- What is Koyasan?
- Koyasan's Center of Worship: Okuno-in
- Experience the History & Beauty of the Danjo Garan Temples
- Get Koyasan's "Goshuin" Red Shrine Stamp!
- Lunch Recommendations
- Tsukumo Cafeteria
- Spend a Night in the "Shukubo" - the Monks' Inn
- Joki-in Temple
- Eko-in Temple
- Fukuchi-in Temple
- Experience Japanese Culture at Koyasan
- Nearby Destinations
Koyasan is a sacred land of Japanese Buddhism in Koya City, Wakayama Prefecture, pioneered by the monk Kukai who founded the Esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism. As one of the Kii Mountain Range's sacred spots and pilgrimage routes, Koyasan was registered as a world heritage site in 2016. Its mountainous beauty and spiritual history attracts many travelers every year.
This article will be your guide to Koyasan's history, sceneries and walking in Kukai's steps as you tread the sacred valley.
What is Koyasan?
Although it is commonly translated as "Mount Koya", Koyasan itself is not the name of a mountain, but rather the name of flatland in a valley. As a tradition from when temples were most often remote monasteries in the depths of mountains, many temple names are preceded by a "sango" (mountain name). In this case, the Buddhist Kongobuji Temple has taken on "Koyasan" as its "sango".
Koyasan was first settled over 1,200 years ago by the Buddhist monk Kukai. Kukai wrote the Shingon Mikkyō(secret teachings) in the early 9th century and then founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Koyasan is the place he chose to represent Shingon Buddhism and where he built the Kongobuji temple.
Statue of Kōbō-Daishi (Kukai)
Kongobuji temple is the headquarters of the Shingon sect and to this day many monks come here to train in its ways.
Most temples may consist of a main temple surrounded by the temple grounds, but in the case of Kongobuji, the entire mountain is the temple.
Koyasan's Center of Worship: Okuno-in
Okuno-in at Koyasan
Okuno-in is the 2 kilometer stretch from the Ichino bridge that crosses the Odono river to Kōbō-Daishi Gobyō (Kukai's mausoleum). Kukai himself chose this place for his mausoleum in 834 and it is where he is said to have entered eternal meditation. Even now, it is believed that Kukai is still praying for world peace and everyone’s happiness here.
After crossing the Ichino bridge and entering the Okuno-in, many cedar trees aged over 1000 years can be seen on both sides of the path. Over 20,000 tombstones, monuments, and memorials stand under those cedar trees and watch over the pilgrims making their way to the temple. These stones are etched with the names of former feudal lords, and some carry the names of Japanese history's greatest generals, such as Oda Nobunaga and Date Masamune. The interweaving trees and tombstones make this an eerie and beautiful place.
The mausoleum is just beyond the Gobyō bridge. Once past this bridge, all photography is banned.
Exterior of Kukai's Mausoleum
After the Mausoleum, visit the Torodo Hall Nearby
Torodo Hall © Koyasan Shingon Sect Headquarters, Kongobuji Religious Affairs Head Office
Within the hall are two eternal flames that are said to have been burning for nearly a thousand years. One is the Kishin Lantern, donated by a Buddhist priest of the Heian period, Kishin. The other, Shirakawa Lantern, was donated by Emperor Shirakawa, the 72nd emperor of Japan.
Inside, there is an underground training area lined with countless lanterns that have been wished on. The passageways are lined with small Kukai figures called “Migawari Daishi.” The hall, filled with these figures and the lanterns, is a truly stunning scene. This is also the closest most people can get to see the high recommended spot of resting Kukai.
Get a Lucky "Migawari Daishi" as a Souvenir
“Migawari Daishi” protection charms can be purchased at the Okuno-in. The Daishi figure will take your place and become a “Migawari” when something sinister comes your way.
Enjoy an Otherworldly Atmosphere on a Night Tour
Okuno-in at night
There are night tours available at the Okuno-in led by a Koyasan resident Kongobuji temple grounds guide. The tour shows participants an otherworldly side to Okuno-in that can’t be seen during the day. The guide will also share stories on Kukai and Shingon Buddhism, give details on the tombstones, and reveal Okuno-in legends.
◆ Koyasan Okuno-in Night Tour
Languages: Japanese/English (The 20th of every month hosts English tours only)
Tour details: Koyasan Okuno-in Night Tour Official Site
Experience the History & Beauty of the Danjo Garan Temples
View of Danjo Garan
Danjo Garan is said to be the first spot established when Kukai settled Koyasan. Along with the Okuno-in, this temple complex have long been considered the religious center of Kōya.
The Garan or temple complex, is a place where disciples of Buddha gather to train. Places that are pure, without blemish, and tranquil are usually chosen. In the original Sanskrit it was a holy place where monks came to train, and later on it became the name for the group of buildings and structures making up a temple. Koyasan's Danjo Garan complex is made up of 19 structures.
Here are the highlights of four of these structures: Kondo hall, Konpon Daito pagoda, Miedo hall, and the Sanko no Matsu(pine tree)
The Kondo hall was the first place Kukai set up on Koyasan. It has been the head temple here since the Heian period. It is an impressive example of the traditional South-east Asian roof style with a height of 23.73 meters. Enshrined within is a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha.
