Kondo Hall

Kōyasan: A Trip to the Sacred Mountain

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.

Entrance to Kongobuji Temple
Spring at Kongobuji Temple
The bell tower

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.

Daijo Garan temple complex – The spiritual heart of Kōyasan
Kondo Hall
Daito Pagoda

3. Okunoin

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.


17 thoughts on “Kōyasan: A Trip to the Sacred Mountain”

  1. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Love it! So peaceful 🍃 🌸

  2. It looks beautiful, and so peaceful! It’s so crazy to me that Japan can have some of the most highly-developed, densely-populated urban centers in the world and not 50 km away there are tranquil forests.

  3. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    I didn’t have enough time to visit Koyasan during my trip in Japan back in October 2016. With such beautiful temples and natural landscape, and many other unique and interesting things, Japan really is a special place I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of. Thanks for highlighting this tranquil place! Next time I’m in Osaka I’ll make sure not to give Koyasan a miss.

    1. Definitively not! Although Koyasan is just 50 kilometres from Osaka, it does feel like a different world. One more tip: if you miss the sakura season in the city, you might catch it up in Koyasan 🙂 Because of its cold weather, the cheery blossoms there bloom later than in Osaka or Kyoto.

  4. Wow what a beautiful place. It looks incredibly peaceful by the pictures. Spring might have been just the best time to visit such a place. The more I read about Japan, the more I want to revisit. I love the striking orange of the pagoda against the clear blue sky in your photo of the pagoda! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Pooja! It’s one of my most favourite photos as well. I think Koyansan looks great year round, even in winter. Imagine the orange pagoda on a white background or the ancient cemetery covered in snow 🙂

  5. Nano @ Travels With Nano – Tokyo, Japan – Hi, I'm Nano! Welcome to my site! Travels With Nano is filled with everything I am passionate about: uncovering the world one sight, bite and cultural experience at a time. I'm here to share savvy travel tips and inspire (not influence!) your future travel adventures. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have you here reading!
    Nano @ Travel With Nano B. says:

    Len, so beautiful. You couldn’t have picked a better time to visit! xx, nano

    1. Indeed! I am glad that I included Koyasan in my itinerary. So beautiful and peaceful. Another advantage is the cold weather. It delays the blooming of the cherry blossoms 🙂

  6. Tanja – HI! I'm Tanja. I blog about my travels around Europe and my love for London. I also write about our family trips around Croatia. I'm a chocoholic who enjoys reading and planning new trips all the time. I've got two kids and a cat.
    Tanja says:

    Gorgeous place #friendlyFriday

  7. The Snow Melts Somewhere – As I wait for the snow to melt, up here in the far North, I daydream of palm trees and join my kids for adventures in our living room. Come join us! You can call me Snow. thesnowmeltssomewhere.wordpress.com
    The Snow Melts Somewhere says:

    So serene!!

    1. Same here. At first, I thought it was just a mountainous town with not much to see. But I was wrong. Koyasan is simply fascinating!

    1. Actually, it was the end of the sakura season in Kansai region. All the cherry blossom trees in Osaka and Kyoto started getting leaves. But in Koya, the weather is colder. That’s why some trees were still in bloom 😀

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