Koya-san is the name of the most sacred mountain located in the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture. It’s here where the legendary monk, Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai) established the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect. The Buddhist town of Koya developed around these headquarters, making it a center for the religion. In fact, it is designated one of the Sacred sites within the Kii Peninsula by UNESCO. I won’t dive too deep into the history of Koya-san, as I’m sure others have done it better. For a more in-depth overview, check out the links below:

Getting There

Before jumping into Koya-San it’s important to be aware, there is a world heritage trail leading up to the town of Koya. The Choishi-michi trail begins near Kudoyama station and takes you through some of the mountainous and forested terrains of the Kii Peninsula. The hike takes about 5-7 hours to complete but can be shortened by beginning at one of the two stations located nearer to Koya-san.

Mountain Range of Koya

I did not take this trail. Unfortunately, I was a bit strapped for time and chose to spend more time in Koya-San than on the trail. (I did make up for it one year later by taking an even more challenging pilgrimage. More on this in a later post.) So for those of you interested in the hike, check out this pdf  from the official Koya-san website.

While I may not have had time to complete the Choishi-michi trail, I did make sure to catch the tail end of it after arriving at Koya Station. After exiting the station, you have the option of taking a short bus ride to Koya. Alternatively, you can walk giving you access to an entry path into the trail.

Luckily for me, I was with some people who had played this game before, and we found the trail in no time. I can’t speak for the entirety of the Choishi-michi, however this point in the trek was quite peaceful. And because we had started early in the morning, I felt the hike sort of put my mind in an optimal state to take in the upcoming beauty of Koya.

In any case, you’ll want to make sure you arrive via Daimon, a large gate which has been the entrance to the sacred area since about the 12th century. From here, you will find your way to Danjo Garan temple, very near the heart of Koya.

The Town of Koya

Perhaps my favorite thing about being in Koya was the fact that, despite there being well over 100 temples, everything is quite compact. You are able to visit most of the major sites on foot and at a very reasonable pace. I spent most of the afternoon walking from sight to sight speaking with various monks and shopkeepers (at the time, my Japanese was very broken. And so this in itself was quite the adventure.)

While visiting the various temples of Koya, I stumbled upon an open one where visitors are free to stop in and meditate/pray/explore as they please. For the past half year, I had been practicing (or attempting to practice) zazen meditation. So I took this opportunity to meditate in the heart of Koya. From one of the monks at another nearby temple, I learned that Koya was where Shingon monks-in-training received the bulk of their schooling and that it had been a sort of sacred training ground for many many years. To my surprise, not long after leaving this temple, I came across a procession of actual monks-in-training walking down the street. Over the course of the rest of the day, I found this was actually a pretty common sight.

You can find a list of all the major sites in Koya here:

The Temple Stay

If you’re going to Koya-San, one thing you really ought to do is stay overnight at one of the many Shukubo lodgings. They are much like Japanese style Ryokan (A Japanese style hotel in which the rooms have older tatami mat flooring, dinner and breakfast are served in a traditional Japanese style in a traditional fashion, and guests can bath in a public bathing area), but are instead run by monks and give visitors the chance to sort of walk in the shoes of a monk.

Because I had planned to hike Okonoin the following morning, I chose a temple called Hozen-in, which was very close to the entrance. Upon arriving, I was greeted by the monk staff and showed to my room, as well as given a schedule of the evenings/mornings events. Because I had spent the day exploring the city of Koya, my temple stay itinerary began with a traditional monk, vegetarian style dinner. The meal was served in a traditional Japanese kaiseki fashion: small dishes came out one at a time with rice and miso soup always at the ready. I am a meat-lover so I was pleasantly surprised to find I did get the feeling I was missing a portion of my meal like I do any other time I give vegetarian meals a shot. The meal included things like Japanese konyakuhijikitakenoko and other small flavorful dishes that were each a treat for my taste buds and left me feeling very satisfied.

After the meal, we were escorted to a medium-sized tatami room of the Shukubo, where I found Shodo (Japanese Calligraphy) supplies laid out upon a large wooden table. A very kind monk gave us instruction on proper technique and explained to us we would be copying a Japanese, Buddhist sutra and to focus on the act of hand-copying as a form of meditation. This particular monk even went out of his way to use some English while giving us instruction.

To be honest, I found keeping my mind in a state of focus quite difficult, especially considering I have very limited artistic abilities ;p. However, I will say, I did feel mentally refreshed after I had finished and was ready for a good nights sleep.

The following morning, there were two final events lined up before checking out. The first was to get up super-duper early and attend a Buddhist fire ceremony. During the ceremony, the head monk performed a ritual in which he made contact with the spiritual world. From what I gathered, this was done via the burning of wood and the use of Buddhist relics. While this monk established said connection, a handful of other monks continually chanted lines from a sutra. And perhaps most exciting for me, were two monks beating drums throughout the entirety of the ritual. I’m not too familiar with Buddhist ceremonies and such, but you can read more about it here .After the excitement of the ceremony came to an end, I headed to the large open space designated for breakfast. A similar style meal was served for breakfast, but only this time with more breakfast-y foods. Again, the meal was very filling and was the perfect way to prepare for the next leg of the journey, Okunoin.

You can find a list of temple stays in Koya-san here:

The Best Part

I really enjoyed all of my experiences at Koya-san. But if I had to choose a single best, it’d have to be the hike through Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery and a sort of a walk into the spiritual world. The graveyard surrounds the mausoleum of the legendary Kobo Daishi, where he is said to be in an eternal state of meditation. Again, before diving into this I should mention I am no expert on the subject, so you can read more about this here .In any case, the hike was definitely the closest I’ve ever been to experiencing the “spiritual world”. The enormous graveyard seemed to have become part of the surrounding forest, sort of signifying the spiritual and physical worlds had become one. I really can’t describe how amazing this walk was. Despite there being plenty of other travellers around, I felt I was still immersed in the natural world. One highlight for me was discovering the grave of Oda Nobunaga, one of Japans more notorious historical figures. I actually had no idea he was buried here prior to the visit and only stumbled upon it by accident via a very small and inconspicuous arrow sign.

Upon reaching the end of the hike, I came upon the bridge leading to Kukai’s (Kobo Daishi’s) mausoleum. Apparently, this bridge is the final path into the spiritual world. However, if I am honest with myself, I think this is where things became a bit touristy as there were tons of people all gathered into various large groups. That being said, I could still feel the immense significance of the temple and was very excited to just be there.

All in all, Koya-san was an unforgettable experience. I am not a particularly spiritual person, and yet here I was able to feel something more than just the physical world around me. Maybe it was the history of the town, or maybe it was the sort of unified disposition of everyone there. Whatever it was, it definitely left a very deep impression on me and I look forward to making a second journey there when my Japanese is better than it is today.

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