Visitare Koyasan - Danjo Garan

Koyasan: exploring Japan’s Spiritual Heart

With its 117 temples scattered amidst majestic trees and forests, Koyasan stands as the spiritual nucleus of Japan. Here, approximately 700 monks reside, following the tenets of Shingon Buddhism, which finds its epicenter in Koyasan, the pulsating heart from which everything originated.

In 805 AD, the monk Kukai (later known as Kobo Daishi) arrived in this mountainous realm of Wakayama Prefecture and decided to establish his temple here, amidst awe-inspiring and potent nature, thereby initiating Shingon Buddhism. Since then, the number of temples has grown, and Koyasan has become a significant pilgrimage destination. Temples offer accommodation to pilgrims who arrive at Koyasan, often before continuing their journey along the Kumano Kodo trails, which, together with this area, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.

Interest in Koyasan as a tourist destination has surged in recent years. Despite my expectations of significant changes since my first visit in 2014, perhaps due to my return during the low season, I found little difference. However, English signage has become more prevalent, with many instructions tailored for tourists, such as the explanation sheet for Goshuincho stamps provided exclusively to foreigners, and bus announcements now available in English and French, given the high percentage of visitors from these countries (21%, the highest nationality percentage!).

Visiting Koyasan - Okunoin Cemetery

Visiting Koyasan – Must-See Attractions

Koyasan is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range and is dotted with temples. The main area spans from Danjo Garan to the Okunoin Cemetery, where most Shukubo lodgings are located.

Typically explored over two days and one night, visitors overnight in a Buddhist temple, where Shojin Ryori meals, th traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, are served and can witness the monks’ morning prayers. Beyond this unique experience, Koyasan offers a spiritually immersive destination, surrounding visitors with the power of Japanese nature and calming the mind through temple visits.

The central area of Koyasan is easily navigable on foot, but buses also traverse the area, connecting the center to the cable car station, but since they’re not very frequent, walking is often faster.

To visit Koyasan, arriving in the late morning or early afternoon and departing the following morning is sufficient. Naturally, if you have more time, you could explore one of the various hiking trails in the area or visit smaller temples. The absolute must-visit sites in Koyasan are three: the Danjo Garan complex, Kongobuji Temple, and Okunoin Cemetery.

Temple stay in Japan


Danjo Garan Complex

The heart of Koyasan, the epicenter of the new religion imported by Kobo Daishi from his travels in China: Shingon Buddhism. Various legends surround why and how the monk Kukai chose this place, but undoubtedly, the spiritual force emanating from this place influenced his decision.

The Danjo Garan area comprises around twenty buildings, with notable mentions including the Konpo Daito Pagoda and the Kondo Hall, both built by Kobo Daishi himself. Both are accessible with a 500 JPY donation each, and visitors must remove their shoes before entering.

The Konpon Daito Pagoda catches the eye with its red and white hues, and its interior is equally stunning, with imposing statues and mesmerizing wall paintings. The Kondo Hall is the main large wooden building where major ceremonies take place.

Take your time and stroll through the area, observing the surrounding nature and the beauty of the wooden temples. These are actually recent reconstructions because, like many things in Japan, the originals were destroyed by fires and earthquakes, being made of wood.

Visiting Koyasan . Danjo Garan

Kongobuji Temple

The main temple of Shingon Buddhism, where visitors can admire splendid fusama, intricately decorated sliding doors. Also built by Kobo Daishi, this important temple in Mount Koya has undergone various modifications and expansions, especially thanks to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who transformed it into a mausoleum dedicated to his deceased mother, bringing a lock of her hair here.

The complex is quite extensive, and entry costs 500 JPY. There is also a room where visitors can enjoy complimentary green tea and sit to rest before admiring the Banryu-tei Rock Garden, Japan’s largest rock garden.

Okunoin Cemetery

A vast cemetery immersed in the forest, a mystical and spiritual place dotted with graves and funerary monuments that are by no means gloomy or frightening. Two kilometers of spiritual peace lead from the Ichinohashi Bridge to the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where the monk Kukai is said to be in a perpetual state of meditation, awaiting the Buddha of the future, Miroku Nyorai.

Visiting Okunoin at night is extremely evocative, with stone lanterns illuminating the path, and it’s often recommended to visit Okunoin after dinner served at the temple. Guided tours are also available, and the one powered by Eko-in (which can be joined by guests staying in other Shukubo) is conducted in English as well.

I visited twice at night, once after a heavy snowfall, and I guarantee it’s a truly fascinating and intense experience. However, when I visited with the morning light, I had the opportunity to better appreciate the grandeur of the place. Over 200,000 tombstones, monuments, and stone pagodas, are covered in moss and sheltered by tall cedars. Resting places or commemorations of monks, important merchants, and above all, feudal lords. My passion for samurai history led me through the family tombs of the Maeda, Shimazu, and Hojo clans, the memorial tomb of Takeda Shingen (whom I mentioned in my YouTube video about Kofu, his city), and the nearby mausoleum of his eternal rival, Uesugi Kenshin, to the small memorial tomb of Oda Nobunaga and the much larger and elevated one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who spent much of his time in Koyasan and was highly appreciated by the monks of the time. Here and there, you can also find family tombs of founders of major companies like Panasonic or Kubota, as well as monks, scholars, and a few foreign names. There are no dead here at Okunoin, only their spirits. The souls resting near Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum will awaken and follow him when the monk meets Miroku Nyorai.

The most sacred part of the cemetery lies beyond the Gobyonohashi Bridge, beyond which photography is prohibited. Here lies the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where prayers written on wooden tablets by devotees are burned every day in the traditional Goma purification ceremony. Visiting Okunoin and Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum is an intense yet calming experience, an intense and unique place, definitely a stop not to be missed when visiting Mount Koya.

Okunoin cemetry by night

Getting to Koyasan

Koyasan is located about two hours from Osaka and almost three from Kyoto, but it’s easily accessible by public transportation. Firstly, you must reach the Gokurakubashi Station, from where the cable car departs, taking you to Koyasan Station in a few minutes. Here, several buses connect to the town center, where various Shukubo lodgings and attractions are located.

To reach Gokurakubashi, there are several ways, but the most convenient and fastest is to reach Namba’s Nankai Station (Osaka) and take the Nankai-Koya Line. The rapid train takes an hour and a half and costs 930 JPY, while the Limited Express takes about 15 minutes less, costs 1,720 JPY, but the seats are much more comfortable and is the best option if you are traveling with luggage.

Note that by purchasing the Koyasan World Heritage Pass, valid for two days, you will have the Osaka round-trip train, the cable car, and bus usage in the Koyasan area included, and the price is slightly lower than individual tickets. The pass covers the regular train; if you opt for the Limited Express, you will have to pay the surcharge for the reserved seat.

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