In Wakayama Prefecture, about an hour south of Osaka and Nara, eight peaks arranged in the shape of a lotus flower’s petals enclose a valley 800 m above sea level. This area of mountains is collectively known as Koyasan (高野山), though no individual peak bears this name. A spiritual haven since 819, when a monastery was first established in the central valley, Koyasan is known globally as the home of Shingon Buddhism. Today this shady corner of Wakayama has become a destination for Japanese and international religious pilgrims and tourists alike.
Shingon Buddhism, also known as Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, was founded by the monk, scholar and calligrapher Kobo Daishi (774–835). After studying Esoteric Buddhist practices in the city of Xi’an in China, Kobo Daishi (known as Kukai during his lifetime) returned to Japan, where, supported by Emperor Junna, Kobo Daishi’s teachings grew in popularity as Shingon Buddhism. The word shingon(真言) translates as ‘true words’, itself a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘mantra’.
As the world headquarters for Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan is home to a religious studies university, more than a hundred temples, and thousands upon thousands of Japanese family graves. Strolling through the Okunoin cemetery, located on the eastern side of Koyasan in a forest of magnificent cedar trees, you may encounter groups of well-dressed Japanese people attending memorial or interment services. The estimated half a million tombs form the largest graveyard in Japan and include those of monks and famous historical figures, as well as company graves for large corporations such as Panasonic. Outside the main cemetery area, visitors can pay to see the mausoleums of the Tokugawa shoguns, while inside, at the heart of the graveyard, a small bridge leads to the mausoleum complex of Kobo Daishi himself, who, it is said, remains in this innermost sanctum in eternal meditation.
At the western end of the Koyasan town area stands the Daimon or Great Gate, Koyasan’s official entrance, towering orange with its two guardians on the left and the right. Walk eastwards along Koyasan’s main street, and you’ll pass temples offering lodging and shojin ryori (traditional Buddhist vegan cuisine) to travellers, as well as some of Koyasan’s most must-see spots. These include Shingon Buddhism’s head temple, Kongobuji, which is a large complex encompassing individual buildings such as Kondo Hall, where important rituals and ceremonies are held. A handful of cafés and restaurants can also be found along the main street for visitors not dining at one of the temples. Try local tofu specialities such as the sesame-flavoured goma dofu (creamier and more satisfying than standard tofu) koya dofu (freeze-dried tofu that’s rehydrated or cooked before being eaten).
Access to Koyasan from the Osaka/Kyoto/Nara direction is most convenient via the Nankai Railway, which you can take from Osaka’s Namba Station to Gokurakubashi Station at the base of Koyasan. Travel time is about an hour and a half, plus an extra five minutes to travel up the mountain by cable car, which you can take from Gokurabashi Station. By car there are two routes from the north: once at Sakai, either head along the coast past Kishiwada and then turn inland at the airport, or head inland past Hashimoto for a scenic climb full of hairpin bends. If you’re a seasoned hiker the final option is to scale the mountain on foot via a trail that starts at the town of Kudoyama. The climb is around 22 km in length and 700 m in height, and takes the best part of a day.
A trip to the cool, cedar-shaded heights of Koyasan is an excellent way to escape the summer heat and humidity. If you don’t mind the crowds, on August 13th you can experience the annual Obon festival in honour of the dead, which includes a candlelit procession along the route to the Okunoin cemetery. Be sure to book accommodation well ahead of time!
For more information on Koyasan and details of how to reserve temple lodging, see the official Koyasan English-language website: eng.shukubo.net
By Life in Kansai