Koyasan, founded by Kukai
Mt. Koya (two hours from Osaka by train) is an important religious center located on a 900-meter (3,000-foot) -high tableland. Surrounded by thick forests and peaks, it contains more than 2,000 temples, shrines, towers, stupas and assembly buildings, 117 major temples, and 52 monasteries which offer lodging and vegetarian meals at a reasonable price to visitors.

Mt. Koya is regarded as one of three holiest mountains in Japan along with Mt. Osorezan. It is also home to some of Japan’s greatest works of Buddhist art. No other place in Japan has such a large number of well-preserved religious buildings clustered in such a small area. Although development, vehicles and tourism has infiltrated the community it still manages to retain an atmosphere of tranquility and piety.

Koyasan is a sacred site for esoteric Buddhism that attracts many visitors not only from Japan but also overseas. It is the headquarters of Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism. It was founded in 816 as a training monastery by Kukai (774-835), a monk also known as Kobo Daishi. His mausoleum is located in Okunoin, which can be accessed from Ichinohashi bridge. Mt. Koya can receive a fair amount of snow in the wintter and can be quite chilly in the morning even in summer. Special events include the Aoba Matsuri, a festival held on June 15 to celebrate the birth of Kobo Daishi. The more interesting festival is the Rousoku Matsuri (Candle light Festival) is held on August 13.

The settled area of Koyasan stretches about six kilometers from east to west and two kilometers from north to south. Mt. Koya is divided into two parts: Garan (Sacred Precinct) in the west and Okuno-in Temple and its massive cemetery in the east. Essentially one main road runs through the town with the temples and monasteries located off of it. The Koya-san Tourist Association office offers maps and information. At the end of the funicular that brings visitors to Mt. Koya there is an office where visitors can book temple lodging. About half of Koyasan’s 117 temples offer shukubo lodging.

Websites: Mt. Koya official site shukubo.jp ; ; Wakayama Mt. Koya official site visitwakayama.jp ; Koyasan Shingon Buddhism koyasan.or.jp ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; JNTO japan.travel/en; Wikitarvel Wikitravel Map: Nankai Koya nankaikoya.jp ; Koya area map tb-kumano.jp UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Temple Loding Websites: Mt. Koya official site shukubo.jp ; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Mt. Koya is accessible by by train and cable cat from Osaka, Wakayama, Kyoto, Nara and and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Kii Mountain Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range Nara, Mie, Wakayama prefecture were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 According to UNESCO: “Set in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains on a peninsula in the southernmost part of mainland Japan, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan – are linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto. Together these sites, the connecting pilgrimage routes, and surrounding forests form a cultural landscape that reflect the fusion of Shintoism, rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan, and Buddhism, which was introduced from China and the Korean Peninsula. [Source: UNESCO]

“The sacred sites are connected by 307 kilometers of pilgrimage routes which cover a total area of 506.4 ha. With the surrounding forest landscape, they reflect a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred mountains maintained over 1,200 years. The area, with its abundance of streams, rivers and waterfalls, is still part of the living culture of Japan and is much visited for ritual purposes and hiking, with up to 15 million visitors annually. Each of the three sites contains shrines, some of which were founded as early as the 9th century.”

The site is important because: “1) The monuments and sites that form the cultural landscape of the Kii Mountains are a unique fusion between Shintoism and Buddhism that illustrates the interchange and development of religious cultures in East Asia. 2) The Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in the Kii Mountains, and their associated rituals, bear exceptional testimony to the development of Japan’s religious culture over more than a thousand years. 3) The Kii Mountains have become the setting for the creation of unique forms of shrine and temple buildings which have had a profound influence on the building of temples and shrines elsewhere in Japan. 4) Together, the sites and the forest landscape of the Kii Mountains reflect a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred mountains over the past 1,200 years.”

