Monday, 30 March 2020

Koyasan (高野山)



This page has been updated as a sample chapter of my Vegan Travel Guide to Japan. For more information please see the Japan Vegan Travel Guides website.


Japan GuideKoyasan official website

Overview

Introduction

Koyasan has been a Buddhist retreat for over a millennium, ever since Kūkai (空海), Japan’s most famous monk established the centre for his new Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism here after returning from a period of scholarship in China. Kūkai is known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi, and, while both are used in Japanese (and in English) I use Kōbō-Daishi throughout this book for the sake of consistency.
No one knows why, as a private monk, Kōbō-Daishi was awarded a state-sponsored trip to China to study Buddhism (from 804 to 806 AD), but most scholars assume that he had family connections with powerful samurai. His expedition, which was Japan’s sixteenth diplomatic mission to China, comprised of four ships, and also included the Buddhist monk Saicho, who founded the famous Tendai Buddhism sect, whose temples include Nisonin in Arashiyama and Shōrenin in Northern Higashiyama (both are in Kyoto). One ship was lost at sea during a storm and another had to turn back, and then Kōbō-Daishi faced identification problems when he turned up at Fujian (opposite Taiwan), but he was eventually allowed to proceed to Xian, which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty at the time. Kōbō-Daishi originally planned to stay in China for twenty years, but after receiving the Buddhist transmission from Master Huiguo (746-805), who was famous for translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit, Kōbō-Daishi decided to return to Japan to establish his own esoteric Buddhist school after only one year.
There are several legends as to why Kōbō-Daishi chose Koyasan as the headquarters for his new sect, with the most magical being that he threw his sankosho (ceremonial Buddhist tool) towards Japan from China, and upon his return he found it stuck in a tree at what is now the Danjo Garan (see below). What is known is that he was granted the land by Emperor Saga in 1816, after which he began setting up his new school in earnest.
Due to his direct study under Chinese Masters, especially Huiguo, with his understanding of Sanskrit scriptures, Kōbō-Daishi’s Shingon Esoteric school of Buddhism is more spiritual than other Japanese Buddhist sects, and it has always placed a higher emphasis on vegetarianism and compassion towards non-human animals. I was particularly impressed by the continual references to the importance of leading a compassionate lifestyle by my English-language tour of the graveyard by a monk from Ekoin (see below). Kōbō-Daishi brought back sutras (scriptures) and Buddhist paraphernalia from China, and he focused much more on rituals than other Buddhist sects in Japan at the time. A popular legend, which is famous all over Japan, is that Kōbō-Daishi is still meditating in his tomb, awaiting the liberation of all souls.
For most of its history a visit to Koyasan has been a serious pilgrimage, requiring a long, challenging trek up Mount Koya, probably from Kyoto. But “pilgrims” can now enjoy a beautiful train ride through valleys, followed by an exciting cable car ride up the steep mountain slope. And shukubo (temple lodging) has become a luxurious Japanese affair, with many temples offering large, ornate rooms, flat screen TVs and of course wireless internet (see Accommodation below). Koyasan is also very much on the tourist trail; during the morning prayer session I attended at Ekoin there were about a dozen observers, ten of whom were Caucasian. But tourists with big cameras needn’t take anything from the authenticity of these morning prayers, and the tomb of Japan’s most decorated Buddhist monk of all time is as holy a site now as it was a thousand years ago. It’s just keeping up with the times, Japanese style.

Preparation & Timing

The town of Koya is located in a valley at an altitude of 800 metres, and is surrounded by 8 mountain peaks, so it’s usually significantly cooler than Osaka and Kyoto. Temperatures generally range between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius during the summer, and often dip below freezing point during winter. Like all mountains, the weather can turn bad suddenly, so bring wet weather gear if you intend to hike, but an umbrella should suffice for around the temples and the graveyard. Public transport can be suspended during and after bad weather, especially the cable car up the mountain, so please don’t visit Koyasan immediately before an international flight.
Bon An Shya, the only vegetarian café with official opening hours, is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and according to Google the unofficial opening hours of Chuoshokudo Sanbo (a vegan Japanese restaurant which doesn’t have a website) is also closed on Mondays, making these days less preferable. However, as most lodgings provide a shojin ryori dinner and breakfast as part of their package, it’s possible to come on a these days if you eat well for breakfast (probably in Osaka or Kyoto) and bring enough packaged food with you (perhaps breads from Apelia in Kyoto) for lunch and to tide you over until you return to Osaka on the following day. Even on other days of the week it’s advisable to have a backup supply of snack food in case Bon An Shya or Chuoshokudo Sanbo are closed, or for emergencies. Since most temples provide food to guests there’s little other food for sale in the town.

