The Religious Journey to Koyasan

Most people travel to relieve the stress of everyday living. Having to go to work almost everyday and spending countless hours working, sometimes even overtime, can take a toll not just on one’s mind but also on one’s body. Hence, traveling is sort of a way to refresh the mind and re-energize the body so one can have a “fresh start.” Other travel so they can explore new places and discover new things. They want to be in awe of nature and of what the world has to offer. They want to see and do new things that they can check off their bucket list. On the other hand, there are also others who seek spiritual journeys. They travel not just to find themselves but also maybe to find a higher being.

There are many places all over the world that one can go to and visit in order to achieve some of these things. Several tourist attractions in different countries offer a relief from stress or new sights that are just magnificent. There are definitely a lot of places that one can travel to in order to get a new experience. However, if one would like to experience all three: to relieve stress by refreshing the mind and reenergizing the body, to discover new things and places, and to go on a spiritual journey, then going to Mount Koya in Japan is highly recommended.

Koyasan in Japan: Facts, Map, Weather, Passes like the World Heritage Ticket

Better known as Koyasan in Japanese, Mount Koya is the general name of the mountains in the Wakayama Prefecture. Located in the south of Osaka, Koyasan is considered a modifying word for Kongobuji. When researching, many who are unaware may confuse Koyasan as a specific mountain; no mountain in the Land of the Sun is officially called Koyasan. The term itself just depicts the numerous mountains in the said area.

Considered as the world headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan, Mount Koya was actually first established in the year 819 by a monk in the name of Kukai. Situated in a valley that stands at 800 meters high, the original monastery is surrounded by eight peaks of the mountain. This gives off the image of the terrain looking like a lotus plant, which is among the primary factors behind its location. It has grown through the years into what is now known as the town of Koya that features 120 temples and even a university that is solely dedicated to religious teachings.

Weather in Koyasan is moderately sunny with chances of rainfall in certain months. People traveling to Koyasan during the rainy season should make it a point to bring either an umbrella or rain jackets just to be ready in case of rainfall. From previous data, it has been known that the peak of precipitation happens from the month of April to the month of July. The highest temperature usually occurs from the month of June to the month of September while the lowest temperature occurs from the month of October to the Month of April.

Together with two other places on the Kii Peninsula, namely, Yoshina and Omine and Kumano Sanzan, Mount Koya was designated as part of the World Heritage Sites: “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” by UNESCO in the year 2004. The complex itself houses a memorial hall and a cemetery wherein some Japanese who were jailed and killed for committing “atrocities” during the Second World War were buried and are being honored today.

There are two kinds of passes that one can avail when going to Koyasan. The first option is the Kansai Thru Pass. This pass enables a visitor to make the entire journey of traveling from Namba Station to Koyasan. In addition, it also provides unlimited travel use of train, bus, and subway services in Osaka and Kyoto as well as the surrounding area except for the use of JR trains. The second option would be the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. This option also includes the entire journey from Namba Station to Koyasan. Moreover, it provides a discounted price on the entrance fees of some of the tourist attraction in Koyasan. Hence, this ticket is highly recommended for independent travelers.

Stay in A Buddhist Temple or Temple Lodging Like Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in

People usually visit temples in Japan as part of their day trips. However, in Koyasan, visitors can actually spend the night in some of the temples located there. as it is a famous pilgrimage destination, most temples in Koyasan offer temple lodgings, also called shukubo in Japanese. Staying in shukubos overnight can enable visitors to get the actual experience of the simple and traditional style of living of Buddhist monks. Hence, most people who visit Koyasan usually have the purpose of staying in a shukubo as part of their to-do list.

Because almost all temples in Koyasan are accustomed to foreign visitors, they have made it easy for tourists to reserved via Japanese Guest Houses or Japanican. As for those who are part of tours, guests can just either email or fax their reservation to the tourist association. The cost of staying in a shukubo generally ranges from 9,000 yen to 15,000 yen per person per night. This price already includes dinner for that night and breakfast for the next morning. Due to these temples being located in the mountains, they usually only just accept cash and not debit or credit cards.

Most rooms offered by temple lodgings are usually private and of traditional Japanese style with tatami floors and sliding doors or fusuma in Japanese. Toilets and sinks are shared. Unlike hotels wherein there are beds and bed frames, bedding in shukubos are in the form of futons, which are spread on the floor to be lied on at night. While the floor is usually cold, gas heaters are provided during the winter season. This is a simple scenario provided by the traditional temple although there are some who provide a more lavish meal and even private washrooms.