“The property consists of three sacred sites including precincts and buildings of temples and shrines in the heavily forested Kii Mountains, and a complex pattern of tracks and paths that link the sites together. These component parts are essential for demonstrating the religious framework of Shintoism (rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan), Buddhism (introduced to Japan from China and the Korean Peninsula), and Shugen-dô (the Shugen sect) which was influenced by the former two faiths. The three sacred sites with their surroundings demonstrate high degree of integrity. Also the pilgrimage routes, as part of the extensive cultural landscape, at present retain a significant degree of integrity.”

History of Mt. Koya

a 19th century pilgrim
The original Mt. Koya monastery was founded in 816 by Kobo-Daishi, the great sage and exponent of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism. Kobo-Daishi traveled in China until 805 and reportedly spent 30 years in meditation at the present site of Okunoin. Many of the Japanese pilgrims that visit Mt. Koya each year believe Kobo-Daishi, also known as Kukai, is just resting in his tomb here and waiting to be reborn.

Koyasan is located in an alpine basin that is 800 meter high and measures six kilometers from east to west and three kilometers north to south. One Koysan-based monk told the Daily Yomiuri, “Kobo Daishi selected Koyasan as the [ultimate] ashram for his mediation because it was a place where he could feel the connection between the sky and the earth...The basin is surrounded by two circles of mountains, and the inner and outer circles have eight peaks each. The area resembles a lotus flower — an important Buddhist symbol.

At the height of its power in the 15th century, Mt. Koya contained 1,500 monasteries and thousands of monks. In the 16th century, shoguns, who felt threatened by the monks, ordered the slaughter of large numbers of monks. In the 17th century, the economic power of the monasteries was broken. Many temples were destroyed and religious leaders were banished. In the Edo period much of the land belonging to the monasteries was confiscated. Women were prohibited from entering Mt. Koya until 1872. But not long after that monks were allowed to wed. In 2004, Koya was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism (whose name was derived for the Sanskrit word for "magic formula" or "mantra") is centered at Kongobu-ji Temple at Mt. Koya and To-ji Temple in Kyoto. It is closely linked with the Tendai sect and is known for its ornate art and incorporation of Shinto elements. Today there are 3,700 Shingon-affiliated temples nationwide.

Shingon Buddhism has Tantric elements and is known for it rich ceremonies and has many similarities with Tibetan Buddhism. A central idea is to find the "mystery at the heart of the uncovered — using rituals, symbols and mandalas representing the sphere of the indestructible and the womb of the world. Shingon Buddhists practice “takigyo” — standing under freezing cold waterfalls at Hakuryu Bentenzan Shumpukuin temple in Mikumocho, Mie Prefecture and the Oiwasan Nissekiji Temple in Kamiichimachi in Toyama, Prefecture as part of an ascetic purification ceremony to mark the beginning of the coldest time of the year. Participants wear white gowns and headbands and chant as they stand under the waterfalls. Sometimes they chant as conch shells are blown. . Sometimes they for stand for over an hour in freezing water.

At Oiwasan Nissekiji Temple pilgrims pray for good health while standing under a waterfall in early January on a day traditionally regarded as the coldest day of the year. In 2009 about 60 people took turns standing under the six-meter-high waterfall in -3 degree C weather chanting Buddhist sutras. In April 2009, a professional boxer died while doing training at a temple waterfall. It is believed he accidentely fell in.

Kukai and Shingon Buddhism

Kukai (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is one of Japan's most beloved religious figures. Kukai established the teachings of Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan in the early Heian period (794-1192). Often referred to by his posthumous name, Kobo Daishi, he is considered a giant of the esoteric Buddhist school who had a great impact on Buddhist art in Japan.

