Misty mountains, historic temples and an ancient cemetery make Koyasan a mystical and rewarding destination. The UNESCO World Heritage site sits on a top of a peak in the Kii Mountain Range, offering a glimpse of long-held traditions of Japanese religious life. Chris, one of our Kumano Kodo Destination Experts, recently visited this sacred place and immediately noticed a sense of peace and reverence.
It’s hard to put my finger on why Koyasan felt like such a special place to visit. Maybe it’s the streets lined with temples, their beautiful big old gates and rather grand entrances. Or perhaps it was the clean air and all the giant cedar and cypress trees with their stunning autumn colours, though I’m sure it would be as equally beautiful at other times of year.
Koyasan for me was a place where I felt I could totally switch off. As you journey up the mountain, you feel a sense of escape and shutting off from the rest of the world, for just a little pocket of time. It was easy to put technology aside and just absorb the environment I was in.
The temples, or shukubos, provide a sense of peace, with the beautiful old wood used in their construction, private views of tranquil Japanese gardens and the scent of incense. You feel like you’ve taken a step back in time. Even if you’re not a big history buff you can’t help but be intrigued by Koyasan’s story. The streets, like most of Japan, are pretty much spotless and the locals are relaxed, at ease, polite and friendly. While you’ll certainly see other tourists around, it’s far from overrun so you feel a little bit special for having the opportunity to experience the place.
The vegetarian meals (shojin ryori) provided at the temples have a limited focus on the ingredients and more on the natural flavour; they are seasonal, beautifully presented and clearly made with care. With each bite you feel like you’re munching away on a little piece of art.
There are plenty of options and things to do while in Koyasan, and the local Tourist Information Centre and the Shukubo Association are well worth a visit.
You may choose to begin your morning by joining the fire ceremony at your temple. It was pretty far removed from my typical start to the day and quite a special experience. If you have a Goshuincho Book (traditionally a book used by pilgrims to record the temples and shrines they visited), this is certainly a great opportunity to increase your collection of calligraphy stamps.
It’s a beautiful walk along the Jabara Path to the Danjo Garan Complex of temples, halls and the Great Pagoda. It was easy to spend a few hours wandering around here and a great option is to rent a Koyasan Audio Guide (500yen per unit) from the Shukubo Association. This has extensive information and is a very easy and relaxing way to take a tour around at your own pace and learn as much of the stories and history as you like.
Visiting Okuno-in is a must. This is a huge cemetery with over 200 tombs and monuments along a 1.9km path. It’s also the location of the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, a great influencer in Japanese culture who founded the seminary community in Koyasan. While it’s great to visit this area during the day, there is also an option to book a guided walk with a monk in the evening. This provides a unique and insightful experience, far better than a guidebook!
Koyasan is extremely photogenic, so if you enjoy your photography then you’ll have a great time simply wandering around. If you’re like me you’ll likely end up with lots of pictures of temple gates and wooden doors.
If you want more walking, there is a network of pilgrimage trails in the area of varying lengths. I would have loved to have hiked one or two myself but I decided to save my legs for the Kumano Kodo. It can be a bit of a journey getting to and from Koyasan, but it’s certainly well worth it.