Mt. Koya (Koyasan) must not be missed for anyone seeking spiritual understanding in Japan. This monastic complex was constructed by Kobo Daishi in 816, high up in the mountains to avoid the distractions of everyday life; he was the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.
Kobo Daishi lived and taught in Koyasan for 19 years before he entered eternal meditation in Koyasan in 835. His mausoleum at Mt. Koya attracts many visitors per year, and he is said to give aid and comfort to those who pray to him. That being said, there are 5 things you must see in Koyasan:
1. Dai Garan
Dai Garan is composed of eight different buildings, and is meant to be a quiet and secluded place where Buddhist monks could gather and practice. The Dai Garan has served as the focal point of study, training, and rituals of Shingon Buddhism since the ninth century!
We chose not to enter every building; we did, however, spend some time within the Kondo (the main hall). It costs 200 Yen (2 USD) to enter. The building was originally constructed by Kobo Daishi in 819, but it was not completed by the time he entered eternal meditation. The Kondo itself has been destroyed by fire on six different occasions; the building we see today was rebuilt in 1934.
The headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon-shu Buddism sect, Kongobugi is a necessary stop for religious purposes or not. This particular sect of Buddhism has about 4,000 member temples in Japan and about twenty in North and South America.
The original temple at this site was built in 1539, rebuilt in 1863, and combined to become Kongobugi Temple in 1869. Admission costs 500 Yen (5 USD) and includes a tea and rice cracker. Kongobugi was made famous for its painted sliding doors. The four seasons are typically depicted. More specifically, flowers and birds are painted into these seasons. The doors are a true work of art, and the highlight of Kongobugi Temple for me as a non-Buddhist.
Kongobuji is also home to Japan’s largest rock garden. It represents a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds to protect the Okuden. These dragons are illustrated by 140 pieces of granite stone placed on top of perfectly swirled white sand.
While Okunoin is technically a cemetery leading to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, it is like a walk through Japanese history. Starting from the late Heian period, over 200,000 gravestones and monuments have been built along the path to, and in the vicinity of, the mausoleum. Buddhist monks, medieval warriors and lords, and ordinary people alike have all been buried in Okunoin.
The shape of the graves found at Okunoin are fascinating and appear to have five tiers; the five stones placed atop one another represent the five elements of the physical world in Buddhism.
From the bottom up, the cube represents earth, the sphere represents water, the pyramid represents fire, the half-sphere represents wind, and the jewel-shape on top represents space. Kobo Daishi believed that these five elements, combined with consciousness, create the universe itself. At the end of the path, you will reach Torodo (Lantern Hall), which was built in 1023; here, 10,000 lanterns have been donated over the years. Behind Torodo, you will find Kobo Daishi Gobyo (the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi) where he remains in eternal meditation. Kobo Daishi is believed to be alive and giving aid to those who visit him at Okunoin. This is so strongly believed, that two meals are offered to him daily at the mausoleum.
4. Stay In A Temple
Koyasan is one of the few places where you can stay in a Shukubo, a temple. Originally, these lodgings were simple sleeping quarters for monks, by the quarters began to expand in the Edo Period (1603-1868) when more pilgrims began visiting Koyasan, In 1832, there were 1,812 temples in Koyasan.
There are only 117 temples left today due to many fires in the region. Of these 117 temples, 52 of them provide lodging for those interested. We had a fantastic experience at Muryokoin, and staying at a temple allows you the opportunity to witness a morning ceremony as well!
5. Try A Monk’s Meal
Shojin Ryori is the name for the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Buddhists believe that the taking of a life is wrong, and so their meals are traditionally vegan. According to Buddhist teachings, Shojin Ryori consists of five flavors, five cooking methods, and five colors; the meal should have a grilled dish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish, and a soup dish. Today, the meals are always vegetarian, but not always vegan due to the increased creativity wanted by tourists. While the monks’ meal wasn’t particularly my favorite cuisine in Japan, nonetheless it’s an interesting experience for your tastebuds and something that’s lasted the centuries in Koyasan.
Have you ever been to Koyasan? What do you think is a “must see” in Koyasan? Let me know your experience in the comments below!
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**Special thanks to Japan Experience for sponsoring my journey. As always, all opinions are my own.