September 2009 – The village of Koya at Mount Koya (koyasan) is best known as the center of the Shingon Buddhism. At a plateau at 900 meters altitude surounded by 8 peaks the monk Kobo Daishi (Kukai) founded a monastery in 819. Over time the monastery has grown into the village of Koya.
At the east side of the village one can find the holy cemetery “Okunoin”. Okunoin is considered the most sacred site at Kyoasan. Here is situated the temple with thousands of lanterns and the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. It is believed he has gone in perpetual meditation since March 21, 835. The path to his mausoleum is about 2 km long. Along this path for more than 200,000 gravestones, tombs and monuments in memory of many (all) famous people of Japanese history.
The village of Koya contains approx 4,000 people, mostly priests and their families. It has a college for religious studies, two buses and a train station for the mountain railway. We did not find any hotels here, but there are about 120 temples where pilgrims can stay overnight. We as ‘tourists’ did not fall into this “pilgrim” category. However at most temples the tourists are welcomed too as long as they respect the local customs and attend the prayers.
At Koyasan we stayed one night which gave us plenty of time to visit quite a few temples and the large but impressive cemetery. An audiotour device is covering most temples and can be rented at the tourist information shop.
How to get there
For Koyasan we bought our combination ticket in Osaka. These tickets can be used at the train to Gokurakubashi, the mountain train and the local bus to the village Koya. Because of the steep slope, halfway at Kamuro, a set of wagons were disconnected to be able to take the final steep part up the mountain to Gokurakubashi. This train goes slowly and with screeching wheels because of the sharp bends in the route. We passed many tunnels and bridges through an awesome nature with trees sometimes over 50 meters in size.
From Gokurakubashi we had to switch over to a mountain train which will end near the busstop for the village of Koya. As this is a very narrow and dangerous road , it is advised to go by bus and not by foot.
Where did we stay
We had booked a night at Shojoshin-in monastery, which is located next to the cemetery Okunoin. At Shojoshin-in we were told when and where we could bathe, the dining room and dinner time, closure time of the entrances, and at what time we were expected to attend the morning prayers and the followed by breakfast.
Many areas and alleys of the monastery were barely illuminated so it took us some time to find our way to the bathrooms: separate for men and women and designed for 3-5 people at a time according to the sign. The water was at excellent hot temperature. It felt great after a cold walk through the village.
At 5:30 pm we were called for diner. There were 14 other guests. By screens the long dining room was divided into seven parts, each having a low table and a set of cushions. The diner consisted out of 10 dishes per person. A monk brought more green tea and rice when needed. The food was cooked according the vegetarian specifications without onions or garlic and tasted delicious.
The next morning at 6:20am we were directed to the religious part of the monastery. Promptly at 6:30 am four monks started their prayers with monotonous vocals and occasionally were marked by the drums. The subsequent breakfast at 7:10 am was a bit more sober than dinner, however we still enjoyed.
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