Koyasan Travel Guide   高野山

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Funicular Koyasan

The funicular Koyasan.

Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan

Driveway cedar Okunoin cemetery.

Koyasan

Procession to a temple of Koyasan.

Danjo Garan Pagoda

Danjo Garan, the many religious buildings and vermillion pagoda.

Koyasan

Mausoleum of stone in the forest of Koyasan.

Koyasan: Mystery and contemplation

Arguably the most mystical, sacred mountain in Japan, Koyasan can't be described but must be lived. A religious city long closed in on itself, its temple-inns and forest-necropolis invite spirituality.

From the windows of the regional train from Osaka, bucolic landscapes unfold. Soon the houses become fewer and father between, and the hills become wooded. Nature surrounds you. A few people arrive at the terminal at the foot of the mountain.

There, a red and white funicular, like a child's toy, takes passengers up to the monastic city, through tunnels of hydrangeas. The journey has not yet ended, as the last few sacred kilometers can only be covered on foot. Koyasan isn't easy to reach and it is by bus that visitors arrive at their destination in the heart of the city. In the past, pilgrims entered the sacred precincts by the Daimon, the old gate, whilst women, who only gained access to the complex in 1872, stopped in Nyonindo.

A unique cult

Of the seven thousand inhabitants of Koyasan, nearly half are monks and the rest consist of their families from marriages that took place after the arrival of women. With one hundred and ten temples still active in the town, the headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon school remains an influential religious center.

Kongobuji temple where the highest priest of Koyasan resides, serves as spokesman for the religious community. It mainly focuses on the cult of the founder of the Shingon sect, Kukai (774-835), more widely known in Japan as Kobo Daishi. A key figure in Japanese Buddhism, he still inspires the utmost respect from residents and Buddhists in general that do not fail to honor him, for example during Aoba Matsuri, the celebration of his birth.

The legends surrounding his life abound and there are many who believe that he is still alive, meditating in the depths of Okunoin cemetary where his mausoleum is located. Covering much of the east of the city, the forest of a thousand graves contributes to the mysterious aura of Mount Koya.

In contrast, to the west, lies the "sacred precinct" Danjo Garan. There are many religious buildings and a vermillion pagoda majestically overlooks curious passersby. Protective Koyasan has placed its most prized possessions in a museum, the Reihokan, in order to preserve them from time and illicit trade.

"Opening up to the world"

The motto of the city when it was founded, it became even more true when Koyasan turned to tourism in the mid-twentieth century. Temples doubling as shukubo, until then only accommodating pilgrims, quickly became hotels for tourists, and are very successful. The commodification of the sacred has not spared Mount Koya, and it is not unusual to see monks in cassocks going to do their shopping in their luxury cars.

Yet the spirit of Koyasan is still alive and even if the community has been caught up by modernity, it still lives out of time.The local specialty gomadofu, is still made according to the most ancient traditions at Hamadaya store, and in 2004, the city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Even detractors cannot deny that visiting Koyasan is a unique and deeply spiritual experience. If you return after a day or a year, the place will have always changed.