Koyasan, or Mount Koya (san means mountain in Japanese), has been a Buddhist sanctuary for about 1200 years. It was founded in 816 by Kukai, the founder of Buddhism’s Shingon sect. Long ago it was far and secluded, but it is now very accessible, and yet still held a mystic atmosphere when I visited it in September.
Most travelers to Japan visit Kyoto. From Kyoto, Koyasan can be reached in about 3 hours via Osaka, from where a direct express train departs several times a day. The last part of the route is a 5-minute steep cable car ride. Getting off the cable car, you take a connecting bus and 10 minutes later, you will be in downtown Koyasan. You may want to purchase a convenient Koyasan World Heritage Ticket for 3310 yen that includes return tickets from Osaka Namba Station to Koyasan, unlimited bus rides in Koyasan and discount coupons for entrance fees of major sites ( http://www.nankaikoya.jp/en/index.html ).
Downtown Koyasan is rather small and walkable, and there are as many as 117 temples. The main one is Kongobuji ( http://www.koyasan.or.jp/english/index.html ). The main building has many rooms with beautifully painted sliding doors and the largest Japanese rock garden in Japan. In Danjo Garan stands Konpon Daito, a shining red stupa, which has a pastel-colored, but somehow mind-soothing mandara world inside. Through a cedar forest dotted by 200,000 graves, Okunoin is the place where Kukai is buried and filled with chants of mantra and scents of incense.
In Koyasan, you may want to stay in one of the temples, and, you can! 52 of the town’s 117 temples offer accommodation. It is ryokan-type and called shukubo. If you do not have a reservation, the information center will help you.
I stayed at Muryokoin temple. The rate was 12500 yen including dinner, breakfast and taxes. (To be honest, it seemed to me a little expensive for the simple lodging and meals.) The room was large for a solo traveler, but with no private bathroom, which is not uncommon in shukubo. However, some shukubo have hotel-type rooms with private bathrooms, so please make your preference known at the information center.
Dinner and breakfast were served in the room and brought by a young monk. Because of the Buddhist tradition, all meals are vegetarian, called Shojin Ryori. The monk explained what each dish was. You can order beer or sake if you like, and a large bottle of Japanese beer was 700 yen. Bed-making (or futon-making in this case?) was also done by a monk. It was September, but a blanket was provided.
At 6:30 AM the next morning, a 1.5-hour morning ritual begins in the dark praying room and you can participate. At Muryokoin, not only mantra-chanting but also a fire ritual takes place every day. If you are not very comfortable sitting on the floor for the duration, there are stools for you (and most foreigners that morning took them.) Surrounded by the chanting, incense and slight heat from the fire, you meditate. You may enter the room late or leave the room early. At Muryokoin resides a Swiss monk who speaks English, and after the morning ritual there is a chance to talk with him over tea or coffee. You can ask him about Buddhism or his life in Japan. Then a vegetarian breakfast is served in your room.
In Koyasan, you can try other cultural/religious experiences as well: hand-copying of sutras and ajikan meditation, both leading to your spiritual well-being. For visiting sites, English audio guides are available. For information about Koyasan, please visit http://www.shukubo.jp/eng/index.html.
After the Buddhist retreat in the fresh mountain air, you can go back north to Osaka or Kyoto, or you can head the south to the Kumano area where Kumano Sanzan shrines and a breathtaking waterfall called Nachinotaki are located. The route from Koyasan to Kumano is called Kumano Kodo ( http://www.pref.wakayama.lg.jp/sekaiisan/english/e-kiisanti.html ), a historic pilgrimage route which you can still walk in the mountains like ancient travelers. There are several walking routes you can try over several hours. Kumano area is also famous for its onsen hot springs. It would be a good idea to take a hot bath after the walk. From Kumano, you can easily go back to Osaka or Nagoya by train or fly back to Tokyo from Nanki Shirahama Airport.
Need an escape from stressed life? Why don’t you try detoxication of body AND soul in Koyasan?
Konpon Daito Okunoin
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