Travel

Mount Koya – One of Japan’s Most Sacred Places

largest stone garden in Japan (Mt. Koya)

Mount Koya is located in Wakayama Prefecture and is one of the most sacred places in Japan. It’s also part of the famous Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage.

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

From 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 (80-130 mins for 850-1850 yen: one-way). Most of the time you’ll have to change trains in “Hashimoto (Wakayama)”.

From Kyoto:

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.

More information:

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.

mount koya cable car

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!

mount koya sightseeing map

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.

mount koya graveyard statue mount koya graveyard statue

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!

mount koya graveyard statue

See? Quite weird things for a graveyards. There was a rocket among other things, too! Crazy!

mount koya graveyard statue

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 okunoin

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.

mount koya okunoin

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.

 

mount koya okunoin

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.

mount koya graveyard statue mount koya graveyard statue

I’ve seen a lot of weird statues so far, but never one with make-up!!? (left photo)

mount koya okunoin

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!

mount koya okunoin

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!

mount koya graveyard statue mount koya graveyard statue

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!

mount koya okunoin

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.

mount koya autumn leaves

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

mount koya okunoin

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.

mount koya okunoin

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.

 

mount koya kongobuji

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.

mount koya kongobuji

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!

mount koya kongobuji

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).

mount koya kongobuji

The “dragons” are made of 140 pieces of granite brought from Shikoku and the white sand is from Kyoto.

mount koya kongobuji

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.

 

mount koya kongobuji

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.

Mount Koya is also famous for “shojin ryori“, purely vegetarian food intended for monks. Tourists can also experience this, especially when staying overnight at a temple!

 

mount koya daishi kyokai

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.

 

mount koya dai-garan

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.

mount koya dai-garan

Despite the rain there were still quite a lot of people around.

mount koya monks

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.

mount koya autumn colors

Reihokan Museum

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.

45 Comments

  • It’s a beautiful out of the world place, isn’t it? When I was there it was also raining a bit. I think being in the mountains means that’s quite common. But it fits the mood.

    • It sure is! Especially the graveyard feels special.
      This is one of the places I wouldn’t mind visiting again. :thumbup:
      I guess it would be a LOT of fun exploring that graveyard some more! :happy:

  • Your photos are gorgeous!

    I was at Mt Koya about 4 years ago, but in the spring, so I didn’t get those great colors. It was sprinkling all day and rather chilly, but I really loved the place and it’s atmosphere.

    We stayed at temple lodgings, and I really liked the food. I am not a vegetarian, but each time I have stayed or eaten in a monastery I have found the food very good.

    I wish you great success with this blog!

  • hi!! omedetou!!! new blog is up!! :thumbup:
    well, i know u thru the toma fandom, and i went to yr LJ sometimes and found out u were working on this blog a while back and i’m glad it’s finally UP!! ;P this post was nice….mount koya is such a pretty place!! just that this post was kinda long, and i don’t think u need 2 comment on most of the pics….cuz it’s kinda too much to read? that’s just what i think…

    • Thank you!! :D
      Yes, it is very long, but not too different from my previous posts on LJ, I guess.
      Actually I tried hard to make it shorter and also deleted some of the photos again. :sweatdrop2:
      I guess it will take some time until I get used to all this! :ehehe:
      Your advice is appreciated, thank you! :music2:

  • umm, i already said this stuff at your LJ, but i’ll re-post it here too… :ehehe:
    i love the design of your blog!! the red-ish cherry blososoms….all the cute stuff, like the kitty cursor, cute the comment form, the kitty at the bottom of the page….all the cool stuff on the side bar, like the japan related tweets, recent comment/top commenter. ^_^
    zooming japan is a cool name too, since it’s a travel themed blog…i’ll link to you from my toma love blog soon. ~__~ i’ll go comment at yr blog now… (these emoticons are so cute!! xD)

  • I will add my 2 cents bit to the comments made by “kate”. I think you could omit the food photos, unless it is something really unusual, in the interest of brevity.

    However, personally I tend to be overly brief and dry, and I find your posts quite enjoyable. I wish I had your easy manner! And you are not giving unnecessary extraneous details.

    I am not big on emoticons, but yours are cute, and I like the kitty cursor too.

