful forested Kii Peninsula, more than 800 meters above sea level and features long avenues of tall Japanese cedar trees, and hundreds of temples and temple gardens. Having stayed there overnight in temple accommodation, known as shukubo (宿坊), and then partake in the morning service with the monks of the temple, I can certainly attest to how unique of an experience this was, and being so accessible to get to from Osaka City, it makes for a lovely trip to break away from the city life, and enjoy a wonderful cultural experience. It is possible to visit Koyasan as a long day trip from Osaka (or even Kyoto), but for a richer experience its recommended spending a night or two here.
How to get there?
Koyasan is most conveniently accessed by Nankai Railways from Osaka’s Namba or Shin-Imamiya Stations. Take the Nankai Koya Line from either station to the Gokurakubashi terminal station. A few limited express trains operate directly to Gokurakubashi (80 minutes, 1680 yen, five trains per day). Otherwise take an express or rapid express train (100 minutes, 890 yen, departs every 20-30 minutes), most of which require a transfer at Hashimoto Station along the way.
At Gokurakubashi, transfer to the cablecar which travels up the mountain to Koyasan. The ride takes about five minutes and costs 500 yen. From the top station, it is a ten minute bus ride into the town center (300 yen to Senjuinbashi bus stop).
The temples of Koyasan form a small town on the wooded mountain, about 1000 meters above sea level. Most visitors arrive by cablecar to Koyasan Station, which is a ten-minute bus or taxi ride from Koyasan’s town center. Note that it is not permitted to walk along the street between the cablecar station and the town center.
Getting Around Koyasan
Once you arrive, a great way to explore Mount Koya is on foot and enjoy taking in the environment of the town. Since the majority of Koyasan’s main sights are within walking distance of one another, it allows getting from one place to another very easy. Although if you need, there are also local bus lines connecting you to the rest of the surrounding areas, including Okunoin and Daimon Gate. Most of the temples and surrounding sites do charge small entrance fees. However, the town’s tourist information center sells an almost all-inclusive pass, called the “Combination Ticket (1500 Yen)” which gives you access to most of Koyasan’s main sites.
All about Mount Koya
Once you reach the town centre, you will feel you have entered an alter world. Everywhere you turn, there is a plethora of temples, shrines and monuments, and it is quite surreal that a community has made their place on top of the mountain. Amongst the things to, Okunoin, (or the “Inner Temple”) was quite a special, which is Koyasan’s cemetery. Okunoin Cemetery is a about a 10-minute bus ride from the center of town, where most of the temples – including the famous Kongobuji Temple – are located. A magnificent, mysterious necropolis of vast cedar trees and mossy tombstones east of the center of Koyasan. The estimated 500,000 graves in Japan’s largest cemetery include the tombs of important historical figures. The most famous is Kobo Daishi and warlord Oda Nobunag. Kongobuji Temple is the headquarters of the Shingon sect. Inside, you’ll find exquisitely-painted gilded sliding doors adorned with cranes, plum blossoms, and the story of Kobo Daishi’s journey to China and subsequent founding of Koyasan. Most visitors come during the day, but for the more adventurous we recommend a visit at night. This will also give you the opportunity to enjoy a more serene Koyasan, once the day-trippers have departed. Just a short stroll from Kongobuji you’ll come upon another of Koyasan’s most sacred sites, Danjo Garan.
This is a complex of about twenty structures, including the impressive 45-meter tall Konpon Daito Pagoda and Kondo Hall, where important ceremonies are performed.
Shukubo at Mount Koya
For many travelers, one of the highlights of visiting Mount Koya is a stay at a shukubo.
I was very fortunate to be able to stay at a shukubo, and the experience was very gratifying. Although a stay a Buddhist temple lacks many of the conveniences you would find at a modern hotel, it is the experience of a temple stays on this spiritual mountain that makes it worthwhile. You’ll have the chance to interact with resident monks, and if you join for the morning service, it gives you the opportunity to have a very spiritual and moving experience, one unlike anything else you might have felt before. You can also enjoy shojin ryori meals of traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. All temple lodgings on Mt. Koya offer shōjin ryori, purely vegetarian food intended for monks. People who equate vegetarian food with blandness will be surprised as in their hundreds of years of experience with vegetarian cooking, the monks have invented tasty dishes. A local specialty, Kōya-dōfu, is prepared by freeze-drying and then reconstituting tofu.
Sleeping arrangements are also traditional, and indeed staying at a shukubo has many similarities to staying in a ryokan. However, it’s important to note that shukubo are definitely more on the bare bone, minimalist style, just as the monks would sleep.
Here are some suggested temple lodgings on Koyasan via Boutique Japan:
- Souji-in is one of Koyasan’s highest-end shukubo, and also offers wonderful shojin ryori cuisine.
- Ichijo-in is another high-quality temple, also renowned for its cuisine.
- Hongaku-in is a good shukubo with relatively standard rooms, but is also noteworthy thanks to its excellent cuisine.
- Rengejo-in is a good standard shukubo with friendly hospitality.
- Eko-in is another standard but good shukubo with an especially convenient location to the Okuno-in Cemetery, to which they also offer a night tour!
Hiking around Mount Koya
The Kii Peninsula is one of Japan’s premier hiking areas and there are also some fantastic hiking options around Mount Koya. For a challenging multi-day trekking experience, the Kohechi route – which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route – is a beautiful and steep 70 kilometer hike through the mountains, which ends at Mount Koya. For more on the Kohechi and other Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, we recommend the maps and resources provided by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau.
If a day hike is more your speed, then consider the Koyasan Choishi Michi trail, which can be enjoyed as the full 23.5 kilometer hike or modified all the way down to about a 9.5 kilometer hike, depending on your starting point of origin. Among many courses, there is one that starts at Daimon (大門、big gate), hiking up to a tiny shrine at the top of Bentengaku (弁天岳), and then down to Nyonindou (女人堂). Not a difficult hike, and should take only a couple of hours, depending on how often you stop on the way to take photos. From the top you can see all the way south to Wakayama city and the ocean, which was stunning.
Mount Koya is a very special place, with strong bonds tied towards keeping the traditional way of living alive. This preservation of maintaining the Shingon Buddhism way of life is seen in every corner of this mountain, and to have a taste of the way of life is something I would recommend everyone experience. If you have a few spares days while travelling through Japan, why not do a temple lodge in Mount Koya. It will definitely be something you will remember and look fondly on.