Mount Koya, Wakayama
This is a travel report of my most recent trip to Mount Koya (official website) in Wakayama Prefecture. Although I’ve been to quite a lot of places in Kansai already, I never got to visit Mount Koya (高野山) – until now.
What is Mount Koya anyways?
Mount Koya is primarily known as the world headquarters of the Mt. Koya Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.
It’s in a valley (900m above sea level) amid the 8 peaks of the mountain. The 8 peaks are thought to represent the 8 petals of a lotus in bloom, which is suggestive of the core of a mandala with its 8 deities arrayed on the 8 petals of a lotus and Buddha at the center of the lotus. The valley has grown more and more over time and is now featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and 120 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims and some even to tourists (!).
It was the famous monk Kukai (aka “Kobo Daishi“) who first settled there in ~816. In 2004, Mount Koya was designated as World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.
See? Quite worth a visit, don’t you think?
Maybe you’ll be even more convinced after seeing some photos?!
Travel Report with photos:
|2011, Nov 5th (Sat.)||rainy, cloudy, cool||autumn leaves||1 day||accessed via Osaka|
Your best bet is to go from Namba (can easily be reached via subway lines from Osaka or Shin-Osaka stations). Get off at “Gokurakuhashi” station. From there take a cable car and then a bus (more details in the actual report below).
Price and duration depend on what kind of train (local or limited express) you use (80-130min. for 850-1850yen: one-way). Most of the time you’ll have to change trains in “Hashimoto (Wakayama)”.
It is also possible to access Mount Koya from Kyoto, however Kyoto is farther away and thus it will take longer and cost more.
You can just use a local train from Kyoto to Osaka and change trains in Shinimamiya or to Namba and then use the route suggested earlier (“From Osaka”).
Please use Hyperdia.com to check specific train times and routes. I always use this to plan my trips, too!
Once you arrive at Gokurakuhashi train station (~500m), you’ll have to take a cable car up to the actual mountain (~900m). It doesn’t take very long.
You get quite a nice view. Well, there’s not really anything apart from trees, but in autumn and spring that can be extremely breathtaking!
Once you arrive at the actual Mt. Koya station you’ll have to transfer to a bus. From there it’s easy to get to the various interesting spots.
I started out at Okunoin which is farthest away from the Mount Koya station. It features a HUGE graveyard – which is special indeed. Not only is it the largest graveyard in Japan, it also has some quite … “weird” statues.
Yes, a dog! And such a cute one, too! If you have a lot of time, you can spend hours exploring this spacious graveyard! I wish I had more time!
See? Quite weird things for a graveyards. There was a rocket among other things, too! Crazy!
The autumn colors (just like the cherry blossoms) are very late this year. Some people say it has to do with the earthquake and tsunami in March earlier this year, but I don’t think so.
In Kyoto and Osaka the leaves haven’t changed colors yet (beginning of November). However, Mt. Koya is located very high and so it was much cooler than down in the big cities. Thus, the leaves have already changed into awesome and bright colors up there.
Mount Koya is quite famous for its autumn leaves, so it can get quite crowded during that season (try to avoid weekends or national holidays).
Although I went on a Saturday it was not THAT crowded. However, the weather wasn’t very good, so that could have been a reason.
The autumn leaves were so beautiful, that it was difficult to decide where to look first and what to take photos of.
Then, I spotted a group of pilgrims. Mount Koya is one of the most popular spots for pilgrims as they want to follow on Kobo Daishi’s path.
The graveyard leads to “Kobo Daishi Gobyo” where Kobo Daishi was enshrined. Wanting to be close to Kobo Daishi many prominent monks and even feudal lords have had their tombstones erected on Japan’s largest graveyard!
After walking for some time, you’ll enter a huge forest and the graveyard just spreads throughout the whole area. A little bit spooky, but also a very interesting atmosphere. Something you definitely should experience yourself.
I’ve seen a lot of weird statues so far, but never one with make-up!!? (left photo)
What you see here is just a small selection of statues. There’s so many more to see. Honestly, you could spend hours there!
A lonely autumn leave. Among all trees that change their colors, I love the Japanese maple tree the best. The leaves turn blood-red and so it looks as if the trees were on fire!
