I was determined to visit Koya during my last trip to Japan. I had heard and read so many beautiful things about this tiny town, nestled in the foggy Wakayama mountains – the birthplace of esoteric Buddhism in Japan. It is really worth a visit, which is why I’m sharing an in-depth guide to Koya!
If you are looking for a practical guide on how to visit Koya-San, read my post ‘A practical guide to magical Koya-San‘. If you’re interested in my personal experience and tips regarding this magical place – read on!
Having spent over a week already in Tokyo and Osaka, I was ready to head somewhere quiet and filled with nature. One of my aims of traveling alone to Japan was to have enough alone time to answer some questions for myself. It sounds like a cliché, but I believe that in order to really find some clarity and answers, you need some solidarity and space for a good think.
I had initially planned on hiking the last part of the Chôishi Stupa Route, which begins at one of the train stations near Koya, and ends at the impressive Daimon Gate. However, two factors made me decide that I would probably have a better time enjoying the two-hour train ride from Osaka. First was the never-ending stream of rain, which seemed to follow me during my holiday. Hiking four hours on a path with almost no shelter didn’t sound like fun. Second, many bear warnings had been issued for the area and this hike. Traveling alone, I didn’t think it prudent to head onto a quiet hike route alone….with bears. NOPE. Thinking about this over my excellent breakfast – grilled fish, spicy eggplant, miso soup and rice – I decided I should not be so overly ambitious and take the route most traveled.
The train ride up to the cable car station Gokurakubashi
The journey to Koya…
Train rides, especially longer ones with no time pressure, are probably my favorite way to travel! The train route to Koya definitely belongs in this category. The ride of just under two hours takes you through ever smaller becoming Japanese villages, surrounded by lush green woodlands and foggy hills. The train takes you up until Gokurakubashi station, from where you take a steep cable car ride up the mountain. I had now arrived at Koya, let me give you a short introduction to my destination:
Kōyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism which was introduced to Japan by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. The small town of Koya developed around the Buddhist headquarters founded in 805, and now houses 151 temple complexes dedicated to esoteric Buddhism. Of the 151 temples, approximately 50 allow guests, which gives the unique opportunity to stay in a shukubo (temple lodging). These are run by monks, and allow you to eat their vegetarian cuisine and experience morning prayers. Different bus lines run amongst the temples in Koya, so no worries if you’re not able to walk through the town to see the sights!
Exploring Koya in wonder:
There were a few things I wanted to do in Koya, time and weather allowing. Seeing the temples and cemetery were primary, but if possible, I wanted to attend a meditation class and do the night-time cemetery tour. I had booked a night at Kongo Sanmaiin but had some hours to explore the different sights before check-in time. Taking a bus to the end of the route, I started my exploration at the impressive Daimon Gate, which forms the entry into the town. From there, I walked to one of the main temple complexes – the Garan Complex – which includes three main temples, two of which were built by Kobo Daishi.
Even though I was cold (10 degrees celsius) and having soaked feet (I wasn’t kidding about the continuous downpour)… I forgot this once I walked through the Garan complex gate and up to the Kondo temple. There definitely is a magical sense to this town. I found this to be strongest in the empty corners of the Garan complex, amongst the smaller temples, and the memorial to the cut-down trees to build the pagodas. The lush moss covering stones and trees, and the sound of the rain, made for an enchanting world which this city girl has become estranged to.
After walking around in wonder for some time, it was time to warm up! I’m not a fan of tofu, so I skipped the well-known (expensive) tofu restaurants and headed over to the much loved Family Mart! Really, when traveling in Japan on a budget, convenience stores become unmissable! To warm up I chose for the famous pizza-man (pizza in a bun!), warm milk tea, boiled eggs, and some fruit. I also got some snacks for later in the evening, just in case the vegetarian dinner wasn’t filling enough.
After a quick lunch, I headed towards the Kongobuji Temple, which is the head monastery of the Shingon Sect. The monastery has several rooms with beautiful sliding doors, depicting the different seasons, and Kobo Daishi’s journey from Japan to China and his founding of Koyasan. It also houses the biggest rock garden in Japan, the beautiful Banryutei Rock Garden.
Ajikan meditation class:
After walking around the temple in wonder, I headed towards Kongo Sanmaiin, the temple where I was staying for the night. I was greeted at the gate by a very friendly monk, who showed me inside. After a quick introduction, I was shown to my beautiful room overlooking the inner garden. My next activity would be to head to the Ekoin temple, to take part in an Ajikan meditation class. Given in a beautiful room, a monk explained the principle of Ajikan meditation, instructed us on the correct way of greeting and sitting and then explained the most simple version of this meditation. After a few minutes, I could hear gentle snoring coming from the back of the room… guess it takes some practice to keep your concentration meditating! I found it a very special experience, despite finding it difficult to get settled into the rhythm. Being in an old temple, and the monk explaining the deep spiritual al religious meaning of meditation to them made the experience more profound for me!
