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 center of Shingon Buddhism some 1200 years ago.
Setting amid eight peaks of a forested mountain in Wakayama, more than 800 meters 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 that was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kōbō Daishi (also known as Kukai). After being granted permission by 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 center 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 travelers interested in Shingon Buddhism or who simply want to experience Japanese tradition and nature.
1. Kongobuji Temple
Meaning “Temple of the Diamond Mountain Peak”, Kongobuji Temple (金剛峯寺) is the centerpiece of Kōyasan’s temple settlement. Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first to build this structure in 1593 to commemorate his late mother. But later, it merged with neighboring temples and was rebuilt into the head temple of Shingon Buddhism.
2. Danjo Garan
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 the 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-meter tall Daito Pagoda in vermillion color. While the construction of the wooden hall was completed within years, it took 70 years to erect the two-story 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 kilometers long, this necropolis is the final resting place of about 200,000 people. Many of them are historical and well-known figures, including the warlord Oda Nobunaga and many of the 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 kilometers south of Osaka, Kōyasan is easily accessible by train 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 center (from 290¥).
- If you don’t want to purchase separate tickets, the Kansai Thru Pass is a great alternative. Similar to the 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.
Tips for visiting Kōyasan
- Due to its location, the temperature in Kōyasan is much lower than in Osaka. Therefore, cold-weather clothing is 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.