Let’s go to one of the most mystical pilgrimage sites in all Japan

This month’s destination: Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture

Stone figure of Kobo Daishi (Kukai) at Koya-san
This is Kōbō Daishi (or Kūkai, as he was also known), who founded Shingon Buddhism and built Koya-san. He taught that anyone could reach enlightenment (even common people, not just the high-born or priestly) and by following certain strict practices in this life, it was possible to attain Buddha-hood without being reborn countless times

This month, instead of charging off in search of quirky experiences and seasonal beauties, let’s return to one of the most basic and compelling reasons to travel beyond our four walls: to seek answers to tough questions and experience those elusive “aha!” moments when everything suddenly makes sense. Ancient pilgrimage sites like Koya-san are powerful places we can go to any time, in any season, and even visiting them virtually is rewarding, because we’re looking for insights, not snapshots.

The Koya-san monastery, founded in a ring of eight auspicious mountain peaks that form a lotus blossom, is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in all of Japan. And once we step off the tram and start walking its precincts, you’ll understand why. This incense-perfumed monastic retreat has been steeped in an aura of meditation and the seeking of enlightenment for over 1200 years, since it was founded in the year 819.

One of the temples at Koya-san
Tucked into the mountain landscape amid a towering forest of mossy, old-growth, cedar trees, Koya-san is actually a sprawling complex of 117 temples, like this one. The main monastery, known as Okuno-in, is where where Kobo Daishi himself is “sleeping.” Monks still bring a ritual meal to his resting place every morning, and sutras are chanted throughout the day
Graveyard at Koya-san with mossy lanterns and tall cedars
But leading up to the main temple is a very prestigious graveyard, where the ashes of a number of famous Japanese heros are enshrined, including Oda Nobunaga, and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the legendary warriors who unified Japan, and Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first shōgun
Granite UCC coffee cup memorial in Koya-san graveyard
This graveyard also, weirdly, has a number of “corporate” monuments, like this one that belongs to the UCC coffee company
Granite Yakult memorial in Koya-san graveyard
And this one, featuring the unbiquitous yogurt drink bottle made by the Yakult corporation
Rocket ship memorial in Koya-san graveyard
And this one, belonging to an aerospace research firm. Nobody is actually buried at these company tombs – they’re mostly used for corporate ceremonies honoring employees who have passed away
Memorial to termites killed by pset control company in Koya-san graveyard
Except this one, which was erected by a pest extermination company and is the site of regular ceremonies apologizing to all the termites they’ve speeded on to their next life
Place to pray for juvenile delinquents in Koya-san graveyard
And see this odd monument? Those two slabs on the right that are stickered with graffiti are dedicated to prayers for juvenile delinquents to turn over a new leaf
Small joyful Jizo figures in Koya-san graveyard
And don’t forget to take in the details, as well as the big picture – these extra-charming Jizo figures were joyously singing at the base of a bigger monument
Pyramid of Jizo figures in Koya-san graveyard
As we approach the temple of Okuno-in (the resting place of Kōbō Daishi), there’s a huge pyramid of Jizo figures (the patron of travelers and lost children) and it’s said that you can reap spiritual benefits by circling it
Wooden booth housing the test for pure heart stone in Koya-san graveyard
Just beyond the pyramid of Jizos is this odd structure that looks a bit like an ancient phone booth. In fact, it’s a test to find out if you’re pure of heart or not. Inside is a smooth black stone, and you can reach in through that little window to lift it. If it feels light, your heart is pure. If it’s heavy, you’re in trouble. I watched some other pilgrims do it, then (who could possibly resist?) I tried it myself. Ahahahaha! Trolled by an 8th century monk!

Because of the sacred nature of temple buildings, no photos are allowed inside, so I can’t show you what Okuno-in looks like. I used to be sort of chapped by this policy, but now I see it as a reminder to stop and just…be there. To take a different kind of picture, one that can’t be easily shared. There’s something lovely in the idea that each pilgrim enters without expectations, and each takes away something unique, something that they alone need. So let’s allow time to stand still before the altar rail, as we listen to the mesmerizing chanting of the monks and breathe in the fragrance of incense.

After exploring Okuno-in, it’s time to come back to earth. Let’s stroll back through the complex on a different path, then walk around the town, because shopping is a time-honored pilgrimage activity too.

