02 May 2016

Koya-san: Sacred Mountain

Koya-san is located south of Osaka, in a mountainous area surrounded by eight peaks. Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan, selected this place in the year 819 to build its headquarters, because he believed that the terrain auspiciously resembled a lotus plant. The area is still populated by over 100 temples today, and due to the presence of Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, is a popular point of pilgrimage.

My own journey to Koya-san felt somewhat like a pilgrimage, having to take three trains, a funicular railway and a bus to get there. The long journey is at least scenic, with the last section of the train winding through luscious mountain forest, and the final climb offering a dizzying view.

Boarding the funicular at Gokurakubashi station

Once at the top of the funicular station, you have to take a bus down into Koya-san itself, as the mountain roads have been deigned too narrow to accommodate both vehicles and pedestrian tourists. I took the bus all the way to Okunoin, the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, which is at the far end of the town, and began my exploration of the area there.

Okunoin was definitely the area in Koya-san that I most looked forward to visiting, as I find visiting cemeteries for different religions and in different countries quite fascinating. They are more often than not, awe-inspiring places that reveal much about the history of the area. Okunoin certainly promised to be impressive, being home to 200,000 Buddhist tombstones. It didn't disappoint, and I could have spent several hours there if I'd had more time.

The many tombstones, statues and votive figures, some of vastly different ages, all closely packed together, made for an awesome sight in this ancient forest. The cool and shaded nature of the place made it feel like a sanctuary. The awesome walk through this cemetery eventually leads you, after roughly a 2km walk, to Kobo Daishi's Mausoleum and Torodo Hall (a hall with 10,000 lanterns that are kept eternally lit). These are in a sacred area dedicated to prayer, where photography is strictly prohibited. 

After making my way out of the Okunoin complex, I walked back into town, where a number of key sights are clustered together. You can buy a combination ticket for 1,500 JPY to visit 6 different venues (the ticket can be bought at any of the venues I mention below). It not only saves you money if you visit most of them, but also saves you the hassle of counting out your change each time you want to enter another venue. The ticket itself also makes for a nice memento of the day!

Kongobuji Temple
Kongobuji Temple is the head temple of the Shingon Sect, and you can enter the temple itself. Admission is 500 JPY if bought on its own, or you can buy the combination ticket mentioned above.

The main attraction inside the temple are the painted sliding screens (however, no photography of the screens is allowed). Entry to the temple also includes a free cup of green tea and cracker, which you can enjoy in the large tatami hall.

Entrance to Kongobuji Temple

View from the interior of the temple

View from the interior of the temple

Complimentary cup of green tea

Reihokan Museum
Although this museum holds thousands of pieces of Buddhist art work, only a small selection of the collection can be displayed at any one time, making it a manageable museum that can be enjoyed in an hour or so. When I visited, items on display included statues of the five wisdom kings and large world mandalas.

Garan Temple Complex
This is Koya-san's main temple complex, which was founded by Kobo Daishi. Its two primary structures are the Kondo Hall and Konpon Daito Pagoda. Entry to both of these is included in the Koya-san combination ticket. Inside the pagoda there is a statue of Vairocana Buddha.

Inside the Garan Temple complex

Inside the Garan Temple complex

Konpon Daito pagoda

Tokugawa Mausoleum
These two mausolea enshrine the first two shogun of the Tokugawa family, and are set amongst an impressive forest back-drop.

The two mausolea are identical...

...and have an impressive forest back-drop

The mausolea are located on the way back up towards the funicular station, so are a good last stop before catching the bus back up.

Whilst waiting for the bus back, we noticed a sign pointing up into the woods, showing the directions for Bentendake shrine, roughly a 1km hike away. Despite an accompanying sign warning that bears had recently been spotted in the woods (!), we braved the hike, and were rewarded with breath-taking views across the valley when we finally made it to the top.

Koya-san definitely sits near the top of my list in terms of places to visit in the Kansai region. It is not the easiest place to get to, but the remote nature of the area is a huge part of its charm. It was incredibly restorative to get away from the busy city for a day, breathe the fresh air in the mountains, and visit this spiritual centre. 

One thing I sadly wasn't able to experience at Koya-san was shukubo, an overnight lodging at a Buddhist temple. This must be a really unique experience, where you get an insight into the lives of Buddhist monks for one night, staying in a traditional Japanese room and also eating the vegetarian monk's cuisine at dinner and breakfast. If I ever make a second pilgrimage to Koya, I will definitely arrange this.

Have you ever visited a site of pilgrimage, either in Japan or elsewhere?


  1. Love this post Steph and I'm really looking forward to visiting in October. I'm surprised at how few people are visible in your photos. I thought it was a popular place to visit?

    1. Thanks Hannah :) There were actually a fair amount of people there, I just waited for them to move out of the shot before taking a photo, haha. But it certainly wasn't the busiest place I've visited... and we were in fact the only people at the Tokugawa mausoleum which was cool.