A visit to sacred Koyasan

Another day in Japan, another train trip (or five). Leaving behind our cute little Kyoto AirBnB apartment, we crossed the Kamo River to Sanjo Station one last time to begin the journey to Koyasan.

Waiting for train selfie:

Ah, the comfort of Japanese train travel!

Koyasan (Mt Koya) is a UNESCO World Heritage listed town on the Kii Peninsular south of Kyoto and Osaka. It took us about three hours to get there from Kyoto, through Osaka, on various JR trains before changing at Shinimamya for the Nankai railway – we took the fast and comfy Koyasan Limited Express. It was a beautiful trip up through the mountains, winding through some lovely green valleys and villages. We disembarked at Gokurakubashi, which is the end of the line, before heading up to Koyasan via a steep cable car railway.

Koyasan is a significant site for Shingon Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism introduced to Japan in the 9th century by the monk Kukai (774-835), who was known after his death as Kobo Daishi.

Kobo Daishi studied Buddhism in China and is a mythical figure in Japanese history, credited with inventing the hiragana script as well as being a scholar, court official, poet, linguist and calligrapher. The story goes that Kobo Daishi threw a triple-forked vajra (an instrument used in rituals) across to Japan from China, intending that the location of its landing would be the sacred site of his new temple for the study of his Esoteric Shingon Buddhism. Upon his return to Japan, he searched far and wide for the vajra, which he found stuck into a pine tree on Mount Koya. Work began on Kobo Daishi’s temple in 816. The mythical tree still stands today and can be visited in the Garan temple complex. The three-leafed pine trees were also held sacred because of their leaves’ resemblance to the vajra. Today, visitors take home their leaves as good luck charms.

What’s special about Koyasan is that of the 117 temples in the tiny town, around 50 operate as Shukubos, offering lodging for travellers within the monasteries. We stayed at Eko-in, which is one of the bigger temples – you can book online for some, or through the local Koyasan Shukubo association. At Eko-in, the price includes a traditional Japanese tatami room with futons for sleeping, vegetarian meals (dinner and breakfast), meditation sessions, access to the morning ceremony and fire ritual, and the hot spring onsen baths.

Loving our yukatas.

… and green tea.

Dinner was a fancy vegetarian feast in a separate private tatami meal room. Yeah, it was chilly in the Shukubo (though there were gas heaters and our room was plenty warm for sleeping).

Yeah, there was wifi (in 2020 even monks need Google).

At 7pm we took the night tour to Okunoin, the mausoleum dedicated to Kobo Daishi, surrounded by a towering Japanese cedar forest and Buddhist cemetery filled with moss-covered shrines and stones. Led by local Shingon monks, the tour is a must when in Koyasan.

Kobo Daishi is said not to have died in 835, but to have entered a state of deep meditation. Beneath Okunoin, Kobo Daishi continues to meditate, and Buddhists from all over the world can have their remnants interred in the Okunoin cemetery to be close to Kobo Daishi when he awakens and the Buddha of the future (Miroku Buddha) comes to earth.

The cemetery on a winter’s night was a tranquil place, well-lit by electrified stone lanterns.

If you look closely, one side represents the moon, and one side the sun.

Many graves have five stones stacked, creating a tower, which, from the bottom, represent earth, water, fire, wind and space, the five elements central to the Shingon Buddhist beliefs.

Travelling through the cemetery, we passed three bridges. At the third, we cleansed ourselves by tossing water onto the statues of Buddha (too cold to wash ourselves – pics in the daytime in my next post), removed our beanies (even though the night air was below zero) and crossed the bridge. No photography is permitted past this point. Our monk guide recited a mantra for Kobo Daishi and told us about the hundreds of lanterns hanging in Toro-do – the main building of the complex – where, in the day, visitors can write letters to Kobo Daishi. Two lanterns are believed to have been burning for 900 years. There are so many lanterns now that an additional temple has been constructed to house them.

Our tour ended with a quick walk past the oldest tree in the cemetery, at 800 years old (the cedars are government-protected), and some impressive company grave markers, which Japanese companies like Nissan and Fujitsu use to honour their deceased employees.

More from daytime Koyasan in my next post!

4 thoughts on “A visit to sacred Koyasan

  1. Pingback: A wander through Koyasan, Japan | Raising Explorers

  2. Pingback: More trains – and we found okonomiyaki! | Raising Explorers

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