    • Thank you very much for honestly sharing your opinion!
      That will really help me to hopefully create a better blog! ;P
      I’m trying not to use too many emoticons, so people won’t be annoyed and for the comments it’s only an option anyways.

      As for food photos, hmmm.
      I guess it depends. If I’m just doing an information travel post, then maybe food is not needed (unless it’s really special, like you said), but if I do a typical travel report, then usually I also show what I ate that day.

      Actually I want to share some more valuable information about the places – more than I did on LJ, but it’s difficult to find the right balance.

  • Well, I love the food pics :) As I wrote you on twitter, I’d put the access information towards the end of the post. Kinda makes more sense as you don’t really know if you want to travel there until you’ve read the travel report and also if you click on the link you want to read the report and not the access information. Well, at least I do :satisfied:

    • Hm. I get your point.
      Actually I was thinking about splitting up into “travel reports” and “travel information”.
      The “travel information” posts would have less photos (but I’d redirect to a “travel report” post where people can see more photos and decide if the place is worth visiting).

      Instead the travel information posts would cointain more valuable information about historical value, access information, discounts etc.

      Not sure if that makes much sense of if it’s better to keep those 2 things together in one post after all. :stressed:

  • Personally I like your long posts :3
    including the photospam of food!! <3

    but if you're aiming to get more traffic to your blog..
    (accdg to pro blogging sites I read)
    you should split one major post like this into different posts
    like "mt. koya food" "mt. koya souvenirs" "mt. koya etc"
    and then just cross link.

    • I guess only people with really OLD modems and thus a slow internet connection would really hate long posts?
      And those who don’t have much time XD

      Yeah, I know. I’ve read tons of websites about “problogging” but the thing is none of them really aims at “photo” focused blogs.
      I barely have any text, it’s mainly photos, so I guess for me there are different rules anyways?
      It will take some time to find the write balance, length etc.

      Thanks so much for sharing this valuable information! :D

  • This is my first comment here but I’m a follower of your LJ blog. Hope you recognize me. =)
    ????

    I enjoy reading your travel posts! Makes me think of going to all the places you’ve been to. I find your posts entertaining and very informative. Don’t worry I have ample of time so I don’t mind if it’s long. ^-~ I’m enjoying anyways.

    I hope I’ll get inspiration from you in updating my own blog. I haven’t touched it in ages. LOL =)

    I’ll look forward to your future posts.

    • Hello! :D
      Thank you very much for commenting.
      Interesting blog you have there! I know what you mean by not being motivated to blog (^-^;)

      What’s your LJ username? (^___^’)

      Thanks so much! I hope I can keep those blog entries coming somehow!!

    • Haha. See, the minute I got your LJ name, I knew where you’re located.
      I tried to figure out who you might be by your name (by adding a few letters etc.), but I couldn’t.
      Now that I see your LJ username, it’s sooo obvious! ^-^

  • Ahh Koya-san! Wished I was able to explore more of the area. Unfortunately, we only planned for one night.

    Did you attend a morning ceremonial prayer with one of the Buddhists groups while you were up there?

    • I plan on going again. A day trip is nice, but I want to stay a night at one of the temples there!

      No, unfortunately we arrived there in the late morning, so it was already too late! :(

      Thank you very much for your comment!

    • I haven’t been there in early spring, but I’m sure it is!
      Just don’t expect to find cherry blossoms. As it’s high up in the mountains I suppose they’ll bloom later than elsewhere.

  • So higher the place is, the later sakura will bloom? Just like it blooms later in Tokyo than Osaka..

    • Generally, yes. Also, the colder a region is the later they’ll bloom.
      For example, in most parts of Tohoku and Hokkaido they won’t bloom until late April / early May.

      Usually Tokyo is a bit faster than Osaka – this year especially!

  • I’m pretty confused.. Correct me, but Tokyo is a bit in north compared to Osaka right?

    • Not exactly. Have a look at this map.
      It’s east of Osaka, but not really north.
      Regions that are colder and get autumn colors earlier and sakura later are Chubu (e.g. Nagano, Niigata), Tohoku (e.g. Iwate, Aomori) and Hokkaido.

  • Ah I see the correlation between sakura blooming and leaf color changing now. Thanks ^0^