Re-tracing chronologically our trip around Japan, we are visiting now Koyasan, the sacred mountain!
Koyasan is a mountain in Wakayama (the peninsula south of Osaka & also south of Nara) that is well known because it’s the base of Shingon, one of the major schools of Buddhism, founded by the monk Kobo-Dashi during the Heian (medieval ages) period. One of the typical experiences at Koyasan is that you are able to sleep inside a Buddhist temple and join the monks routines, which sounds amazing, thus of course we were eager to join in.
Want to learn how it feels to be sleeping inside a temple too and what we learnt about Koyasan? Let’s see!
A train, cablecar and bus combo takes you easily to Koyasan with public transportation. We took the train at Osaka Nankai station towards Gokurakubashi, it takes 1h 30 minutes to get here with an express train. There, the cablecar station and timetables are connected. The cable car is such a good experience, I travelled next to the driver (he politely invited me to stay at his side) and was able to record some video and take pictures of the climb-up of the mountain. Those two are included in the Japan Rail Pass. Once you get to the Koyasan station there’s a local bus to get to the Koyasan temple complex, and near Okunoin. We were staying at Ekoin temple and had the stop 9 just next to it. The bus fare is not included in the Japan Rail Pass, but we strongly recommend, the road is long enough to require a bus.
The Koyasan is what you would call a temple complex or temple town composed of more than 120 temples, with some of them offering lodging services. The most important part of Koyasan is the Okunoin cemetery, which is the biggest in Japan (and I bet one of the biggest in the world). It is constructed in a very impressive cedar forest that makes a 2km way towards the Kobo-Daishi mausuleum.
It is believed that Kobo-Daishi didn’t die, he is in eternal meditation praying in the grounds of Okunoin. In fact, during the night tour, our monk guide prayed his mantra in front of the building where Kobo-Daishi will live forever, it was a very intense & emotional moment because he allowed us to join the mantra. We also learnt from him that not only Buddhist are buried here, everyone from every part of the world & religion can ask to keep its remains here, isn’t it a great proof of inclusiveness?
Kobo-Daishi was not only the creator of the sect Shingon, but also known because he was a calligraphy master and attributed as the inventor of Kana. Do you know Hiragana, that is used for Japanese words & Katakana for foreign words? this is Kana, which is how modern Japanese syllabary is written nowadays (imagine!). Not only that but he was also engineer and was part of some important civil engineering works, talking about a Japanese early Leonardo Da Vinci here!
From our guide we also learnt that most tombs in Okunoin are a representation of the 5 elements of Buddhism: earth, water, fire, wind and void, so it’s common to see a vertical monument with those different 5 pieces one in top of the other. There’s a 6th element naked to the eye which represents consciousness.
One of the most amazing things that I have witnessed in my life was walking in this cemetery during the night with our monk guide, while it was snowing. When he was explaining the elements of the Buddhism he pointed with a flashlight towards the sky and exclaimed “the universe” while we were watching little snowflakes surrounding us like millions of stars in the universe, it was magic!
Stay at a temple: Ekoin
Welcome to Ekoin!
Ekoin is the temple nearest to Okunoin that includes lodging rooms. Ekoin was founded by Kobo-Daishi direct disciple called Dosho, more than 1100 years ago and the name of the temple means “bless the light”.
How it is to sleep in a temple? Well, it pretty much feels like staying at a (very) traditional ryokan, meaning that you have your own room with tatami & futons, but the main difference is that all the guest services are done by the monks at the temple and that you are invited into their (real) morning routines, which includes two praying rituals. Also dinner is Syojin Ryori menu (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), ours included a mouthwatering tofu called Goma Dofu (I had never tried this exquisit variety before!), tempura veggies, mushrooms soup, veggie jelly and pickles.
Prices vary because there are lots of temples in Koyasan, check here a list of all the temples and select what works best for you. Our choice was based on proximity to Okunoin, comfort & because they organise the night tour, that can be joined equally if you are staying in other temples too, but meeting point is Ekoin which was convenient.
We walked two times all the way from the entrance (Ichinohashi Bridge) to Kobo-Daishi mausoleum. The first one on our own entering the mausoleum (a must!), and then a second time with a night tour organised by the monks at our temple. The tour was very informative and at the same time personal, our monk explained us his own perspective on Buddhism and Kobo-Daishi, but also a general vision of the religion in Japan.
We usually don’t like group tours, but this time it gave us a deeper understanding of Koyasan. In addition, I think the solo walk is essential for your visit at Okunoin to be complete. Although walking the same grounds twice might sound like losing your time, it was the perfect way for us to fully experience the sacred mountain.
At the end of the Okunoin cemetery you are entering into Kobo-Daishi mausoleum, which is separated by a river. To enter into the mausoleum you are requested to purify yourself, either by washing in the river or by washing one of the buddhas that represents yourself, your choice, *wink*. Everyone of the buddhas in line represent a different treat of personality, you can choose the ones that best describe yourself and wash them with pure water. Then you are prepared to access to the mausoleum. Pictures, hats and food/drink are strictly prohibited once you cross the bridge.
From all of the buidlings, the lantern hall was completely mesmerising, with rows from floor to ceiling of lanterns. They had been donated by worshippers families during all times, and the monks make sure that the lanterns are eternally lit. The visit is a MUST even though I don’t have pictures to prove it, believe my words.
Koyasan brought us so many good teachings, food of thought for our daily acts!