My lovely Koyasan Trip
On my third trip to Japan, I was in a pensive state of mind. Koyasan would be just the right place to visit. Freshly dumped, having a difficult time at work. For a week, I just wanted to see temples, shrines and enjoy some quiet time.
Well, I guess a trip wo a meditation retreat in Northumberland would have worked out cheaper, but I had my heart set on Japan and my friend extended a heartfelt invitation with ” now that’s good you are coming alone now you can stay in our second bedroom”. In Tokyo, I realised, why I had to travel alone to stay at my friends apartment. And when the flat is filled with light and great friends and has a huge bath to relax in, no one cares how small the spare room is.
So, after a couple days in Tokyo including family visits, enter a trip to Koyasan. There wasn’t much in my budget-friendly guide book, and my Tokyo-based friend said “oh well, nice, but I haven’t been there”.
Table of Contents
Koyasan: a short introduction
Koyasan is an active monastic centre and pilgrimage site in Wakayama province, roughly two hours by train south of Osaka. It was founded in the 9th Century by the monk Kobo Daishi, who is also the founder of the school of Shingon Buddhism. Located on a forested hill, it has numerous temples, monasteries, pilgrimage lodgings and one of the holiest cemeteries of Japan, and enjoys plenty of mostly national tourism, mostly pilgrim groups.
Koyasan traditionally marks the beginning and the final point of the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage.
Travelling to Koyasan from Tokyo and Osaka
I set off from my friends apartment in Suburbia a weekday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, right into crammed rush hour trains, then onto a not-so-full Shinkansen to Osaka. Thanks to a weeklong Japan Railway Pass, a very affordable journey.
In Osaka, I travelled to Namba Station to get to the private Nankai Railway Terminus. Flush with my newly learned Japanese, I approached a counter with two guys in natty railway uniforms with a “Hallo! Do you speak Japanese?” before being directed to the ticket counter and a train towards Koyasan.
After two hours in a suburban train, I got off at Gokurabashi onto the waiting cable car, then onto a bus for the last few kilometres into Koyasan.
There is no need to worry about missing connections, as the timetables are finely tuned and totally visitor-friendly. With stations being small and clearly structured, it is absolutely obvious where you will need to go next.
Not the good pilgrim route, I hasten to add. The bus does a round through Koyasan, entering through the less impressive “Womens Gate”, with a very practical stop at my pre-booked lodging, the Shojoshoin-in Buddhist Temple. Mostly thanks to the neat Shinkansen trip, I managed to do the 550km from Suginami Ward in Tokyo, to Koyasan in about five hours. Even up here in Koyasan, not exactly on the tourist trail, I see a lot of Western faces, and, slightly worse, khaki shorts and souvenir T shirts.
A night on the Temple Mountain
My lodging for today, the Shojoshin-In is very beautiful, a weathered-looking old wooden complex, with a carefully raked Zen garden between the buildings. The receptionist speaks some English, and for everything else, there are flashcards here.
As I have arrived shy of the dinner check-in time, I am shown to my room and then swiftly whisked away to dinner, served ridiculously early in a tatami hall, with the low tables separated by screens, so no polite chitchat with my dinner companions, two French couples and two Japanese men, all decked out in the inn’s pretty yukata, only old me in my travel clothes with an old blazer quickly thrown over in an attempt to look reasonably smart. Mass tourism it is not.
I enjoyed my dinner, knowing it is vegetarian (Buddhist temple diet) so some might be unidentifiable, but I won’t come across meat, so all is good. Still a bit strange , no conversation, not very social, all I hear is the appreciative eating noises from the others. So I rush through dinner a bit, and with just the Japanese bath for evening entertainment, I decide to go on a little walk. Which turns into a long walk and one of the best walks ever.
Some Enchanted Evening
As my inn is next to Okuno-in Ishihasi, or, the first bridge of Okuno-in, I take the little footpath right into Okuno-in, the ancient cemetery, as it gets dusky. Perhaps the best time to visit, as it is very quiet and extremely atmospheric, and not a smidgen of creepy dark cemetery feels.