Transport & Discount Tickets

Transport to and from Koyasan is managed by the Nankai Electric Rail company, a private railway company which was established in 1884. It takes around two and a half to three hours to reach the centre of Koyasan from Osaka.

Koyasan cable car station.

Several trains run from Namba or Shin-Immamiya Station along the Nankai-Koya line to Gokurakubashi Station, often requiring a change at Hashimoto Station. From Gokurakubashi Station the Nankai Koyasan Cable (a funicular / cable car) whisks passengers up to Koyasan Station in five minutes. Buses run from the station to the centre of the town, from which it’s a short walk to the famous Oku-no-in graveyard, Bon An Shya, and most of the temples which offer shukubo (lodging). For safety reasons, visitors are not allowed to walk from Koyasan Station into the town, so visitors must use the buses (which are included with the pass – see below) or take a taxi. If you need to wait for a bus at the ropeway station, then get a drink from the vending machines and walk up to the second floor. There are seats around large panoramic windows, which during good weather offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
There are several pilgrims’ trails still in use from before cable cars were invented. The original 23.5-kilometre Koyasan Choishi Michi Trail is marked by stone lanterns along the way and takes around seven hours to hike. Please see ➚this Japan Guide article➚ for more information on hiking up Koyasan, including an easier hike to the lower cable car station. Also, please note the warning about bears (and snakes) under Hiking.


Koyasan World Heritage Ticket





The main tickets are for trains. Break the small tabs off the envelope (shown at the top) for discounts to attractions in the town.

This two-day pass includes travel from Osaka (Namba Station or Shin-Immamiya Station) to Koyasan, unlimited bus travel around Koyasan, and a 20 per cent discount on admission to most popular temples and museums. The regular pass costs ¥2860, and the limited express pass, which oddly allows travel on the limited express trains to Koyasan but not back, costs ¥3400. Passengers without the limited express pass can pay an extra ¥780 to ride the express train, which usually saves about 20 minutes and a change of trains at Hashimoto Station. Depending on your departure time it may not be any faster to wait for an express train, so unless you buy the pass and reserve your ticket at the same time I recommend purchasing the regular pass and paying the extra for the express train at the station if it works out faster at that particular time. Likewise, when coming back from Koyasan (whichever pass you bought, if any) I recommend only paying the extra to upgrade to the express train at the station if it works out to be faster at that time.
To determine the fastest route, here are ➚Directions to Koyasan Station➚ from your current location.

Combination Ticket (Not Recommended for Most Visitors)

This ¥1,500 sightseeing pass covers entry to the hall and pagoda at Garan (total ¥400), the Reihokan Museum (¥600), a jukai service (Buddhist initiation, at which the guest receives the precepts) at Daishi Kyokai (¥500). It also includes the Tokugawa Mausoleum (¥200), which I would recommend only to people with a lot of time or those especially interested in the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japan, as there is so little to see there. Please see ➚this Japan Guide article➚ for more information on the Combination Ticket. It offers the convenience of not having to pay at each site (if the effort of going to a tourist information office to buy the Combination Ticket is less of an inconvenience) but it brings little saving even if you visit every attraction it’s valid for. Most tourists are better off purchasing a Koyasan World Heritage Ticket (see above) and using the 20% discounts at the sites they wish to go to.

Koyasan Map



Most visitors stay at a temple and eat dinner and breakfast there as part of the shukubo (temple lodging) experience. The two vegetarian restaurants are located in the city centre. All the attractions are walkable from the centre except for the Okonoin graveyard, which is a short bus ride (or a twenty-minute walk) to the east. The temples are mostly located between the town and the graveyard.
Accommodation (mostly temples), attractions and restaurants are all listed separately below.