Kukai was born, depending on the source, in either Shikoku or the area known today as Kagawa Prefecture. He was a Japanese envoy to Tang Dynasty China in 804. During a two-year stay in China he studied esoteric Buddhism; upon returning to Japan, he devoted himself to systemizing and spreading its teachings. Kukai studied at the Imperial University and spent some times as a wandering monk and mountain ascetic and died at Mt. Koya. He is revered as a scholar, Bodhisattva, artist, calligrapher and inventor of the 47-symbol Japanese Kana symbols and is credited with merging the deep spirituality of someone who meditating for long periods in a cave with rituals and discipline of Tang-era Chinese esoteric Buddhism. He remains a popular folk hero. In some stories he is merely sleeping in his tomb in Mt. Koya and will rise up again some day.

nullKukai was a friend of Saicho’s who traveled to China in 802, the same year Saicho did, but went not to Mt. Tientai but to Changan (Xian), the capital of China, where he was influenced by Mikkyo (Esoteric Buddhism) and the Chinese Chen-yan school. In China, it is said, Kukai learned Sanskrit and all the secret teachings and doctrines of Tantricism and Esoteric Buddhism in the amazingly short period of three months to two years, depending on the source.

Upon his return to Japan in 807, Kukai secluded himself in mountain ashrams at Mt. Misem on Miyashima Island near present-day Hiroshima and was forced to stay in Kyushu for breaking an agreement to stay in China for 20 years. During this time Kukai and Saicho exchanged infromation on what they had learned at their respective destinations in China. Kukai left Kyushu with Saicho’s help and was initiated into Esoteric Buddhism. Kukai and Sacho had a falling out when Kukai started propagating his own teachings. Each considering the other a disciple not an equal. After Saicho’s death in 822, Kukai’s influence grew.

Kukai decided to establish his headquarter at Koysan, the Buddhist priest Shodo Habukawa told the Daily Yomiuri, because it was a place where he could feel the connection between the sky and the earth...The basin is surrounded by two circles of mountains and the inner and outer circles have eight peaks each. The area resembles a lotus flower.”

Kukai used Jingoji and Toji temples in Kyoto, as well as Kongobuji temple in Wakayama Prefecture, as bases for his Shingon teachings. He was very influential in court politics. He helped reconcile Buddhist sects with each other and with Shinto. After his death he was given the name Kobo Daishi.

Shingon Esoteric Buddhist Art

Shingon esoteric Buddhism places great importance on visual forms such as mandalas, paintings, sculptures and ritual articles. The statues from Kodo Hall at Toji temple are particularly well-known works. Eight statues from the hall, including two mystical myoo wisdom kings, a dignified Taishakuten and a fierce Jikokuten are greatly treasured. [Source: July 22, 2011]

Other important pieces in the exhibition include plush monk headpieces known as Shakujoto, a highly elaborate niche adorned with various buddhist figures known as Shoson-Butsugan, and portable shrines adorned with Buddhist figures, all brought to Japan from China by Kukai. Ryokai (two worlds) Mandala, also known as Takao Mandala, is the oldest existing work of its kind. Works by Kukai himself include five autographed calligraphy pieces.

Kukai greatly influenced his senior disciples, who went on to produce some powerful Buddhist art themselves. The Yakushi Triad from Daigoji temple and the Amida Nyorai with Attendants from Ninnaji temple, both dating back to the early Heian period, contain fine examples of this.

Koyasan and Foreign Tourists

The number of foreign visitors to Koyasan has increased after 2004, when it was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Koyasan was given a three star rating in Michelin’s Green Guide to Japan in 2009. After that the number European visitors jumped from around 5,000 a years to 25,000, with roughly half of them from France, with some coming to Japan mainly to see it, . The guidebook recommended Koysan because of mysteriousness and isolation from daily life, praising the “harmonious area’s people , religion and atmosphere.”

Of the 1.2 million visitors to the mountain about 40,000 are foreign, mostly Western, visitors. Henjoson lodging temple is particularly popular with Westerners because the staff speaks English and Buddhist lectures are delivered in English. The temple routine involves a vegetarian dinner at night and an early wake up call the next morning for a lecture, Buddhist ceremony, chanting sessions and light vegetarian meal. In 2015, nearly two million visitors to Koya stayed overnight, including about 56,000 foreigners. Of those, 85 percent were from Europe, the United States and Australia.

