Mount 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 five interesting things to see and do in Koyasan. Read further to find out more…
Koyasan: UNESCO World Heritage Site
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How To Get To Koyasan
First thing’s first, if you aren’t already there, you need to get to Japan! Rather than flying into Tokyo, I’d recommend flying into Osaka International Airport. You can secure the most affordable flights to Osaka here. Spend a day in Osaka before making your way to Koyasan.
There are two main ways ways that travelers get to Koyasan: by going from Osaka to Koyasan or by going from Kyoto to Koyasan. I personally went from Osaka to Koyasan, as it’s a bit shorter, but I will break them both down for you. For those of you with a JR Pass, the JR Pass does not cover the rail to Koyasan.
Osaka to Koyasan Directions
Osaka to Koyasan
The easiest and quickest way to get from Osaka to Koyasan is by taking the Nankai Koya Line to Mount Koya. You can join board the Nankai Koya Line to the Gokurakubashi station from the Shin-Imamiya Station, the Nankai Namba Station, or the Tengachaya Station in Osaka. It will take you around an hour and a half to go from Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station. Please note: if you are on the rapid express train (not the limited express train), there is a high probability that you will need to transfer trains at the Hashimoto Station to continue onwards to Gokurakubashi. I know this likely sounds a bit confusing, but the Japanese train system is fantastic!
To visualize this a bit better, your options on getting from Osaka to Koyasan are as follows:
- Shin-Imamiya Station to Gokurakubashi: 90 minutes on the Rapid Express/Local Train (transfer at Hashimoto Station) or 78 minutes on the Limited Express Train (no transfer needed)
- Nankai Namba to Gokurakubashi: 92 minutes on the Rapid Express/Local Train (transfer at Hashimoto Station) or 80 minutes on the Limited Express Train (no transfer needed)
- Tengachaya to Gokurakubashi: 87 minutes on the Rapid Express/Local Train (transfer at Hashimoto Station) or 75 minutes on the Limited Express (no transfer needed)
Once you reach Gokurakubashi, hop on a quick cable car and bus to the town center at the top, and say hello to Koyasan! Once in town, we walked to all of the sites in Koyasan.
Kyoto to Koyasan
To get from Kyoto to Koyasan, you actually have to go via Osaka. So you will have to choose one of the routes above. Getting from Kyoto to Osaka to start the journey is pretty straightforward though, don’t worry! The route from Kyoto to Osaka is heavily traveled, so you can do one of two things:
- Take the JR Kyoto Line from Kyoto to Osaka Station. Once in Osaka, take the metro to the Nankai Namba Station and follow the directions above.
- If you have the JR Pass, you can take the Shinkansen to the Shin-Osaka Station, then take the metro to the Nankai Namba Station and follow the directions above.
Where to Sleep in Koyasan: Koyasan Temple Stay
Koyasan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to 117 different temples on Mount Koya. In 1832, there were 1,812 temples in Koyasan but unfortunately only 117 remain today due to many fires in the region. Of these 117 temples, 52 of them offer a Koyasan temple stay for those interested. Originally, these temple lodgings were simple sleeping quarters for monks, but the quarters began to expand in the Edo Period (1603-1868) when more pilgrims began visiting Koyasan. Staying in a Shukubo (which literally translates to “sleeping with the monks”) allows you a far more immersive experience.
Muryokoin – Koyasan Temple Stay
Rather than sleeping in a typical hotel, you will have the opportunity to sleep on site, eat as the monks do, and join the morning Buddhist ceremonies. We had a fantastic experience at Muryokoin, and couldn’t recommend it enough. It’s an incredibly special experience that can only be had during your Koyasan temple stay. Have a look at the best Koyasan temple lodging options here.
Inside Muryokoin – Koyasan Temple Lodging
After choosing the right Koyasan temple stay for you, it's time to get out and explore some of the most intriguing things to see and do 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!
Kondo Hall – Things to do in Koyasan
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.
Dai Garan – Things to see in Koyasan
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.
Kongobugi – Things to do in Koyasan
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.
Painted Doors – Kongobugi, Koyasan
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.
Kongobuji Rock Garden – Things to see in Koyasan
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.
Okunoin Cemetery – Things to do in Koyasan
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.
Five Tiers = Five Elements
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. The Daimon Gate
The Daimon Gate was originally built in the 11th Century, but was moved to its current spot on Mount Koya shortly thereafter. The Daimon Gate served as the original entrance to Koyasan and pays homage to Kobo Daishi. It has burned down many times, so the most Daimon Gate that stands there today was rebuilt in 1705. The Guardian Deities inside – the Kongo-Rikishi – are the biggest statues in Japan outside of the Todaiji in Nara (which I highly recommend you check out!)
Daimon Gate – Things to see in Koyasan
5. The Daito Bell
The Daito Bell was built in the 16th Century and is the fourth largest bell in Japan. The bell rings five times daily: 4am, 1pm, 5pm, 9pm, and 11pm. While Kobo Daishi wanted this bell in place, his successor – Shinzen Daitoku – oversaw the completion of the bell.
Daito Bell – Things to see in Koyasan
6. 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.
Eat a Monk's Meal – Koyasan Temple Stay
What To Pack For Your Koyasan Temple Stay
What you pack will depend on what time of year you visit Koyasan. For a Koyasan temple stay, you should always dress conservatively. While your clothing will vary per season, there are 137 travel essentials that I recommend bringing on your trip. From packing essentials to outdoors essentials, hiking essentials, camping essentials, tech essentials and more… I’ve got you covered! Click here to discover the 137 travel essentials you need to check out before your Koyasan Temple Stay!
Purchase Travel Insurance For Your Trip to Koyasan
I hope you don’t embark without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas) for a trip like this. I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you travelers. You can get a free quote here.
Have you ever been to Koyasan? What do you think is a “must see” thing to do 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.