Green and soothingly beautiful, Kōyasan in Wakayama is a spiritual retreat and one of Japan’s holiest sites. It features long avenues of vast cedar trees, as well as hundreds of temples and gardens. It’s also here that Kōbō Daishi, one of the most significant religious figures in the country, established the first centre of Shingon Buddhism some 1200 years ago.
Setting amid the eight peaks of a forested mountain in Wakayama, more than 800 metres above sea level, Kōyasan (高野山, “Mount Koya”) has been a sacred place for centuries. It is the headquarter of Shingon Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kōbō Daishi (also known as Kukai). After being granted permission by the Emperor Saga, he established the first Shingon temple complex on Kōyasan in 816. Kōbō Daishi deliberately selected this site because the terrain supposedly resembles a lotus plant – a sacred flower in Buddhism.
To this day, Kōyasan still retains its role as the largest centre of Buddhist study in Japan. It is also a hub of peace and a spiritual retreat that welcomes pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. Despite being slightly off the beaten track, Kōyasan is an ideal destination for travellers interested in Shingon Buddhism or simply wants to experience the Japanese tradition and nature.
Meaning “Temple of the Diamond Mountain Peak”, Kongobuji Temple (金剛峯寺) is the centrepiece of Kōyasan’s temple settlement. Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first to built this structure in 1593 to commemorate his late mother. But later, it merged with neighbouring temples and was rebuilt into the head temple of the Shingon Buddhism.
While Kongobuji is currently the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, Danjo Garan (壇上伽藍) is the sect’s first temple complex. After years of searching for a place to headquarter his new religion, Kōbō Daishi started construction of Danjo Garan in 816.
It consists of several temples and shrines. But most noteworthy are the Kondo Hall – a large temple hall where major ceremonies are held, and the 49-metre tall Daito Pagoda in vermillion colour. While the construction of the wooden hall completed within years, it took 70 years to erect the two-storey pagoda. This pagoda houses a giant statue of Dainichi Nyorai (also known as Cosmic Buddha), the central god of Shingon Buddhism.
Another attraction of Kōyasan is Okunoin (奥の院, “Inner Temple”) – Japan’s largest cemetery filled with centuries-old cedar trees, mossy gravestones and statues. About two kilometres long, this necropolis is the final resting place of about 200,000 people. Many of whom are historical and well-known figures, including the warlord Oda Nobunaga and many cooperation’s founders.
The most famous (and sacred) grave belongs to Kōbō Daishi which is located in the innermost ground of the cemetery. He is believed to rest in eternal meditation as he awaits the arrival of Miroku Nyorai (Buddha of the Future). Nevertheless, Okunoin welcomes common people as well, and it doesn’t matter if one is dead or alive.
Travel from Osaka to Kōyasan
- Located about 50 kilometres south of Osaka, Kōyasan is easily accessible by trains from Namba Station. The trip is operated by Nankai Railways and it takes approximately 2.5 hours. Please note that JR Pass is not valid on this route.
- From Namba, take an express or rapid express train (870¥, one way) to Gokurakubashi. Most of which require a transfer at Hashimoto Station. The only exception is the Limited Express which costs 1650¥, one way. At Gokurakubashi, a cable car will bring visitors to the mountaintop. The ride takes about five minutes and costs 390¥. Then, it is a ten-minute bus ride from the cable car station to the town centre (from 290¥).
- If you don’t want to purchase separate tickets, the Kansai Thru Pass is a great alternative. Similar to JR Pass, the pass grants unlimited use of transportation in the Kansai region for 2 or 3 non-consecutive days, including the subways in Osaka and Kyoto, but excluding all JR-trains.
Practical Information in Kōyasan
- Due to its location, the temperature in Kōyasan is much lower than in Osaka. Therefore, cold-weather clothing are necessary.
- Before visiting Kōyasan, inform yourself about the opening hours. Most of the temples are closed at around 16:00. The only exception is the Okunoin cemetery.