I arrived back at the temple just in time for dinner! Please take into consideration that meals are served at a strict time at all lodgings – if you miss it, you miss dinner! After dinner, I went to take a bath, which was lovely and very warm. One thing that surprised me was how many women and girls seemed unaware about the bathing rituals in Japan. A helpful and fun video is one by Simon & Martina, who explain the customs of going to an onsen – the same applies for all types of Japanese bathing. I can really recommend giving it a try – the warm bath helps to soothe sore muscles and cold feet after a day of hiking and sightseeing.
The nighttime cemetery tour:
My next challenge was to find out whether the nighttime tour of the Okunoin graveyard would still be held, as this depended on the weather. Luckily, one of the monks was kind enough to call the Ekoin temple and confirm it for me. A senior monk came over to confirm that it would go through and they had reserved a place for me. He took one stern look at me in my yukata (fresh out of the bath) and told me I better hurry, as it was beginning in 25 minutes! I’ve never gotten dressed so quickly, with such an enormous smile on my face. Back in my 3 layered, Harry Potter themed clothing I practically sprinted out the door, to reach the Ekoin temple on time. I was happy to see the monk giving the tour was the same that had given the meditation class earlier that afternoon.
One of the primary sights in Koyasan is the Okunoin cemetery and mausoleum. During the tour, our guide Yuta explained about the history of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi (the founder of esoteric Buddhism in Japan) and told stories about the graveyard and the town’s events and traditions. It also gave us the opportunity to ask him questions about his daily life, meditation, and his aspirations. I considered later that this was pretty unique, especially since Yuta was so incredibly approachable and kind. When do you get the chance to ask a Buddhist monk about his life?! He has a great sense of humor and told stories with a smile on his face, a favorite appearing to be the many beliefs/superstitions that exist about certain things in the graveyard.
When we neared the mausoleum of Kobo Dashi, Yuta explained the etiquette to follow before entering the area of the mausoleum. First, you bathe by (ritually) pouring water over one of the Buddha’s. Before crossing the last bridge, you bow to pay your respects to Kobo Dashi. Since this was in the evening, the darkness contributed to the atmosphere. Before us was a beautiful building, with lighted lanterns all along the ceiling. Yuta took us around the building, to an area in front of the mausoleum. He explained the significance of the large golden lotuses – in Buddhism these stand for fortune, and represents that something beautiful can come from something muddy (as happiness and enlightenment can come from our suffering).
After we had paid our respect to Kobo Dashi, Yuta started to chant a prayer. I have to admit that the moment he started chanting an enormous wave of emotions overcame me. Maybe all the anxiety and pain of last months came to the surface again, inspired by Yuta’s beautiful words a few moments earlier. I find it hard to express in words how beautiful that experience was – it was as if for a moment I was shown my pain – but told I should embrace it, instead of fight against it. It inspired me to dive into Buddhist principles once back in the Netherlands and continues to inspire and give me strength in my healing process.
A guide to Koya – day two:
I fell asleep to the sound of rain, under a very heavy blanket, and had the best sleep of 2017. The next morning, I woke to the sound of rain…and the announcement over the speakers in the lodging. We’re allowed to attend the morning fire ritual in the main hall of our temple, which starts at 6.30 sharp. This is such a unique opportunity, that time goes quickly when watching all the rituals and listening to the monks chanting. After a simple vegetarian breakfast, it’s was time to head out again. On my way to the Okunoin cemetery to see it by daylight, I found a cute coffee place called Komi Coffee, and stop to warm up and get some coffee and second breakfast. This was such a cute, super friendly place, I highly recommend stopping by before heading over to the cemetery. The cemetery is also beautiful by daylight and has a very peaceful atmosphere. Even the relentless rain didn’t stop me from enjoying seeing the light fall through the trees or seeing beautiful memorials. The photos below hopefully show you more than I can explain – the magic of Okunoin cemetery.
I spent two days in Koya in a small magical (and a little wet) bubble. A bubble filled with beautiful surroundings, feeling spiritually inspired for the first time in many years, listening to the sound of rain and the Percy Jackson audiobooks. Exploring while in my own little world – I can really recommend visiting Koya by yourself, as it allows you to listen better to the surroundings, nature and yourself. You may hear something you needed to hear for a long time…
Great resources for Koya:
- Always good to know what the etiquette in a Japanese onsen or bath. My fave Youtubers have a great video – find it here.
- My blog post filled with great tips – A practical guide to magical Koya-San
- The Japan Guide website is a great resource with a lot of background and logistical information.
- The official Koyasan website, which lists all the sights and allows you to book a temple stay as well.
- Meditation class: I participated in a meditation (Ajikan style) class at the Ekoin temple. More information can be found on the website of the Ekoin temple.
- Night-time cemetery tour – more information here.
- Hiking: One of the more well known is the Choishi Stupa Route – more information can be found here and here. Check for bear warnings before heading out!
If you have any questions about visiting Koyasan, please leave a comment below or on my social media, I’m happy to answer any questions!
*Note: In October 2017 (very soon after I left!) a typhoon damaged part of the train tracks leading to Koya. Please make sure to check the Koyasan travel website and ask locally for the most up-to-date route.