Temples & Other Accommodation

A key drawcard of Koyasan is the opportunity to experience shukubo, or temple lodging, which usually includes shojin ryori (temple cuisine) for dinner and breakfast. While shukubo is relatively expensive (generally starting from ¥10,000 per person, or more during peak times or for luxurious rooms) when considering that it usually includes two vegan feasts, and a comfortable night’s accommodation, it’s excellent value, as just the two meals could easily cost that much in Kyoto. Guests are also usually invited to attend the temple’s (very early) morning prayer ceremony, which can include chanting, bells, a fire, and sometimes a short lecture (in Japanese). Some temples also offer guests the chance to try out Buddhist activities such as copying sutras (scriptures), which has been a popular devotional practice in Japan for centuries and was a popular pastime of the samurai to (supposedly) atone for their violent way of life.

Alternatively, ➚Guest House Kokku➚ offers capsule-style beds from ¥3,500 per night, or double rooms from ¥4,500 per person per night, and many temples serve lunch or other meals to non-staying guests. I wouldn’t, however, recommend visiting Koyasan if you aren’t staying at temple. I would personally prefer a shorter trip to Japan with a night at a temple than either of these options.
When I first learned of shukubo I imagined that Buddhist temples had simple (and inexpensive) rooms out the back for devout pilgrims who had found their way up the mountain. At first I felt that the temples were ‘fake’: Many have large accommodation wings which look and function more like ryokans (traditional, luxurious Japanese inns) than religious institutions. But this is Japan, the land of convenience and of customer service, and despite the underlying religious context, guests at temples are very much paying customers. Unlike in India and most other Buddhist countries, where monks and nuns serve a spiritual role in society and have their material needs mostly taken care of by their lay followers, Buddhist monks in Japan play practical roles in society – for money – just like everyone else. Elsewhere in Japan these roles are usually directing traditional rituals (mostly funerals and memorials for deceased family members), but at Koyasan it’s cleaning rooms and serving their famous cuisine to guests. And, like most other working men – and increasingly women – in Japan, after their hard day’s work they go down to their local izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) to eat meat and drink beer.

Due to the rise in popularity of “Christian” weddings, Japan has many fake (non-consecrated) churches, staffed by fake priests (actors), purely for the purpose of weddings (as I explain in the religion chapter of my book, Japanese are “born Shinto, married Christians and die Buddhists”.) But the temples in Koyasan are bone fide temples, and most have been Buddhist institutions for centuries. But unfortunately, because Buddhist monks in Japan gave up their commitment to the fundamental precept of Ahimsa (non-violence) when they gave up their ascetic lifestyle, many temples now use fish stock in their food. While Kōbō-Daishi would probably turn in his grave (can I say that if he’s still meditating there?) if he saw what his spiritual descendants serve to their guests, most Japanese visitors aren’t vegetarian and are there to enjoy the experience of dining on what they consider to be temple food (that is, based on tofu and fresh vegetables). So most temple guests are quite happy to have a little fish stock added to their shojin ryori if it improves the flavour for them, just like most diners at an Italian restaurant would be happy for a little soy sauce to be added to their pasta for the same reason, and it wouldn’t detract from their Italian dining experience.

Based on temples’ websites, reviews, my own email exchanges with staff, and my experiences staying at them, I have concluded that two temples are trustworthy: Ekoin and Daienin (see below for both).  I am confident that none of their shojin ryori meals contain any animal products (but please let me know via the ‘updates’ link of each if you find or suspect otherwise). This does not include the complementary crackers in most rooms, which are an unwelcoming welcome snack for vegan guests because they often contain egg. There may well, of course, be other temples which serve genuinely vegan food; please let me know if you would like to recommend others.

Like most traditional Japanese accommodation, many temples do not offer private bathrooms. Instead most offer an ofuro, or public bath, which is essentially the same as an onsen but it uses electrically heated water instead of geothermal water. Bathers are separated by gender and expected to bathe naked; it would be very strange (and probably offensive) to wear a swimsuit of any kind. As at all onsen, there is a row of showers alongside the bath, and it’s an important custom for guests to wash themselves at a stool before entering the bath, even if they have recently showered. Of course, it’s acceptable to just wash and then not use the bath, but either way this requires being naked right beside others, so please consider not staying at a temple without private bathrooms if you are not comfortable with this. Ekoin (see immediately below) has rooms with private bathrooms.
Even compared with other accommodation in Japan, there is little saving per person for double or larger rooms; for example, at Ekoin (see below) a single room costs ¥18,000, and four people sharing a room costs around ¥16,000 per person. This might reflect what is perceived as a fairness, and also that in such a remote location much of the cost is in the food and the facilities (instead of the space itself, which is the limiting factor in most hotels).