Konpon Daito Pagoda
Konpon Daito Pagoda
Konpon Daito was built as a seminary or place to learn the Shingon Mikkyō. It is the oldest two-storied pagoda still standing. The main Buddha who worshipped here is Taizo Dainichi Nyorai. The entire temple grounds are a 3D version of a mandala(Buddhist symbol representing the universe). The Konpon Daito stands in the middle of this mandala.
The Miedo hall once held the Buddha statue that Kukai would worship in front of. This makes it one of the most important spots on Koyasan, and there are only a few people who are allowed to enter. However in recent years, the general public has been allowed to make their prayers within the hall, only after the memorial service on the eve of March 21 (lunar calendar), the anniversary of Kukai's eternal rest.
Sanko no Matsu
Sanko no Matsu
The "Sanko no Matsu" pine tree can be found between the Kondo and Miedo halls. Legend says that when Kukai returned from China, he wanted to find a place to establish the his Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism. He threw his sankosho (prayer tool) towards Japan, which got caught on a pine tree on Koyasan. This is what is said to have led him to decide on Koyasan as the center of his Buddhist evangelism. The fallen pine needles from the Sanko no Matsu are said to bring good luck, so visitors may want to pick a few up to take home.
Konpo Daito Pagoda Illumination
Konpo Daito pagoda illumination
At night, the Konpo Daito pagoda is lit up, and its vermillion paint shines with a mystical quality. There are fewer people here at night, allowing viewers to relax and enjoy the sight at their own pace.
Get Koyasan's "Goshuin" Red Shrine Stamp!
Shrines and temples have a goshuin (red-seal) stamp, that visitors can have stamped in a goshuin-cho (a book to collect the stamps in). Every shrine has a unique seal and depending on the shrine, the goshuin may be pressed from a pre-made stamp, or hand-written by a priest. Collecting these goshuin stamps is a popular activity for many Japanese travelers! Be sure to remember though, that the goshuin-cho booklet is required to get the stamp, as it is regarded as improper to receive it onto a regular notebook.
There are over a hundred temples on Koyasan and over 150 goshuin seal stamps. Collection books can be stamped at temple offices and counters in any order. Collecting the stamps can be fun and the books are great trip mementos.
Also, in the Kinki region of Japan that includes Wakayama prefecture, making the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage is popular. Stamps can be collected at each of the 33 temples on the pilgrimage.
A unique characteristic of the stamps from these 33 temples is that they include a short poem of a Buddhist teaching, called a goeika. The first three temples of the pilgrimage - Seigantoji, Kongohoji, Kokawadera - are located in Wakayama. Visitors to these temples can get interesting goshuin seal stamps for their collection.
Sightseeing on Koyasan involves a lot of walking, so visitors are bound to get hungry. Here are some places to get lunch.
Go to Tsukumo Cafeteria Shokudo for Kamameshi
Kamameshi at Tsukumo Cafeteria
Tsukumo Cafeteria's top menu item is kamameshi, a dish where rice is cooked and served in an iron pot. The rice is mixed with plenty of seasonal ingredients and cooked to perfection. Diners can choose from various types, including sansai(wild plants), Jidori chicken, meat and others. The Matsutake mushroom kamameshi is highly recommended, but this aromatic option is only available in the fall.
Go to Hamadaya for Japanese Sesame Tofu
Sesame tofu is well known on Koyasan. Hamadaya is a well-established shop that has been serving Japanese sesame tofu since the Meiji era. The soft, jelly-like sesame tofu is often eaten with wasabi and soy sauce, but can also be enjoyed as a dessert with kuromitsu syrup.
The sesame tofu can also be taken home as a souvenir.
Spend a Night in the "Shukubo" - the Temple Lodging
At Koyasan, it is possible to stay at shukubo, or temple lodgings, that are for monks and temple visitors. It is bound to be an irreplaceable experience as you can see a different side of temple culture. Currently, there are 53 temples that offer lodgings. Below are three of these temples that we recommend!
Joki-in is located right between Kongobuji temple and Danjo Garan. It offers a wide variety of stay options from a plain night’s stay to different meal plans.
All meals are the shoshin vegetarian meals that the monks eat. Lodgers can participate in the morning religious service where sutras are chanted in front of statues of Buddha.
Eko-in is located near the Ichino bridge, the entrance to the Okuno-in.
Here lodgers can have a “One Day Training Experience,” including trying the Shingon Mikkyō meditation method, Ajikan, hand-copying sutra written in kanji, and visiting the Okuno-in at night. These special experiences are not available at every shukubo.
There is also a courtyard where visitors can enjoy the tranquil scenery. The parking lot here has 30 spots.
Fukuchi-in is located at just a few minutes walk away from the Kongobuji temple. Meals are shoshin vegetarian made with carefully selected seasonal ingredients like Koya tofu and Kinzanji wasabi(miso paste). The menu depends on which overnight plan is chosen. Besides the morning religious service and sutra copying experiences, lodgers can also try making lucky Horai charms.
Fukuchi-in also has the only natural hot springs on Koyasan. There is an outdoor bath, rock bath, and a family bath.
Experience Japanese Culture at Koyasan
Koyasan is chock-full of architecture and sceneries that tell the history of the Japanese Shingon school of Buddhism, as well as chances to spend a night in temple lodging for a whole new experience of Japanese culture. Make your way to Koyasan for a spiritual adventure that you will not regret!