When staying in a temple lodging, it is suggested that one arrives early, preferably no later than 5 pm. This is because while most people eat dinner at a later time, say 7 or 8 pm, dinner in most temples in Koyasan are usually served at around 6 pm. Food served for both dinner and breakfast is usually composed of vegetarian monks’ cuisine or shojin ryori in Japanese. Specialties include devils tongue jelly or konnyaku in Japanese, tofu skin or yuba in Japanese, and frozen dried tofu or koyadofu in Japanese.

Morning prayers usually begin at around 6 am wherein guests are invited to attend and participate, which lasts for 30 to 45 minutes. After which, breakfast is then served at 7 am. Some of the special features of the temple include cultural treasures, gardens, and halls. Communal and gender-separated baths are also usually offered in shukubos. Several shukubos can be found all over the town of Koyasan so accessibility would not be an issue.

Daienin is an example of a typical temple that offers lodging to guests. Run by a group of monks, big breakfasts are served at 7:10 am while dinners are served at 5:30 pm. These monks are friendly and usually retrieve guests for meals and for morning worship, which begins at 5:55 am. Their main gate closes at 6 in the evening while the temple curfew is at 10 pm. As for those who wish to also experience the natural hot springs of Koyasan, the only place that offers this is the Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in. located at 657 Koya San, Koya-cho, it is open for 24 hours a day. Like all other shukubos, it only serves vegetarian food accommodated by seasonal ingredients. A different course is prepared every month.

Kobo Daishi and the Okunoin Temple

Aside from temple lodgings, one of the primary tourist destinations of Koyasan is the Okunoin Temple. It is the cultural site of the mausoleum of the founder of Shingon Buddhism known by the name of Kobo Daishi, also called Kukai. He is among the most respected people in the religious history and community in the country. The temple is considered among the most sacramental places in all of Japan. It is believed that Kobo Daishi did not actually die and instead is just resting in meditation for eternity while waiting for the Buddha of the Future called Miroku Nyorai or Maihreya. It is also believed that Kukai’s purpose at present is to relieve believers who ask for salvation.

The traditional entrance to the temple is known as the Ichinohashi Bridge or the first bridge. It is customary that guests would bow to Kobo Daishi before crossing the bridge to show their respect to the monk. After crossing the bridge, one would be welcomed by the biggest cemetery in all of Japan, the Okunoin’s cemetery. The cemetery is almost two kilometers long leading to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, lined with more than 200,000 tombstones. These tombstones include prominent monks and even feudal lords who wanted their tombstones to be close to Kobo Daishi in order to receive salvation.

There is also a second way to visit Okunoin that is a much shorter approach compared to the bridge. Beginning from the Okunoin-mae bus stop, most visitors today use this approach to go to the temple as it is a much shorter route with only a single kilometer to take. Both approaches would then meet at the Gokusho Offering Hall. Near this hall stands a row of statues in the image of Jizo who is a famous Bodhisattva. It is believed that Jizo serves as a guardian to children, travelers, and the souls of those who already passed away. It is customary for visitors to make offerings to pray for deceased loved ones. Water is also traditionally thrown at the statues for this purpose with the act known as Mizumuke Jizo, which translates to Water Covered Jizo.

The other sites to visit in Okunoin are the Gobyonohashi Bridge, the Miroku Stone, the Torodo Hall or the Hall of Lamps, and, of course, Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum or Gobyo. There are certain guidebooks that recommend visiting the graveyard of Okunoin at night as it gives a much different feel, especially when the moon is full. Other places to visit are the Kongobuji Temple, the Garan, and the Reihokan Museum.

Traveling from Cities like Tokyo to Koyasan

 For the people who are interested in traveling to Koyasan, the primary mode of transportation is supported by the Nankai Electric Railway. Tourists coming from the Tokyo metropolis and neighboring cities can access Koyasan by taking the railway from Namba Station, which is located in Osaka, to Gokurakubashi Station, which is located at the base of the mountain. From there, a cable car is ridden that transports the riders to the top of the plateau in approximately just 5 minutes. The travel time from Namba Station all the way to Gokurakubashi Station can take up to an hour and a half when an express train is taken while it may take much longer with (up to two hours) when a non-express train is taken.

Driving a private vehicle may also be another option when traveling to Koyasan. However, it would be important to note that there is usually heavy traffic going there especially on weekends. The heavy traffic can generally last up to the evening. A better option would be to travel during weekdays wherein it would be a pleasant drive on the mountain due to light traffic.

Koyasan is definitely a must-see for anyone as it not only offers a rich, cultural, and spiritual journey to individuals, but it also provides an overall extraordinary experience to visitors. There is much that can be learned in Koyasan such as the lifestyle of the monks and how they survive even without the most updated of technologies. Their culture, belief, and dedication are something to be in awe of. Hence, head on over to Koyasan and be enriched by the wonderful experience that it has to offer.