Exploring Mount Koya: The Centre of Japanese Buddhism
Exploring Mount Koya: The Centre of Japanese Buddhism
10 Jan 2023
So, you’ve awoken in a fairytale world. Test your senses one by one. With your eyes closed, take in the fumes of glittering cinnamon incense as it passes by your nose amidst the scent of sweet cedar. With the mist of the morning still rising against your palms, you narrowly open one eye and are struck by the bright emerald green of the mountain moss, its colour enhanced by the dew as it reflects the spotted sunlight beaming through the tall cedar canopies. You’re surrounded by nature, temples, and tombs – old and new.
Here, you’ll be met with the immeasurable beauty of ancient foliage encompassing centuries old shrines. Here, you’ll immerse yourself in the music of monks and the clinging of chimes. Here, you’ll pay respects to dynasties of the past and future. This is no fairytale world. Here, on Mount Koya, you’ll find yourself at the heart of Shingon Buddhism – one of the oldest religions of Japan.
If you’ve come to Japan with your heart set on diving head first into cultural and religious history, look no further. Often referred to as Koyasan, Mount Koya resides directly east of Wakayama City – the capital of Wakayama prefecture. It’s more commonly a day trip from the northern neighboring metropolis of Osaka City.
If Osaka is your hub, hop on the Nankai-Koya train line at Shin-Imamiya Station and ride it to Gokurakubashi Station where you can take a rather amusing tracked cable car with multi-leveled seating to Koyasan Station.
Similar to a train car but built to sit comfortably at an angle, it’s an oddly fascinating piece of machinery. None the less, sit in the front for the best view!
While there are several directions to head, the most popular route is through Okunoin Cemetery. You read that right – a cemetery. Ride the number twenty-two bus for about twenty minutes before arriving at your goal – a grand total of two and a half hours from Osaka to the entrance of Okunoin. Not a bad distance to get from a sprawling city of nearly three million people to a tiny temple town of less than four thousand residents. You’re never too far from tranquility in Japan.
Strolling Serene Scenes
Hopping off the bus and into the woods can’t get any more ideal. From the stop, a bilingual sign gives an overview of the area but fails to specify a direction at the entrance crossroad. It turns out the parallel paths eventually intersect and offer a nice opportunity to see new things on the return hike.
It’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful burial space, and it quickly becomes clear that most people planning a place to be permanently placed prefer it too. The elites of Japan are all here. The seemingly royal families of mega-corporations like Panasonic and Sony all have their resting sites on Koyasan – some spots filled and others yet to be filled. There’s plenty of room for future generations to join their loved ones on the holy mountain. It’s apparently the place to be – the afterlife penthouse, if you will.
A short walk past the freshly-shined family crests of electronics companies, old mausoleums start to steal the show. Graves covered in rich green moss and fern take center stage in the late morning sun. Symmetrical stone shapes and torii gates stand as if they’ve grown from the ground in a mix of lush flora. Ancient cedar trees fill spaces where mausoleums are not, and the scene becomes something out of a fantasy film. Where most western cemeteries are often avoided, Koyasan invites people to walk among centuries of people long left and life still growing.
Walking with Monks
A real pleasure of the stroll from entrance to temple is being constantly met with wandering men of the faith. Mixed with picture-snapping tourists, monks can be seen and heard with their wooden sandals smacking the pathway with each step and often while chanting. Similar to the seamless mixing of public and pacifists in garb in a place like Bangkok, monks are never too far from your peripherals.
The Okunoin Temple lies at the end of the path through the cemetery grounds. There, monks can be seen chanting in temple corners, young and old, speaking in prayer as old as the religion itself. It’s here that the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of the religion over a thousand years ago, can be found.
It feels as sacred as it is. Chants resonate against old wood. Incense consumes the air. The walkway is constantly swept with pride. It’s a picturesque scene full of spots to stop and take in the vibe. The view from Gobyobashi Bridge is particularly serene. This is also the only spot to capture a shot of the temple since pictures are forbidden beyond the bridge.
Trinkets are sold near the temple entrance with all manners of incantations. They make for gorgeous souvenirs potentially full of power. If there was ever a place to buy one, it’s definitely at the top of Mount Koya.
Coming to Japan, shrines and temples are a dime-a-dozen. Most are uniquely spectacular in their own way. On Koyasan, you’re coming to the source of an important and long-standing sect of Japanese thought. Walking among what Kobo Daishi returned from China with all those centuries ago – a thought – is why it’s worth a visit. It’s a living museum full of generations of family clans who all wanted to rest atop the most sacred mountain of Japan.
The cemetery is, of course, not the only attraction on Mount Koya. It’s also encouraged to visit the rock garden of Kongobuji or the red pagoda of Konpon Daito. Whatever you come to see, come with a loose time schedule. Relax in an environment meant for meditation. You’re sure to leave with a mantra you’ll never forget.
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