Temple Lodging at Koyasan

Koyasan is well known for its popular temple stays option. For a stay of one or more nights, you can live just like the full-time monks and share their meals. Enjoy the subtle simplicity of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, served to overnight guests in the evening and again the following morning. You can also meditate and pray with the monks: early morning meditation usually starts around 6:00am. A traditional vegetarian, gourmet food is called Shojin-ryori in Japanese, is skillfully cooked with-out any use of meat, fish, onions or garlic.

Of Koyasan’s 117 temples, 52 offer accommodation to visitors with the traditional custom and manner in the mountain.. Here, you experience temple life complete with vegetarian temple food and a tranquil Japanese garden behind the light sliding paper doors. Relax in the hot bath before falling asleep in the serene stillness as night falls over the mountains. The next day, wake early to the tolling of the temple bell, the start of a day to stroll the wooded mountainsides and discover the smaller temples hidden away from the crowds.

Each temple is called Shukubo and welcomes you with full hospitality. The Shukubo has traditional lodging rooms with shoji, tatami, and fusuma doors, and a backyard garden with a tiny pond and Bonsai trees. Of interest (for staying) are futon bed, classical furo bath, hibachi heater, and zabuton cushion. You must stay at least one night. Room rates are 9,500 yen and up Reservation can be made at Koyasan Tourist information center. Tel: 0736-56-2616; eng.shukubo.net

Ekoin Temple offers overnight temple lodging, Vistors practice ajikan, the Shingon Buddhist form of mediation, for 30 minutes, and participate in a goma fire ritual that begins at 7:00am. The shojin ryori breakfast is comprised of vegetable dishes and rice. The temple grounds feature huge cedar trees and contain more than 200,000 gravestones, which vary greatly in size. The best spot for a gravestone is occupied by the grave of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), who once attacked Mt, Koya,

Temples and Sights at Mt. Koya

Sights at Mt. Koya include the colorful two-story Konpon Daito tower. Among the oldest building are the two-story Hato tower in the Kongo-sanmai-in Temple, dated to the 13th century, and Fudo-d- Shrine at Garan, built in 1198.Kondo contains two mandala said to have been made with the blood of Tira no Kiyomori (1118-1181)

Reiho-kan (Treasure) Museum houses old implements, paintings, scrolls, mandalas and statues. Particularly noteworthy are the scroll “Reclining Image of Sakyamuni Buddha on His Last day” and “The Eight Guardian Deities” and the wonderfully expressive wooden sculptures by Unkei and Kaikei, both of whom worked in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Kongobuji Temple is the head temple for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It contains one room with lovely screen paintings of willows and another room where Toyotomi Hideoyishi committed seppeku (ritual suicide). The temple owns the oldest colored mandala in Japan: an 850-year-old mandala known as the Chi Mandala, which is comprised of two works. “The Realm of Kongokai” and “The Realm of Taizokoai”. Each is made of seven pieces of silk and measures 4.27 by 3.94 meters. The mandalas are very fragile and rarely shown. They were recently recreated using high computers, fluorescent X-ray imaging and ultraviolet beams and other high tech methods.

Koyasan Walk: Take the cable car up through the deep forests to Koyasan Station then ride the bus packed with pilgrims up to Oku-no-in. Pass through the dark cemetery lined with thousands of tombs surrounded by tall cedars, shading the graves from the light in the early morning mist. Continue to the head temple of the Shingon sect. Sohonzan Kongobuji Temple, where faithful pilgrims crowd the large grounds of this ancient holy site. Continue to the colorful Danjogaran, its majestic red eaves contrasting with the deep blue sky. From here, head over to Reihokan, a museum housing national treasures, pictures and scrolls of religious importance. Come out of here into the late afternoon sun and queue with the faithful for a bus back to the station.


Okunoin Temple

Okunoin Temple ( two kilometers, from the entrance of Mt. Koya at Ichino-hashi bridge is where the body of Kobo Daishi (Kukai A.D. 774-835), the famous Buddhist saint and teacher. is enshrined. Around the temple are thousands of tombs filled with ashes of the dead (or their hair) ready to be brought back to life when Kobo Daishi is reborn.