The paved winding footpath is lined with stone lanterns, which area already lit, and further in, the forest is crammed with tombstones, little shrines and dressed-up jizo statues.
There are just a few people around, mainly tourists. It’s quiet and contemplative and somehow, for this Westerner, it doesn’t feel like a cemetery at all. The last part of the path leads to another temple and the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The Torodo, or “Hall of Thousand Lanterns” is especially sacred and at this time, with hardly anybody around, extremely atmospheric. It is said there are about 11000 oil lamps going here, with some kept going since the 11th Century.
It’s really really dark now, so I walk back on the nice paved path. There is a little road running parallel, but the paved path is much nicer, easy to walk with a few low steps.
I relax in the bath, now pretty empty, then in my huge room. As the rooms next to me are empty, I could make my room even bigger by opening up the paper screens, but no such things happen as I am asleep by 22.30.
Sightseeing at Koya-san
I sleep wonderfully and am woken by my inner clock, or perhaps a toilet flashing, before the official wake-up call by the prayer bell at 5.50. In the Main Hall, the service is just starting, with the foreign tourists as specators in the cheap seats. Half an hour of chanting later, led by a youngish monk, the head monk bids us a Good Morning, and we are ushered into the freezing cold dining hall, where a rather cold breakfast of rice, soup, tofu and pickles awaits.
At 7am, I am out, having eaten my breakfast rather quietly again and without much interaction with anybody. The streets are still empty and shops and cafes closed, just the first pilgrims in their white attire with their wooden staffs and bells, emerge from the temple lodgings and board their coaches – this appears to be the mainstream style of pilgrimage here.
I walk towards the Daimon, the holiest precinct of Koyasan .The majority of temples are here, along with an extremely photogenic red pagoda. With almost nobody around, an extremely peaceful and enjoyable experience, until the first coach tour of elderly Japanese pilgrims arrive, line up for a group shot and swiftly engage me as their photographer, then move on.. The speed at which most Japanese visitors more from sight to sight is astonishing and perhaps reflects the short holidays they get.
I linger on, strolling up to some buildings, ambling back, sniffing incense in the souvenir shops and, come 10am, am back at my inn to check out. I have a few more hours before my train and decide to visit the Okuno-in in broad daylight, which is a completely different experience. Even in broad daylight with many more visitors, it is quiet and shady. Now I can also enter the Hall of the 10000 Lanterns. there’s a lot of chanting going on, and it is customary here to pray for the deceased.
Talking a different footpath back as not to walk the sae route for the fourth tie, I passed some funerary monuments from large Japanese corporations in an increasingly more modern section of Okuno-in. Which have boxes for business cards on them – a way to pray for your colleagues and tell those deceased that you have been here. Apparantly, it is a massive honour to have your ashes interred here at Koyasan.
My feet are doing me a good service this time which I put down to wearing my favourite smart casual shoes, no changing socks, and using the foot massagers in electric stores a lot, so I walk thought town instead of sitting waiting for my bus. I get to sniff more incense, one of the more popular Koyasan souvenirs, and buy a couple of boxes. Which is where my love affair with Japanese incense starts.
With a pleasant journey by bus, funicular and suburban train I am back in Osaka Namba Station within two hours, put my bag in a locker and disappear in a rabbit hole of Yodobashi Camera, Comme Ca and Loft, finished off with an omelette, before I retrieve my magically expanding bag and squeeze myself on a train to Kyoto’s Inari Station, next to the famous Fushimi-Inari, but a lovely low-key suburbs with some nice family guest houses.
How to get to Koyasan
The easiest route is from Osaka Namba Station, quite a central hub, connected to Shin-Osaka Shinkansen station too. Since the Nankai Line is a private railway line, it is not included in the Japan Rail Pass, but in other regular and one-off deals and passes like the special Koyasan excursion ticket, Koyasan World Heritage Ticket or the more regional Kansai Thru Pass.
