Before heading to Kyoto, and to escape the summer humidity, we headed up into the mountains to Koya san: just under 3 hours by train from Osaka, in the Wakayama Prefecture. An area that was designated a UNESO World Heritage Site in 2004 for its “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”. In typical Japanese style we had bought a bento box for our lunch from the station before leaving and enjoyed it on the train.
We were coming from Hiroshima and when we changed onto a local train at Osaka to do the last portion of the journey, the ride became very scenic as the train climbed the mountain. The last part of the journey was done by cable car, which seemed to defy gravity!
From Koya san station there is a very convenient bus that goes through the main street and stops at almost every ryokan or monastery. We had decided to stay at Ekoin, a monastery close to Koya san’s main attraction, the Okuno-in Cemetery. We arrived just after 4pm and were seen to our room overlooking the communal gardens by our friendly t-shirted monk. We were then informed that there was mediation at 4.30pm in the main hall and dinner would be served in our room afterwards at 5.30pm (a little earlier than we expected)!
The guided meditation was really interesting and the foreigners were seated on one side of the room so that they could be guided by the one of the English speaking monks who gave us a brief introduction to Adjikan Meditiation and then taught us how to do it as a beginner. I found the proper pose a little difficult to hold for 30 minutes, but modified it slightly the next day which was then really comfortable. My dad had tought me a similar way to meditate when I was a teenager, so it was fun for me to put that into practise again.
Apart from the dead leg and hip cramp, we both felt very relaxed and headed back to our room for dinner, which was Syojin Ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), served on a multitude of colourful trays. As it was all vegetarian the dished seemed to concentrate on a variety of texture over actual flavour. These vegetable dishes were accompanied by a pot of rice and a pot of Japanese tea for us to serve ourselves (although for some reason these were always placed next to me so that I would be able to serve my man!).
That evening we were lucky that the rain held off and we went on the guided tour of Okuno-in Buddist Cemetery with the English speaking monk we led our meditation. There was a big group of us from the In with a mix of English, French, American and German speakers. The cemetery was just a short walk from the monastery and our guide showed us how to properly do the washing ritual before we entered. As the Lonely Planet puts it quite concisely, “Any Buddhist worth their salt in Japan has had their remains, or just a lock or two of hair, interred here just to ensure pole position when Buddha of the Future ( Miroku Buddha ) comes to earth.” The cemetery is 2km long and is the largest in Japan with over 200,000 tombstones. At the end of the 2km stretch is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, who is believed to be undead and mediating behind the gates that must not be entered. Twice daily the monks bring him food to sustain him through his meditation.
The tour was really fun and informative and the cemetery had a wonderful atmosphere at night, quite different from the spooky images you might have in mind. Our guide informed us about the various superstitions linked to the graveyard. First there was a well in which, if you could not see your reflection then you would die within 3 years (we decided it would be best to wait till day to try this out!). Then, there were the stairs of death (not official name), which if you tripped on any of the many cemetery steps then you would also be dead in three years. For some reason they were all connected to being dead in 3 years which was slightly scary, so everyone treaded very carefully from then on! (side note, J wondered what would happen if you could see your reflection but tripped on a stair? answers in comments) Our last tale was about a very large stone, that if you picked it up would be as heavy as the weight of your sins. I enjoyed the cemetery so much that I would put it in my top 5 Japan experiences, and it is definitely worth the trip up the mountain!
That night when we got back from the tour our beds had been made up for us and some tea making facilities layed out. After a long day of travelling, eating lots of vegetables and roaming around a cemetry for hours J and I both went to the onsen to get clean. The monastery attracted a lot of foreign visitors and for a lot of them it was their first time communal bathing and were a bit unsure as to what to do. I had only done it twice before but you soon get used to it and although their onsen was small it was nice enough. After washing we both got into our yukata and relaxed in the monastery before having the most wonderful sleep on the futon bed and husk filled pillow!
The next morning we were up at 5.30 for morning prayers in the main hall where we were able to observe their normal morning rituals. After that, there was the fire ceremony (Goma) in a different building which lasted just over 30 minutes. During the Goma, wooden prayers are burned by the monk, the ceremony is also used to destroy negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires.
Still a bit bleary eyed from the early hour we returned to our room to be served our Japanese vegetarian breakfast in our room, which was pretty much what we had for dinner. I have never had miso soup and rice at 7am before but it was not as bad as I thought it would be.
After breakfast we headed off to do a hike before it got too hot. We decided to do the Women’s Pilirimage Course which leads around the perimeter of Koya- san. Note: it’s called the women’s course not because it’s easy but because women pilgrims were, in the past, forbidden from entering the sacred area and instead had to contour round the mountains. In all it’s a very long hike but we only did a short section from Nyonindo (the women’s refuge) to the Daimon (the traditional entrance to Koya-san). It was a fun hike with a bit of a view from the top and fun to know you were taking the same trail as so many female pilgrims before.
After the hike we went temple hopping around Koyasan, everything is located very close to each other and it was easy to walk from one temple to the next on our way back to the monastery. Koyasan is extremely peaceful and there were only a handful of tourists there which made roaming around all the more enjoyable.
The highlight of my day was Kongobuji. It was a really beautiful temple and the artwork on the screens in the rooms were absolutely beautiful and something I had never seen before. The temple was incredibly peaceful and I loved walking around bare foot on the enormous wooden planks. Kongobuji’s Banryutei is the largest rock garden in Japan, which J liked, though I still can’t really get into rock gardens, I prefer an actual garden.
We didn’t stop for lunch that day as we knew we had to be hungry for our 5.30pm dinner and so stopped off for coffee and Japanese sweets (more like what we call cakes) in stead. J had a really tasty chocolate-crunchy-tofu-ball thing, and I had a Koyasan speciality which is a soft cake, but made out of rice with a filling of azuki beans made into a paste.
We got back to the mostastry just in time for 4.30 mediation in a rainy-season special torrential downfall and then dinner. I enjoyed the second try at mediation more than the first as I knew what to do and I was more comfortable, the sound of the rain on the temple roof was very relaxing. Unfortunately for everyone else, it was the night off for the English speaking monk so they had no guidance at all, so they basically all just sat there for 30 minutes.
It continued to rain that evening and would do until we left Koyasan the next day. It was actually rather wonderful to eat dinner in our lovely room with the rain beating down outside. We spent that night relaxing in the onsen, reading and eating the jerky and kitkats we had bought earlier from Family Mart. Trust me, the food is much easier to enjoy if you know that later you can indulge in your snack of choice!
The next day it was still raining hard, but undeterred we went for a (wet) walk in the cemetery, this time in daylight. I think it is a place you need to do both at night and in the day to get the most from it.
Traveller tips for Koyasan:
- It is the only place I’ve been to in Japan during the summer where I’ve been cold, so bring some layers and a waterproof jacket.
- We stayed in Ekoin which I would definitely recommend. However, I did have the idea that the area would be more remote than it actually was. The area is really a small town and there is a Family Mart and a few other small food shops. Keep in mind that dinner is served at 17:30!!! There is an onsen, but as per usual in Japan, it is communal bathing.
- Keep in mind that you will only be able to do the guided tour of the cemetery if the rain holds off.
- The tourist office is very helpful and you can get some really good maps from there especially for hiking!
- You can walk everywhere in Koya-san but you do need to get a bus to and from the station.
- If you’re only coming for 2 days, there’s a travel ticket deal you can get for the railway, cable car and unlimited bus travel from Nanba station in Osaka; and a tourist office there that’s very helpful too.
- Bring Jerky!
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