The Lantern Hall is the main hall. It contains thousands of burning lamps, including two lamps that are said to have been burning for 900 years. Behind the hall is the closed mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where it said the sage achieved enlightenment. Nearby at the Mimyo-no-hashi bridge you can see people ladling water over the Jizo statues as an offering to the dead.

Cemetery Around Okunoin Temple is one of Mt. Koya's greatest attractions. It embraces beautiful shrines and temples and 300,000 tombs are found. Some of the tombs are quite grand and impressive-looking. belonging to important samurai, noblemen, shogun, poets and religious leaders. Some date back to the 12th and 13th century. The historical figures Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) are buried here.

About 200,000 to 300,000 stone monuments are spread across a cedar forest, with trees that rise more than 50 meters. They include memorials of famous war generals from the Sengoku warring states period, and also ones erected by well-known companies to remember deceased employees. One cenotaph was set up to remember victims in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

A two kilometer path winds through the cemetery which is shaded by massive, old cedars and umbrella pines and lit at night by stone lanterns. Near the large parking lot there is a space-ship-shipped tomb dedicated to the employees of a an aerospace company. According to Lonely Plant. there is also a monument dedicated to a white ant produced by a pesticide company to assuage its guilt for killing millions of insects.

Koyasan Night Tour

Ayako Ishiguro wrote in the Japan News: “A night tour of Koyasan’s Okunoin area is gaining popularity among foreigners in search of tranquility at dusk. The Koyasan Okunoin Cemetery Night Tour is provided daily, with explanations in English and Japanese provided by guides. Participants walk about two kilometers up to Okunoin. [Source: Ayako Ishiguro, Japan News, November 14, 2016]

”I recently participated in the tour. Fortunately, the drizzling rain stopped before we set off, and the air became refreshing. A little after 7pm, about 40 people gathered at the tour’s meeting place, Ekoin, which is one of the temples at Koyasan that provides accommodation for worshipers. People chose to follow a Japanese guide or an English guide and were divided into two groups of almost the same size. Many participants seemed to be from the West.

“We began to walk in the dark, guided by the dim stone lanterns lining both sides of the path. As my sight became limited, I felt my other senses sharpening with each step. The stone-paved path was slightly wet, and the moss-covered stone monuments along the way added to the distinctive atmosphere. About 200,000 to 300,000 stone monuments are dotted across the local Japanese cedar forest, which rises more than 50 meters. On the way, our English-language guide, Nobuhiro Tamura, stopped to shine a flashlight on one of the monuments. “It’s a gorinto,” he said. Gorinto monuments comprise five stacked stones of different shapes. In Buddhism teachings, the universe consists of five elements: void, wind, fire, water and earth. Each of the five stones bears the Sanskrit word for one of the elements,” said Tamura, 32, as the participants quietly listened to his fluent English.

”The tour was launched in 2010 by Tamura, a priest of the Ekoin temple. He felt that many guests at the temple had too much time to kill after dinner. To better serve an increasing number of foreign guests, he started answering their questions about Buddhism and taking them to Okunoin when he was available. Tamura, who studied in Britain and can speak fluent English, decided to organize the tour to promote the attraction of Koyasan to more people. The tour has gradually become more well-known overseas via the internet. During the night tour, Australian Jill Murphy, traveling in Japan with her four family members, said the area was particularly special at night because of the stone lanterns that provide illumination. Okunoin is enshrouded in tranquility and darkness, and has the atmosphere of a spiritual world. Walking along, I sensed the great presence of the stone monuments that I had not paid much attention to before.”

Image Sources: 1) 8) Kumano Kodo site 2) 5) JNTO 3) 4) Wikipedia 6) 7) 9) 15) Wakayama Prefecture site 8) Kumano Kodo 10) 11) 12) Hongu Kumnao site 14) Wikitravel

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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