Where history, spirituality and Japanese culture meet.
Away from the megacities and densely populated areas is a lesser known area of Japan, Mt Koya. Join us as we explore this sacred mountain top retreat. We will share with you our highly anticipated overnight stay in a temple and you can join us on our visit through this ancient site where we were looking to re-centre, spend time in nature and maybe just find our Zen.
If we were to give you one word to sum up this part of our journey in Japan, it would be: serenity. Ascending the mountain side in a cable car and leaving behind what was becoming a hectic itinerary we were ready to embrace the peace and tranquility of what this destination promised to offer. Taking in the lush greenery and the misty mountain as we approached we were ready to switch off . The words of Eckart Tolle in my mind “Your outer journey may contain a million steps; your inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now.”
Situated high in the mountains, to the south of Osaka City and in Wakayama Prefecture is Mt. Koya, or Koyasan as it is also known. This mountain destination comprises of temples, shrines and pagodas dated back to 816 AD. It is a unique destination for an ‘off-the-grid’ trip if you are in the Osaka area. As one of the most sacred places in Japan, this is the heart of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism.
Founded by Kobo Daishi, a great Buddhist monk who’s life mission was to spread his learnings of consciousness and peace. In 2004, UNESCO designated Mt. Koya a world heritage site. The original monastery has grown into the town of Koya with 120 temples scattered through the forests. About half of these offer simple accommodation (shukubo or temple lodgings). This was the main draw for us as we wanted to experience temple life. Although we only stayed one night, it was certainly a memorable and profound experience. Immersive travelling at its best.
Mount Koya is isolated and an adventure to travel to. The best way is to travel from Osaka, making use of Japan’s brilliant train service. (2.5 hours from Shin Osaka to Koya station)
- From Shin-Osaka, take the subway Midosuji Line to Namba station (15 min).
- Make your way to the Nankai Namba platform for the train heading to Koyasan.
- Namba (Nankai) Station to Gokurakubashi Station. The train travels to Gokurakubashi where you then get a leisurely paced cable car (included in train ticket) to Koya Station. This is a short Journey to the top of the 900m Mount Koya.
- On arrival at Koya Station, you will need to take the bus to ‘Daimon’ down the winding road that leads in to town.
- Show the address of your accommodation to the bus driver and he will indicate where best to get off.
Where to stay – Shukubo (Buddhist temple lodging)
TIP! Pre booking accommodation is essential for mount Koya and many temples will only accept cash. Bathrooms are often communal. Toilet facilities are in the traditional Japanese style but some rooms come with western / modern en–suite facilities.
This is Koya Kun – Mascot character of Mt Koya and you will find him on signs outside temple lodgings >
Below we review our accommodation and include a couple more notable mentions
We chose the Hongakuin Temple as our accommodation . It is located on the site of the original temple dating back to 1190 .Living out the rituals of the monks’ daily life was one of the most rewarding experiences of our Japanese travels to date.
A sign on the outside had the names of the monks who live on site. After a brief orientation we were shown to our traditional lodgings where we had a tea ceremony prepared by the temple staff. Our room offered picturesque views of the temple garden. Temple stays typically consist of nice yet basic accommodation in traditional Japanese tatami rooms.
From the traditional meal to the morning prayer ceremony guests are encouraged to meditate, commune and eat vegan cuisine “Shojin Ryori ” prepared and served with dedication. The highlight was the early morning prayer before breakfast. Listening to the Buddhist chanting we got to experience the simplicity and serenity of temple life. Sitting on the ground you are an active participant by joining in during the service. You may not understand the words but then again language is just one form of communication. Sharing meals with other “pilgrims” was a highlight as not all temples offer communal dining.
Eko Oin – Temple
High up on our list was the Eko Oin Temple and we very nearly booked here. A mix up on dates on our behalf meant it was fully booked while we were going to be in Koyosan.
Shukubo Koya-san Eko-in Temple, a Mt. Koya temple lodging that boasts of 1,000 years of history, provides Japanese-style guestrooms and a beautiful garden.
The tatami-floored guestrooms with shoji sliding doors feature comfortable futons.
It is just a 3 minute walk to the Ichinohashi entrance of the historic Okunoin. Groups of 4 or more guests can enjoy meals in the Japanese-style dining room (chairs can be provided for requests in advance).
When staying at this temple lodging, guests can experience the following:
– Sutra Transcription: In your guestroom, use the writing brush and ink to transcribe Buddhist sutras.
– Religious Service: Observe a ritual where a Buddhist priest chants sutras.
*Temple lodgings were originally accommodation facilities for Buddhist priests and practitioners, but they now also accept regular tourists.
The Buddhist temple is also located on site, so both staff and priests will offer hospitality to guests.
Sojiin Temple makes our list as it has a super location in the centre of Koyosan and ranks quite high up in fellow traveller reviews.
When staying at this temple lodging, guests can experience the following:
– Sutra Transcription: Transcribe Buddhist sutras.
– Buddhist Image Tracing: Copy Buddhist images.
– Goma Fire Ritual: Observe a prayer ritual conducted by a Buddhist priest in front of an open fire.
A definite must see and one of the main reasons to visit Koyosan is the mausoleum of the revered Kobo Daishi. The mausoleum is buried deep within the Okunoin Cemetery and is best visited in the late afternoon when the many tour buses of pilgrims from all over Japan have departed (The entrance to the mausoleum closes at 5pm)
The cemetery, the largest in Japan has over 200,000 tombstones lining the almost two kilometre long approach to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Once you cross the Gobyobashi bridge the site is considered so sacred that filming and photography is not permitted. Kobo Daishi rests in eternal meditation at the rear of the complex in a special mausoleum. It is in order to be close to him that so many others wish to rest at Okunoin. We have never experienced a place quite like this. Time stands still and it feels that you are walking through a portal into another world where the intentions of the countless monks , past and present fill the air.This is a truly otherworldly experience one that is hard to describe without experiencing first hand.
Another way to experience Okunoin is at nighttime. Your Shukobo can arrange a guided tour for you.
Dai Garan and Kongobuji
Near the centre of town, is the site of Kobo Daishi’s first monastery and contains a collection of interesting buildings dating from various times over the centuries.The two most prominent buildings of the Garan are the Kondo Hall and the huge Konpon Daito Pagoda.
The Kondo hall is a large wooden temple hall where major ceremonies are held. The building has burned down multiple times over the centuries, and the current hall dates back to 1932. It enshrines an image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing.
Across the road from the Garan is Kongobuji the main monastery on Mount Koya complete with a stunning rock garden (Japan’s biggest) and also the headquarters of the Shingon sect.
Aside from these three major points of interest, the main attraction of Koya-san lies in wandering at leisure, visiting temples along the way and soaking up the atmosphere.
What attracted us to visit Mount Koya was the opportunity to experience the authentic Buddhist way of life. You really get to experience temple life and rather than observe from a distance this cultural and immersive experience leaves you feeling that the detour off the typical tourist trail was worth it.
Our brief stay did not disappoint and gave us our most spiritual experience of Japan – that of wooden temples nestled in among ancient trees, shaven-headed monks, religious chanting, and the unmistakeable scent of incense hanging in the air.
Not often while travelling do you get time for reflection. This was a captivating glimpse of authentic Japan and we give it 4.5 out if 5 Irish Harps.
Check out our “Essential Packing list” for Japan