Located in the depths of Mother Nature, in a vast world of holiness lies Koyasan – a settlement in Wakayama Prefecture approximately 85 kilometres south of Osaka and highly accessible by train or car. Known for the concentration of temples and historic landmarks within its 1.5 kilometre radius, as well as its prestigious listing as a World Heritage Site, Koyasan has been gaining momentum as a popular sightseeing spot in recent times. This feature will showcase the joys of visiting this location for 2 days and 1 night, departing from Osaka.
My trip started on a direct flight, which can be boarded from either Sydney or Melbourne, destined for Kansai International Airport in Osaka, the second largest city in Japan after Tokyo. I then left Namba Station in central Osaka at 9am aboard a Nankai Electric Railway train for my 50 minute ride to Hashimoto Station (Wakayama). From Hashimoto Station, I jumped onto the “Tenku” sightseeing train towards the base of Koyasan – Gokurakubashi, which happens to connect to the cable car line. I marvelled at the beautiful sights of mountains and rivers thanks to the large windows fitted on the car as the train weaved through the steep and sharply curving tracks of the precarious mountain trail. The observatory deck on the train also allows for access to gorgeous sweeping views of the surrounds. Sights of rape flowers and rows of cherry blossom trees can also be enjoyed during the spring. Before I knew it, my 40 minute ride on the uniquely designed train was over.
Once my train arrived at the distinctively vermillion coloured bridge of Gokurakubashi, I scuttled onto the cable car to ascend 328 metres up towards Koyasan Station. Upon reaching the station, I proceeded to take the Nankai Rinkan Bus into Koyasan.
As I hopped off the bus at Okunoin-mae and ventured further in from Naka no hashi towards Okuno-in, the first thing I saw was the slogan of Koyasan – “live your life to the fullest”. While the common teachings of Buddhism speak of entering Nirvana upon one’s death, the words of this slogan reflect the mantra of the Shingon School of Buddhism as preached by Kobo-Daishi a.k.a. Kukai, where one can reach Buddhahood whilst still alive. The park cemetery here is lined with gravestones of not only commonfolk from within and outside of Japan,
but also those of people from companies synonymouswith Japan such as Nissan, Panasonic, and Sharp, as well as gravestones to honour the victims of disasters such as the Great Hanshin earthquake and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I crossed the park cemetery, entered the approach surrounded by greenery, and was met with a solemn air of awe. Okuno-in is dotted with the graves of famous historical figures and uniquely shaped graves and memorial towers. It is a place where all followers of Kukai can set up graves regardless of status, ranking, ordenomination. Further along across the sacred “Gobyo nohashi” (bridge), and atop the stone steps stands the magnificent “Toro-do” (lantern hall). Inside of Okuno-in is a cave where Kukai is said to be meditating to this day, and the “Kobo- Daishi Mausoleum” where worshippers can go to pay their respects in the closest proximity they can get to the cave.
Enrich your five senses in the sacred atmosphere for an unforgettable experience
After strolling around Okuno-in, I had a walk through the forest, filled my belly up with lunch and then set off for Ekoin. It was here that I tried out a type of meditation known as “ajikan”. Ajikan is a form of meditation taught in Shingon Buddhism and was spread through Japan during the Heian period by Kukai. Although this form of meditation was originally to help calm the minds of monks, ajikan has become a form of meditation taken up by people from all walks of life as the ultimate form of relaxation due to its simplicity – all that is required of participants is that they sit with their hands and legs crossed. To start off, you must cleanse your body before entering the temple. The next step requires you to take a pinch of zuko (incense powder) with your dominant hand and rub it into your hands. Once this has been done, you then sit cross-legged on a zafu (a cushion used for Zen meditation). After settling into the cushion, join your hands in prayer, creating a lotus bud shape with them, and bow. First-timers or even experienced meditators need not fret as there will be a monk to carefully guide you through the motions. With half-closed eyes, look at the Sanskrit “阿” (a) character on the hanging scroll as you join your hands together in front of your belly button and take steady breaths, picturing the fresh air entering your body with every breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. This process is then repeated. The “阿” character is supposed to represent the origins of everything in Shingon Buddhism – the Buddha known as “Dainichi Nyorai”. The character on the scroll appears as though it is placed on top of a flower and is said to represent “oneself” sitting on a lotus flower. The character not only represents the macrocosm, but also one’s own self. There is a notion in Shingon Buddhism that the Buddha and oneself are one in the same. I felt as though the fragrance of the sacred incense-filled air wafting around the temple had permeated every pore of my whole body through the deep breathing exercises. Experiences such as this meditative one and others, including sutra copying, can be found in many different temples in the Koyasan area. It is the perfect place to spend invaluable time to enrich your five senses.
An experience that absolutely must not be missed during a trip to Koyasan is a stay at a temple or “shukubo”. Shukubo refers to lodging for pilgrims or visitors to a temple. These guesthouses were originally provided for monks, or pilgrims looking to cleanse their minds and bodies, however, the number of temples welcoming tourists in for stays continues to increase along with improved facilities, services, and access to temple culture experiences. In the past, there were 2000 temples in Koyasan. Currently there are 117 temples in the area with half of them offering temple lodging. My place of choice this time around was Jyofukuin. From the antique furnishings to the Buddhist cuisine and the tatami mat rooms, it had everything you would come to expect from a typical Japanese inn. My dinner of Buddhist cuisine was particularly lavish despite only using vegetarian ingredients such as grains, beans, and vegetables. Whilst you get to experience the history of Koyasan and Japanese culture first hand, you also get a peek into the life of a monk by participating in experiences such as the morning service of the chief priest reading the sutra. With the opportunity to immerse yourself in the sacred atmosphere, it is not hard to see why both domestic and international tourists continue to visit this area.
