This month’s destination: Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture
Let’s go to one of the most mystical pilgrimage sites in all Japan
🏮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.
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.
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.)
*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!
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
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 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.)
If you love Japan, you might enjoy The Last Tea Bowl Thief too
“Absolute page-turner…the different storylines slowly converge in a profoundly satisfying way, like the flawless bow on a Japanese gift. What a marvelous ride.” —Katherine Catmull, author of Summer and Bird