Once you managed to get out of the forest graveyard, you’ll get to a temple facility where you can buy lucky charms or get a seal for your seal book, among other things. Of course I got one for my temple seal book, too!
Next to that temple facility were a lot of statues, giving people an opportunity to stop and pray. The autumn leaves just add up to the great atmosphere!
Usually before you enter a temple or shrine there’s a pond where you can (read: have to) wash your hands and mouth, so that your “tools” for praying are clean. Here, you also use the water on the statues.
I did not only enjoy the atmosphere, but also the autumn leaves, especially because those were the first autumn leaves that I got to see this year!
They’re still not quite out yet (mid-November) in most parts from Tokyo to Kyushu.
A tree as if on fire. So beautiful!
You know, if I ever get a garden I need tons of Japanese cherry blossoms trees as well as those awesome Japanese maple trees. ;P
After you pass the building you saw earlier, you’ll enter the holiest area (Kobo Daishi Gobyo), so you’re not allowed to take any photos anymore. Also, they had some other interesting warnings such as “Do not enter in yukata wear!”
Yukata is something worn during summer on festivals and is very casual wear. Entering with a kimono, on the other hand, wouldn’t be a problem.
Also, once you entered the mentioned area, you’re not allowed to talk in a loud voice (although there were some Japanese people who didn’t seem to care at all).
The main building (sorry no photos as it was prohibited to take any), Kobo Daishi Gobyo, is the focal point of faith in Kobo Daishi. He is enshrined there and still believed to be alive, tirelessly stirving to give aid to all beings. Actually 2 meals are offered to him daily.
Yes, that IS a Hello Kitty bag there!
On my way back to the bus stop I took a different route through the graveyard and took some more photos of statues.
I swear you really can spend a whole day just there!
Rumor has it that it’s a special experience to go to the graveyard at night – which is only possible if you try one of the temple lodgings they offer for tourists. I’m sure it’s a great experience – something I want to do myself one day!
I enjoyed the various colors of the leaves on my way back.
Maple leaves, about to turn completely red.
Very colorful. The leaves are still in the process of changing colors. Beautiful.
A wonderful color combination, don’t you think?
One last photo of the graveyard before I took a bus to go back to the “Senjuinbashi intersection” from where you can walk to (almost) all the other main attractions.
After getting off the bus, “Kogobunji” was my next destination. In front of the main building little kids could take a photo next to the mascot of Mount Koya. So cute!
Rock garden as part of the temple facility.
Kongobuji Temple, Headquarters of Koyasan Shingon-shu Buddhism:
The name Kongobuji was originally intended to refer to all of Mount Koya and its many subtemples. The name “Kongobu” means Vajra Peak and is a term found in the title of a Buddhist sutra.
The original temple was built in 1593 to memorialize Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s mother, and was rebuilt in 1863. Two temples, Kozanji Temple and Seiganji Temple, were combined in 1869 and renamed Kongobuji Temple to function as the headquarters of Koyasan Shingon-shu Buddhism.
A lot of beautifully painted sliding doors can be viewed in the temple facilities. As some of them are really old, taking photos is not allowed.
The temple facility is quite spacious. After you’ve walked for quite some time and are through with the sliding doors you can take a short break in the “Shinbetsuden” which was constructed in 1984. “Shin” refers to “new” anyways. Visitors can stay there and enjoy Japanese green tea and a rice cracker!
After you finished your cup of tea, you’ll come across the “Banryutei Rock Garden” on your way back. It is actually the largest(!) rock garden in Japan with 2349m. The design is of a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds to protect the Okuden (the holiest temple facility).
The “dragons” are made of 140 pieces of granite brought from Shikoku and the white sand is from Kyoto.
Another maple tree that hasn’t turned red completely yet.
Shinzen-byo, Prefectural Important Cultural Property:
This facility was built in 1640 to honor Shinzen, the disciple and successor of Kobo Daishi. There is a small altar in front of the main building.
As it started to rain and I was hungry anyways, I decided it was time for lunch. It was quite chilly, so I went for a hot soup to warm me up.
I love udon, so I decided to go for a vegetable udon soup. The mushrooms were especially delicious. On the left you see sesame tofu (goma tofu). This vegetarian food has a unique sticky taste and aroma as a result of the roasted and ground sesame seeds. You should definitely try it if you have a chance to!