If you do it the old pilgrim way, consider getting off the train earlier and approach on foot on one of the traditional pilgrimage trails. The most famous is the Koyasan Choichi Michi from Kudoyama to the Daimon Gate of Koyasan. For this, get off at Kudoyama, which is on the main Nankai Koyasan Line, and walk the 500m to Jiso-In temple where the trail p[roper starts.
Where to Stay
I stayed at some authentic temple lodging, the Shojoshin-In. I recommend checking the temples English-language section here for prices and how to book. I [aid about 10.000 yen, which is approximately 70 Euro, not cheap, but well worth it as it includes a huge traditional tatami room, breakfast and dinner and heaps of atmosphere.
Also, according to the temple-s website, the temple was founded by Kobo Daishi himself around 835 CE, with the buildings being a lot younger, but old enough to count as antique. They take the religious practice very serious, and the invitation is extended top guests to partake.
In terms of commercial temple lodging, this is one of the lower priced ones. You can go up to 300 Euro per person. You can find some temple lodgings on Booking.com, for example for lovely authentic Zofuko-In or Yochi-In for about 70 Euro a night – you will have your own large Japanese style room within a historic temple for maximum authenticity but will be expected to stick to the temple rules.
If don’t wish to stay in a temple, you might prefer a guesthouse like Suzumeno Kakuremo or Tommy which offer Western-style rooms and amenities, usually laundry yet still have a central location for sightseeing.
What to see and do
With just over a hundred temples and shrines, you will have plenty to see and do in Koyasan.
If you arrive in the day, start at the Daimon precinct with the Shingon sect’s head temple Kongobu-ji, modest wooden structure containnig Japans largest rock garden. Right next to it you will find the Danjo Garan Sacred Temple Complex, easily recognisable by its tall red Great Stupa.
Further temples and Temple Lodgings
Right along the main road you will find numerous other temples, often with lodging attached. All will have a main prayer hall and usually some beautiful garden and are usually over 100 years old. And most are open to the public. You could spend several days trying to visit them all. My advice is to try to stay in one, and enjoy trhe Buddhis vegetarian cuisine, prayer sessions and meditation they offer on a daily basis. A little away from the main road, in a cluster of temples, you will also find the mausoleum of the Tokugawa, one of the most influential Shogun clans who rules Japan for over two centuries until 1868
Or: the most beautiful cemetery on earth. Set in a hilly forest, Okunoin is full of ancient steles, stone lanterns and tiny colourful jizo statues and culminates in the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi on the hilltop. Going down on the other side, you will find more modern mausoleums for specially notes employess of all the big Japanese corporations, and some rather bizarre-looking funerary architecture.
You can walk further up into Koyasan Forest Park and Yoryusan mountains, or try the old pilgrim route up from Kudoyama (Hashimoto), starting at the train station or the Jison-in temple. It is 24km of relatively gentle uphill walking and will take around 6 hours for the fit.
More of Japan?
I am a big fan of Japan and Japanese culture, but I have not visited in over ten years. On my last attempt, back in 2020, you can probably guess what cancelled the trip in the end. However, this is going to change soon!
I am preparing to go back to university in Japan in just a few weeks and I am super excited. Bit also super stressed. I will study the first four weeks in addition to my job, nine hours behind, with lectures starting in the middle of the night for me, and somewhat anxious getting there from our strike-riddled place. Once there, I will definitely check some wishlist items off my Ceramics dream trip, and will report back, of course.
The Small Print
I visited Koyasan in May 2008 – yes, that long ago! Since then foreign visitor numbers have tripled, from 12 million in 2008 to about 30 million in 2019 pre-pandemic (numbers from jnto) , but concentrating on the Tokyo and Kansai (Kyoto and Osaka) region. That being said, Koya-san is always busy with Japanese visitors, and the earlier you book your accommodation, the better. I booked about two months in advance at a time when there wasn’t much online hotel booking for foreigners in Japan – this has now changed.
I travelled on a weeks Japan Rail Pass, which is almost always worth its price especially if you move around a lot.
Some of the accommodation links are affiliate links to Booking.com, which means I earn a small commission if you book through these links. Others are best booked directly – email in English to reserve usually works.