It’s not far from Kyoto, so I highly recommend visiting.
Interesting facts about Mount Koya
Mount Koya is primarily known as the world headquarters of the Mt. Koya Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.
It’s in a valley (900 m 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.
How to access Mount Koya
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 (80-130 mins for 850-1850 yen: 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.
Please use Hyperdia.com to check specific train times and routes. I always use this to plan my trips, too!
The Gokurakuhashi train station is about 500 m from the cable car station. It doesn’t take very long to the mountain top.
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.
Okunoin of Mt. Koya
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) were very late in 2011. Some people say it has to do with the earthquake and tsunami, but I don’t think so.
In Kyoto and Osaka the leaves had not 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.
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.
As mentioned earlier, it’s also part of the famous Kumano Kodo.
The most sacred part of Mount Koya
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!
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!
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.
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 striving to give aid to all beings. Actually 2 meals are offered to him daily.
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.
Kongobuji Temple – Headquarters of Koyasan Shingon-shu Buddhism
After getting off the bus, “Kongobuji” 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!
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.
Rock garden as part of the temple facility.
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”. 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. 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.
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.
Food on Mount Koya
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.
Copy a sutra at Daishi Kyokai
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 100 yen (*in 2011). 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.
Garan – Mount Koya’s Central Temple Complex
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.
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.
5 Travel Tips for Mount Koya:
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.
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 early-mid 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 (~9000-18.000 yen/night, breakfast included) and difficult if you have a lot of luggage. Of course, foreign tourists are welcome, too. 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 500 yen/day! Available in 5 languages. More information can be found here.