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Mount Koya: A religious city with centuries-old traditions
Arguably the most mystical, sacred mountain in Japan, Koyasan can't be described but must be experienced. A religious city long closed in on itself, its spiritual temple-inns and forest of funerary grounds beckon for those who dare.
Direction to Mount Koya, the sacred place of pilgrimage
Koyasan Mountain (Mount Koya) in Wakayama Prefecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's one of the sacred sites and pilgrimage routes of the Kii Mountain Range. Koyasan sits on the beautiful forested Kii Peninsula and is characterized by long avenues of tall Japanese cedars and hundreds of temples and gardens.
Through the window view of the regional train departing from Osaka, rustic landscapes pass by as homes became scarce and the hills took on a woody, airtight mantle. Nature is imminent but only a few will reach its destination, at the foot-hills of the mountain.
There, a red and white cable car, similar to a child's toy, lifts its passengers to the monastic city, through tunnels of hydrangeas as the last leg of the trip cannot be covered by foot.
Koyasan is not easily discovered as the visitors arrive by bus at their destination to the heart of the city. Long ago, pilgrims entered the sacred enclosure through the Daimon, the old gate, while women (permitted access to the complex in 1872) were barred from entry at Nyonindo.
History of Koyasan
Koyasan Mountain is an important pilgrimage site for followers of the Shingon Buddhist school. Shingon Buddhism is a form of esoteric or Tantric Buddhism introduced to Japan in the 9th century by the monk Kukai (774-835), who was known after his death as Kobo Daishi.
A mythical figure in Japanese history, credited with inventing the Hiragana script, as well as a distinguished scholar, court official, poet, linguist, and calligrapher. Kukai was granted permission from Emperor Saga in 816 to build a Shingon temple complex and a religious retreat in Koyasan.
Pilgrimage and tourism to Mount Koya
Koyasan has been open to tourism since the middle of the 20th century. The temples practicing shukubo, accommodation, reserved for pilgrims, quickly transformed into hotels with modern rooms equipped with televisions. The commodification of the sacred has not spared Mount Koya and it is not uncommon to see monks driving behind the wheel of their luxury cars. Today, accommodations at Mount Koya quickly sell out in spring and autumn.
Yet the spirit of Koyasan is still very much present. With its modernization, the community still lives out of time. The local specialty, gomadofu, is still made according to the oldest traditions at the Hamadaya boutique and in 2004, the city was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Even the most discriminating visitors cannot deny the unique and deeply spiritual experience of Koyasan. You will never see Koyasan the same way after even a day of visit.
The temples of Mount Koya, and what to see in Koyasan
Among the seven thousand citizens of Koyasan, nearly half are monks and the remainder consists of their families, resulting from the marriages which occurred after the arrival of women. With 110 active temples, the city, headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist school, remains an influential religious center.
Visitors enter Koyasan through Daimon's vast vermilion gate, which is protected by two formidable wooden Kongo warriors. On a clear day, the Daimon Gate offers a magnificent view of the surrounding Kii district.
The 48.5-meter high Konpondaito Pagoda was built for esoteric rituals and houses five sacred images of the Buddha. The current structure dates from 1932, the pagoda having been destroyed by fire on several occasions.
Kongobuji is the temple where Koyasan's highest priest resides and serves as the spokesperson for the. religious community. The latter focuses mainly on the cult of the founder of the Shingon sect, Kûkai (774-835), better known in Japan under the name of Kôbô Daishi. An essential figure of Japanese Buddhism, who still inspires the greatest respect to the citizens and to Buddhists paying homage to this date during the Aoba Matsuri, the feast celebrating his birth. Founded by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi on his mother's death and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji Temple contains on-screen paintings by Kano Tanyu and other painters from the Kano School of Kyoto.
The Banryutei Rock Garden, within the grounds of Kongobuji Temple, is the largest in Japan with 140 granite stones arranged to suggest a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds to protect the temple.
North of Kongobuji is Nyonindo Temple, on the way to the cable car station. Women were barred to enter Koyasan until 1873 (although the practice continued until 1916) and this small temple marks the place where women would worship, barred from further entry.
Kondo Hall is believed to be the site where Kukai gave his first sermons and is considered one of the holiest places in Koyasan.
To the west, extends the "sacred enclosure", Danjo Garan, built on the site of the original temple of Kukai, with many religious buildings and a vermilion pagoda which majestically surveys the curious passing by.
Koyasan has preserved its most precious possessions in the Reihôkan museum for protection. The museum's exhibits, which include paintings, statues, mandalas, and other religious items such as vajra (ritual scepters) and rosaries, are revived five times a year.
The Tokugawa family tomb was built by the third Edo-era shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. The resting place of the first shogun Ieyasu and his heir Hidetada.
Legends surrounding the existence of Kôbô Daishi flourish and many believe him to be still alive, meditating deep in the Okunoin cemetery, where his monument is located. Covering a large part of the east of the city, the mysterious aura of Mount Koya is all around the forest with a thousand burials.
Okunoin, (the "Inner Temple") is Koyasan Cemetery: a magnificent and mysterious tomb of vast cedars and mossy gravestones east of central Koyasan.
Japan's largest cemetery with 500,000 graves includes the graves of influential historical figures. It is here the famous Kobo Daish rests along with the warlord Oda Nobunaga, and monks Dogen, Honen, Nichiren, and Shinran. There are also war memorials and even the graves of some important Japanese companies (Kirin Beer, Nissan, Toyota).
There are English-guided night walks through Okunoin and tickets can be purchased at the Eko-in. Tours start at 7:15 PM, depending on the availability of a monk to guide your group and weather permitting.
How to get around Koyasan?
There are local bus services between the cable car station and Ichi-no-hashi. Another option for getting around is by renting a bicycle from the Koyasan tourism office.
Car rental is a good option for exploring Koyasan and the nearby Kumano Kodo area. Car service can be hired or car rented at Nanki-Shirahama Airport and Kii-Tanabe Station. The trip from the Kii-Tanabe station to Koyasan typically takes three hours.
How do I get to Koyasan?
Osaka Kansai International Airport (KIX) is the closest international airport.
There are a few daily flights from Haneda Airport to Nanki-Shirahama Airport, about a 3-hour drive from Koyasan.
Koyasan is approximately 90 minutes by train from Osaka Namba Station by Nankai Koya Line to Gokurakubashi Station, then by cable car to Koyasan. Limited Express trains take approximately 45 minutes from Osaka to Hashimoto, requiring a transfer to a local train to Gokurakubashi Station (approximately 40 minutes).
From Wakayama to Koyasan, take the JR Wakayama Line to Hashimoto, then transfer to the Nankai Koya Line.
From Kyoto and Kobe to Koyasan, it is faster to go through Osaka station. There are Kintetsu Line trains to Namba Station from Nagoya which take 2 hours or take the shinkansen to Shin-Osaka Station (50 minutes) and transfer to the Midosuji Subway Line for connections heading south to Osaka.
If you want to use the Japan Rail Pass for most of your trip from Kyoto, take a JR train to Osaka Station and the Osaka Loop Line to Shin-Imamiya, and transfer to the Nankai Koya line to Shin-Imamiya.
From Gokurakubashi Station, the cable car takes five minutes to reach Koyasan. It costs 510 yen for a one-way ticket. On weekdays the first cable car departure is at 5:27 am and the last service at 10:42 pm going both directions.
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