Red bridge on shopping street at Koya-san
Every temple complex has a shopping street right outside, and Koya-san is no exception. There are plenty of stores selling sacred objects (and wicked sweets), and in between are lovely parks with bridges like this
Konpon Daito pagoda at Koya-san
We can also check out interesting buildings like the Konpon Daito, a pagoda that’s not just the central point of a mandala covering Koya-san, but all of Japan
Reihokan Museum at Koya-san
Don’t miss the modest-looking Reihokan Museum, which houses a bunch of Kōbō Daishi artifacts. The best thing there is the first thing you see as you enter: a life-sized, seated bronze statue of the man himself. You’ll notice that one knee is very shiny – I was told that rubbing it would invite a personal connection to Kūkai, so I did it. With, uh, unexpected results*

One of the best parts about visiting Koya-san is that there are no hotels––pilgrims stay overnight at the temples. Austere it’s not––it’s like staying at a traditional hot spring inn, but less expensive! The prices range from around $120-$200 USD per person per night (for double occupancy) and that includes two delicious multi-course Japanese meals, a lovely tatami room with comfortable futon, and access to the traditional bath and gardens, with the added benefit of optional early morning meditation. (Our temple offered private rooms, but shared bathrooms, which were perfectly nice, and very clean, with multiple stalls and sinks, so it didn’t feel at all grotty or lacking in privacy.)

Fukuchiin monastery shukubo entrance gate
We stayed at this monastery (Fukuchi-in) but there are many excellent temples (called shukubo) that welcome pilgrims. You can browse the various options and reserve in English on the Koya-san reservations website
Shojin rhori meal at Fukuchiin shukubo
As you can see, even though temples serve the vegetarian temple food called shōjin ryōri, it’s far from basic, and nobody goes hungry or feels the least deprived
Zen garden at Fukuchiin shukubo
Many temples have pristine private Japanese gardens of breathtaking beauty. Those who are studying at the monastery take care of them as a form of spiritual practice
Zen garden at Fukuchiin shukubo at night
There’s nothing more luxurious than strolling back from soaking in the bath after a long day of pilgrimaging, and enjoying the rock garden before being served dinner in your room

*After rubbing Kūkai’s knee, we went back to the temple where we were staying, had a nice soak in the bath, then ordered beer for our much-anticipated shōjin ryōri dinner that would shortly arrive. And it did not disappoint! It looked absolutely delicious, but…I never got to eat it. Let’s draw the curtain on the details, but calling the next twelve hours a “cleanse” would be a tasteful way to describe the do-not-pass-Go-do-not-collect-$200 nature of things. It’s weird, because I didn’t feel at all sick – despite being turned into a human version of the Autobahn – and the friend I was traveling with was just fine, so it couldn’t have been food poisoning from some previous meal. So, no dinner, and no breakfast, but the moment I stepped off the tram the next day on our way to our next destination, I could eat anything I wanted with no, er, consequences. Apparently, it was only while I was at Koya-san that the involuntary fasting kicked in. The only explanation my Japanese friend I was traveling with had, is that Koya-san is well-known as a “power spot,” and she believed that those kind of places “resonate” differently with different people. I’m not Buddhist, and hadn’t felt any zap of energy or enlightenment when I touched Kōbō Daishi’s knee, but when I got back to Tokyo, two weird things happened. I lost the desire to eat sweets for the next six months (if you know me, you know this is, uh, atypical to say the least) and more than one friend asked if I’d started doing some new miracle skin cream regimen, because I looked so much younger and more radiant (obviously, the greater miracle). So…what happened? I still don’t know. If anything interesting happens to you while you’re there, be sure and tell me!

Visiting information:

Open: Every day

Hours: Access to the grounds is never closed; but if you want to go inside the Offering Hall at Okuno-in, it’s open from 8:30-17:00, and the Hall of Lanterns is open from 6:00-17:30

Admission: Free

Here’s where Koya-san is:

Here’s how to get to Koyasan Station from Shinagawa Station in Tokyo:

(This journey takes three trains and a cable car from Tokyo, so I’ve divided the route into three sections, with color coding, so you can find your place as you scroll)

And here’s the next leg:

And here’s the final leg:

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can use it too, for choosing your actual date and time of departure, and also for finding the easiest way to get to Shinagawa Station from where you are. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it, and here’s how to buy and use a Japanese transit card.

Here’s a bus map of the Koya-san area:

Buses are the best way to get from the cable car terminal to the temple where you’re staying (which all tend to be along the main road) and to the two places where you can enter the monastery grounds to walk to Okuno-in. (Note: pedestrians are forbidden on the first stretch, because it’s too dangerous, so you have to take the bus for that part.) The first entrance to the walking trails leading to Okuno-in is by the Ishinohashi bridge (Ichinohashi-guchi) and the second (shorter) walk is from the bus stop at Okunoin-mae. Adults can buy an all-day bus pass for ¥840 (children, ¥420) at the cable car terminal. (And just so you know, it’s customary to bow before crossing the bridge, to show respect to Kōbō Daishi.)

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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