In the afternoon it was raining a lot and it cooled down quite a bit. It got more difficult to take photos, but the rain created a nice atmosphere.
Not too far away from Kongobuji Temple, there’s the “Tourist Association” offering a lot of information, tea ceremonies performed by real monks etc.
I didn’t stay there. I’ve seen tea ceremonies many times already. You can experience tea ceremonies elsewhere, so if you’re short on time can I make another suggestion?
Go to “Daishi Kyokai” which is right across the street of the “Tourist Association”. There you can copy a sutra and take it home as a souvenir for just 100yen (~1$)! It’s such a great experience! They had some information in English there, but I’m not sure if English is spoken there at all. However, it’s not that difficult and definitely worth a try! Copying the sutra will take about an hour even for experienced people.
(more information: Koyasan Daishi Kyokai, Tel.: 0736-56-2015, Japanese only)
Back out in the rain, but the colors made up for it!
Left: A red statue is offered all kinds of food, snacks and drinks. So if you’re ever hungry you know where to go, right? (Just kidding..”)
Right: Raindrops on maple leaves.
My last destination of the day was “Dai-Garan” consisting of Konpon Daito, Kondo (the main hall) and Miedo.
Besides the “Okunoin” this was another highlight, so if you’re short on time I recommend going there first and then to Dai-Garan.
The red pagoda you see in the background is “Konpo Daito”. Inside you’ll find a 3-D mandala demonstrating the nondual nature of the Shingon teachings. It’s free to go inside, so definitely have a look! Photos are prohibited, though.
Despite the rain there were still quite a lot of people around.
In the background (behind the bell tower) you see a lit-up small building. That’s where you can buy lucky charms or get a seal for your seal book (which I did, of course).
Due to the rain, less and less people were around. It was slowly getting dark, creating a very nice and calm atmosphere.
Dai-garan is quite spacious, too, so I took some time exploring it. However, due to the rain it wasn’t such a nice experience – and difficult to take photos.
On my way back I got lucky as I got to see a “monk parade”. Because of the colors they wore it kind of felt like Halloween, ahem. It is quite a bizarre picture with the umbrellas.
At last I went to the Reihokan Museum which was opened in 1921. In there you can find innumerable religious art treasures from temples in Mt. Koya. It was quite interesting (and a good shelter from the rain). However, photos were not allowed inside and descriptions were mainly in Japanese.
And then it was time to leave and go back to Osaka. I didn’t manage to explore everything that day. One day is enough, but you won’t be able to see everything, I guess. I visited the “main tourist spots”. There’s also the Tokugawake-Reidai (the Tokugawa Family Mausoleum) which possibly might be worth a visit.
- 1. DISCOUNT TICKET:
Actually you can save quite a bit of money using the Koya-san World Heritage Ticket. You can buy it at any station that is served by Nankai Railway (e.g. Namba, Shin-Imamiya). Please refer to the website mentioned above for a detailed list of all the discounts you can get.In spring and in autumn you can also get the “Koya-san 1 day ticket” (Japanese only).
- 2. AUTUMN SEASON:
Mt. Koya is probably most scenic during autumn. Although it slightly changes every year, it’s save to say that the best time to go there is in November. Be aware that it can get quite crowded during this season, especially on weekends.
- 3. SANSKRIT COPYING:
Like mentioned earlier I think this is a great experience for tourists, so be sure to stop by at Daishi Kyokai and ask for “Sanskrit copying” or “shakyo” and they’ll understand.
- 4. TEMPLE LODGING:
Although I haven’t tried this myself, I imagine this to be a great and unique experience. It might be a little bit pricy (~9000-18.000yen/night, breakfast included) and difficult if you have a lot of luggage, though. Of course, foreign tourists are welcome, too. accommodation can be reserved through Japanican or by fax via the tourist association. Please not that most temples accept cash only. Here’s a list of the available temple lodgings.
- 5. AUDIO GUIDE:
Get more detailed information as you walk using an audio guide for 500yen/day! Available in 5 languages. More information can be found here.
I hope you enjoyed this post.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me
or just leave a comment. Thank you.