Ekoin (恵光院)

Overnight accommodation costs from ¥16,000–¥30,000 per person.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山497
497 Koyasan, 高野町 Koya, Ito District, Wakayama 648-0211
07-3656-2514
The best way to book is by emailing them directly at ekoin_form@ekoin.jp; they also accept bookings through their website, which is a little ‘old-school’ but functional. It’s also possible to call, as many of their resident monks speak English.
Staff speak English and are comfortable serving foreign guests.
The experience is less authentic than at temples which serve fewer foreign tourists.


My room at Ekoin.

Ekoin is popular for its young, friendly, English-speaking monks, who are comfortable serving foreign guests. This makes it, in my opinion, the best option for most foreign visitors to Japan wanting a comfortable – if slightly less authentic – shukubo experience. During my visit virtually all the guests were Caucasian, and of the few Asians I don’t think any were Japanese. The staff are responsive to emails, and, perhaps in a large part because of their foreign vegan visitors, they appear to keep their promise of serving only vegan food. They allow non-flash photography of their early-morning Goma Fire Ritual, which is a hypnotic blend of chanting, bells, fire and scriptures; however, the snapping of cameras does somewhat detract from the experience. The wood symbolises human desires, and the fire symbolises the wisdom of the Buddha, which cleanses us of material desires. Visitors can give the names of ancestors before the event, and their souls will be prayed for during the ceremony.

Rooms are large and comfortable, with all modern amenities including flat-screen TVs. All rooms now feature wireless internet, and at mine it was fast and reliable (which many aren’t in this remote mountain town). The bathroom is open for most of the morning and the evening, and in keeping up with the demands of its foreign guests, it has recently increased the number of rooms with private bathrooms (for double and larger rooms, for around an additional ¥5,000 per person) and it now even offers gluten free meals.

Prices depend on the room type, meals (see below) and time, with weekends and April (for cherry blossoms) being the most expensive.

At the time of reservation guests must choose a meal size from an extravagant “middle-sized meal” to an outrightly indulgent “sumptuous meal”).


The most basic dinner set at Ekoin. While I can understand why many tourists wish to make the most of this opportunity and splurge on one of the finest traditional vegan meals available on Earth, I personally feel uncomfortable gouging myself on food in a Buddhist centre. This meal was more than adequate for my large appetite.


Daienin (大円院)

Single rooms with breakfast and dinner start at around ¥12,000.
Reservations can be made on JapaniCan and other online travel agencies such as Agoda.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山594
594 Kōyasan, Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Authentic; inexpensive.
Limited (and public) bathing facilities; staff speak little if any English.

My room at Daienin

For a more traditional shukubo experience, I recommend the thousand-year old Daienin. Single rooms here are great value for solo travellers, but double or larger rooms offer little, if any, saving over other temples.

While the accommodation wing at Ekoin feels somewhat like a ryokan (a traditional, usually luxurious Japanese inn), rooms at Daienin exude a humbler Buddhist vibe, and many overlook a small Japanese garden and Shinto shrine.

Meals here are also much simpler, but as authentic shojin ryori they are still perfectly satisfying, and of course they are beautifully presented. They are served in the temple’s main rooms (not guest rooms), with each travelling party assigned their own private room for dining. An English-speaking monk or nun first introduces the meal and explains how to eat it. In fitting with the Buddhist tradition, guests are provided tea but no teacup; the rice bowl is used for the tea after the meal, to ensure that any leftover rice which sticks to the bowl isn’t wasted.


Meals at Daienin are simpler and smaller, but it’s still a great vegan meal for the price.

The bathroom is only open during the evening, so guests cannot bathe (or shower) in the morning. Also, the Buddhist ceremony is an hour of chanting followed by a half-hour lecture (perhaps akin to a sermon by the senior monk), and of course it’s all in Japanese. And, being a religious ritual, photography is not allowed. Unlike the photo-snapping tourists watching the fire ritual at Ekoin, the Japanese guests sitting beside me at Daienin clearly took it very seriously, and I guess it was the main purpose for their visit to Koyasan, perhaps along with paying their respects to departed family members in the graveyard.