After my dinner at the shukubo I took part in a tour leading up to the Okuno-in mausoleum guided by a monk. For 2km from Ichi no hashi to the old approach you get to hear insights from a trainee monk about topics including, legendary Koyasan Kukai tales; moral Buddhist teachings; and what it’s like to be a monk in training. The night-time tour exposes you to a mysterious and solemn atmosphere that cannot be had during the daytime and also happens to be offered in English as well. The part of the tour that stood out to me in particular was the explanation surrounding the memorial towers known as “gorinto” (five ring pagoda) found all around Okuno-in. The universe is said to be made of 5 elements in the teachings of Shingon Buddhism – earth, water, fire, wind, and void; which are what the 5 rings of the gorinto are modelled on. Along with this fascinating tidbit, the trainee monk guide will also elaborate on stories about the garden lamps with their moon phase motifs; Sugatami-no-ido (Well of Reflections), as well as the resting places of various historical figures. If any of this happens to pique your interest or you are looking to learn more about Koyasan on a deeper level, then I highly recommend this tour (Awesome Tours: https://awesome-tours.jp/en).
The next day I went exploring from Dai-mon to Danjo Garan and Kongobu-ji. Dai-mon is the main gate of Koyasan and stands at 25.1m tall with kongo warrior statues standing guard on either side of the two-storey structure. This is where the konpon dojo (central training centre) of Shingon Buddhism was established and leads to Danjo Garan – the heart of Koyasan. Together with Okuno-in, Danjo Garan forms the great sacred area of Koyasan with the eye-catchingly beautiful, scarlet Konpon Daito Pagoda standing proudly at 45.8m tall in the centre. The pagoda is surrounded by 4 Buddha statues and houses the “Dainichi Nyorai Mandala”. Depicted on the 16 pillars of the pagoda are the “16 Bodhisattvas” and the “8 Patriarchs” on the 4 corners, while the pagoda itself is a three-dimensional mandala. Seeing the intricate detail of this beautiful pagoda is sure to leave you speechless. There is also a plethora of other sights to see including: Kon-do (Hall), which was once known as the “lecture hall” and was used as the main hall during the mid- Heian period; the Mie-do (Hall), which is a unique pyramidshaped building synonymous with Danjo Garan, standing at 15m in height and width; and Sanko no Matsu in between the two amongst other various hot spots. Another unique structure is the beautiful hexagonal shaped Rokkaku Kyuzo or “hexagonal depository of the scriptures” that is fitted with handles on the podium and can be rotated. One rotation of the building is said to have the same virtue of one read through the complete Buddhist scriptures. The opportunity to rotate a historic building with your own hands is a unique experience that should not be passed up. To top it all off is Kongobu-ji – the main temple of Shingon Buddhism located near the centre of the mountain sanctuary. When Kukai founded Koyasan, the whole area itself was known as Kongobu-ji, however, from the Meiji period to the present the name only refers to the one temple. This area is bursting with sights to see from Japanese architecture, to beautiful fusuma paintings and sculptures filled with history.
After leaving Kongobu-ji I made tracks towards Jison-in over in Kudoyama. Kukai established the konpon dojo of Shingon Buddhism approximately 1,200 years ago when he was bestowed the land of Koyasan by Emperor Saga, however, it wasn’t until the 5th year of the Meiji period (1872) that the strict restrictions against women visiting the area were finally lifted. Although Koyasan is now a popular tourist destination and listed World Heritage Site, remnants of restricted era can still be found, such as the “Nyonin-do” halls (halls for women) built at the entrances to Koyasan for female worshippers to visit and pray at. Located at a 30 minute train ride from Koyasan towards Osaka, Jison-in was established by Kukai as a “nyonin-koya” or a place where women can freely gather to pray. It is said that Kukai’s own mother could not even visit him during the period when women were forbidden from Koyasan. This formed the origins of Kukai’s routine of walking down “Choishi-michi” (mile stone route) 9 times a month to visit his mother and is said to be the roots of the name “Kudoyama” or literally, “9 time mountain”. Choishi-michi (mile stone route) owes its name to the guide stones placed at every cho (approximately 109m) to lead the way towards Koyasan. While Jison-in was the last place I decided to drop by on my trip, many travellers start their trip at Jison-in and make their way to to Dai-mon in Koyasan on foot by following the Choishi-michi. Jison-in sees many female visitors offering breast-shaped ema (votive tablet) at the temple to pray for good fortune in areas such as fertility, safe birth, child rearing, breast-feeding, and life partners due to its designation as a nyonin-koya. Prayers for recovery from breast cancer have particularly increased in recent years, leading to demand from women all over the country for the pink charms synonymous with breast cancer eradication. All of the many “breast ema” offered in exchange for prayers are handmade. The dearest prayers of women are written on these breast ema including prayers for the good health of their family, and hopes for their children to growth up healthy. If you happen to find yourself in Koyasan, make sure to drop by these historically-rich locations. Approximately 1,200 years have passed since Kukai opened up the Shingon Buddhist dojo, yet it still retains its beautiful surrounds and traditional culture. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities and hone in your 5 senses in the solemn atmosphere for an unforgettable experience.