Koyasan is historically regarded as one of the most sacred mountains in Japan and has long been an important hub for cultural and religious exchange. Although it may sometimes be translated as “Mount Koya,” this sacred site is not exactly a mountain but rather a mountaintop basin surrounded by eight low peaks, reminiscent of a lotus flower and its petals. It was here where in 816 the monk Kukai founded a monastic complex dedicated to the study and practice of Esoteric Buddhism.
From where we stayed at Shirahama Beach, we had to drive a couple of hours inland towards the mountains. The rain from the day before had not let up and seemed to follow us to Koyasan. After a couple of switchbacks, we stopped at the entrance of the Koyasan area called the Daimon, a large 82-ft high main gate to the town flanked on each side by two fierce-looking guardian statues. With the darkened skies, cold rain beating down, and the sudden drop in temperature from the elevation, the mystical atmosphere clung thick with spiritual presence.
There are a few main roads going through the temple town. Besides the many temples and monks, there is a small population of other residents who live and work within the town at administrative offices, restaurants, and retail shops that line the streets. We were told there are two important areas in Koyasan: the Garan, the main monastic complex: and Okunoin, which is the mausoleum of Kukai and the surrounding immense graveyard area.
Before we headed to the sites, we stopped for lunch at a shop off the main road. As we knew all along the trip (and had begun to anticipate), there would be no meat while at Koyasan. Lunch was to be had at an eatery passed down through generations of a family that specialized in miso (fermented soybean paste). Miso is not only very nutritional, high in protein and vitamins, but its savory flavor and aroma add a much needed kick to the vegetarian palate. But really, how many ways can one have miso? Apparently many. On the tables was a modest spread of soy and vegetable dishes: grilled tofu skewers topped with sesame miso, walnut miso, and 5 year old miso; large onigiri topped with shiso miso and special 10 year old miso; a fist-sized gelatinous dark grey semi-firm blob of sesame and miso; a small handmade tomato sauce pizza; and of course, miso soup. The works!
Even after lunch and well into the afternoon, the rain still did not let up. We took a short drive to the Garan complex and each took umbrellas as we got out of the vehicle. The two most prominent buildings of the Garan are the Kondo Hall and the Konpon Daito Pagoda. The Kondo Hall is a centuries-old large wooden temple hall which enshrines an image of the Buddha of medicine and healing. Juxtaposed next to Kondo Hall is the bright vermilion 147ft tall, two-tiered pagoda of Konpon Daito Pagoda. While Kondo Hall is not open to the public, the pagoda’s impressive Buddha statues and pillar paintings are available for visitors and pilgrims to see. These two buildings were started by Kukai himself and were finished by his successors who also expanded the grounds with multiple additional halls and pagodas over time.
My shoes and socks were thoroughly wet by the time we started on the walk in Okunoin to Kukai’s mausoleum. The entire walk is a little over a mile starting from a bridge to the mausoleum, winding through hundreds of towering, centuries-old cedar trees. Among the trees and lining the path are over 200,000 tombstones, memorial monuments and cenotaphs of people ranging from historical figures to commoners. Due to the weather, we took a shorter, newer path which was a shortcut to the mausoleum. It was obviously newer because the cenotaphs and memorials around this section looked more intact than the weathered, moss covered counterparts along the traditional path. Some monuments were very large, either donated by very wealthy families or by a company on behalf of all of its employees. There were even monuments in the shape of a rocket ship and a dog. I was told Kukai’s followers and practitioners of esoteric Buddhism built these memorials and cenotaphs in this area to be as symbolically close to Kukai as possible. The low hanging clouds tangled in the tree tops and still pouring rain washing over the broken stone path and cemetery certainly amplified the chilly and mystical atmosphere in Okunoin.
The main temple was smoky with incense, its ornate halls covered in paintings and lanterns. We lit some incense, donated coins, and paid our respects. There is a smaller building behind the temple which is the actual mausoleum, called Kobo Daishi Gobyo (Kobo Daishi was Kukai’s posthumous name). Oddly it is believed that he is not deceased but rather in eternal mediatation. Meals are ritually offered to Kukai at the mausoleum twice a day.
It was late afternoon by the time we checked in to our lodging. Of over a hundred temples in Koyasan, there are 52 temples that provide lodging, called shokubo, and each temple offers its lodgers a chance to view their cultural treasures, appreciate their private gardens, and taste the in-house shojin ryori cuisine (vegetarian food for monks). When choosing a lodge, it is important to select one that meets your needs. Few temples will offer rooms with private toilet and sink, fewer with rooms with private bath.
Although we expected the temple lodging to be very basic and rustic, the temple we stayed in was surprisingly quite nice and comfortable. Fudo-In has 14 total rooms, wifi is available in the main areas and in rooms, and the head monk and a few other monks speak English. Eight of the rooms have private toilets and only two have private toilet and bath.
That evening we had dinner in a private room. In Japan, especially at a temple, dinner time is a bit early, usually around 6-7pm. The vegetarian cuisine of Koyasan, as can be experienced when staying at the shokubos, is the origin of Washoku kaiseki, a registered UNESCO world intangible cultural heritage. In accordance with Buddhist teachings, Shojin Ryori is based on the concepts of five flavors, using five different cooking methods and in five colors. The food was surprisingly delicious. There was a such a diverse variety of textures, sauces, flavors, and ingredients, you just don’t miss the meat at all. For those who do a day trip to Koyasan and do not have the opportunity to stay overnight at a shokubo, it is still possible to drop in for lunch if pre-arranged. Definitely a treat not to pass up!
The next and final morning we woke up early to witness the otsutome, the morning Buddhist service. At Fudo-In, the service starts at 06:00 and lasts for only half an hour. There are even benches within the prayer hall which is small and dark, the air heavy with perfumed incense smoke. There are benches for guests which are more comfortable for those not used to sitting on the floor for a long time. At the front of the room is where the head monk sits and two other monks flank the sides. Papers were passed around to the guests with the prayer printed in both Japanese and English. Together the monks chanted the Heart Sutra in a low and steady way that made it easy to follow and participate. The only way to witness a morning service is to stay overnight at the temple .
After the service we had a nutritious vegetarian breakfast and checked out. The rains finally stopped and the two hour drive to Osaka Itami airport was pleasant and sunny, the perfect way to end. I still can’t believe I saw and did so much just after five quick nights. My whirlwind through Wakayama, from mountains to valleys and ocean, was filled with invaluable memories and beautiful scenes that continued to replay in my mind months after I returned.