Koyasan Restaurants

Most visitors stay at temples, so the only meal to have out is lunch, possibly on both days. Chuoshokudo Sanbo offers the most traditional experience, and is really a must for anyone not staying at a temple, but if two traditional meals are enough for one day, then Bon An Shya offers delicious, healthy international cuisine.

Chuoshokudo Sanbo ($$, Japanese Bento / Lunch Boxes, 中央食堂 さんぼう)

11:00-16:00
In central Koyasan, close to where the first bus stop in the town.
648-0211和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山722
722 Kōyasan, Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
07-3656-2345
Best traditional meal outside of temples.



This traditional Japanese restaurant serves bentos (lunchboxes), and staff assure me that it is all vegan – without sakana dashi (fish flakes), and I couldn’t taste any in mine. Meal sets are good value, mostly from ¥1,000 to ¥2,000. If you are coming up for the day (or staying at a hostel or otherwise not getting food at your accommodation) then I strongly recommend dining here for a taste of the Buddhist cuisine which has developed here at Koyasan over the last millennium, particularly koyadofu (Koyasan tofu), which has been frozen and thawed out, giving it a unique spongy texture. A very believable legend is that many centuries ago it was so cold that even the tofu froze, and as off-putting as its spongy texture was, people had nothing else to eat. They then somehow came to like it so much that it developed into a famous specialty of Koyasan, and then spread across Kansai and the rest of Japan. It has interesting parallels with – but a very different flavour from – Stinky Tofu from China (also popular in Singapore and Taiwan), which was ‘discovered’ when a man buried his surplus tofu hoping to preserve it, dug it up and found that it tasted good even though it had gone rotten.

Bon An Shya ($$, Western, Fusion, 🥚)

Official hours: Wed-Sun: 6:30-17:00; closed Mon, Tue.
It’s best to arrive around 11:30–12:00 for lunch.
150 metres past the traffic lights on the way to Okuno-in Cemetery
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町高野
730 Koyasan, Ito-gun, Koya-cho 648-0211, Wakayama
07-3656-5535
Delicious international food; vegan friendly.

The vegan set is excellent value at ¥1,200, including a drink and cake.
       
This charming vegetarian café and art gallery is run by a French woman and her Japanese husband. It’s popular even among non-vegetarians for its Western foods, including European dishes, cakes and coffee. Their lunch set, which includes a few main dishes, a piece of cake and a drink, is excellent value at ¥1,200. The owner seemed pleased when I asked for my set to be vegan, because he prepares vegan options for every part of the set (including the dessert) every day, but it is rarely asked for vegan food. If you are getting tired of Japanese food (or will be soon), then this is the place to come for a Western lunch before heading back down to Osaka.

 If you prefer to work at a table with a chair than at the low table in the beautiful tatami room you are staying in, or if your temple doesn’t provide WiFi, then Bon An Shya has both, and the owners are happy for customers to stay for hours as long as it’s not too busy (thus causing the shop to lose other customers). The café opens early in the morning, so if you have seen everything in Koyasan it’s okay to order a coffee and wait until the lunch is ready (which is usually around midday).

Bon An Shya doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page, so please consider calling first before making a special trip there (the staff speak English). Or if you turn up and find them closed, just go to Chuoshokudo Sanbo (see above).

Koyasan Attractions

Most sights in Koyasan take about an hour to visit, except for the small (but worthwhile) museum, which takes about half an hour. It’s easily possible to visit all the attractions in Koyasan in one day, but spending two days here, either side of a night in a temple and an evening trip to the graveyard, makes the whole experience much more rewarding.

Oku-No-In (奥の院)

Cemetery: always open.
Torodo Hall (beside mausoleum): 6:00-17:30
Gokusho Offering Hall: 8:30-17:00
Admission is free to the graveyard and all the buildings.
The traditional Ichinohashi entrance to the graveyard is about ten minutes’ walk from Bon An Shya, in the city centre.
The Okunoinmae bus stop, by the newer entrance to the graveyard which is closer to Kōbō-Daishi’s tomb, is about ten minutes by bus from the town centre (¥220, please have correct change, or get it from a vending machine beside the bus stop if necessary). Alternatively, it’s about a twenty-minute walk (1.7km) from Bon An Shya and the city centre.  
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山555
555 Kōyasan, 高野町 Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Directions (to the Ichinohashi entrance).
Surreal experience unparalleled in Japan, if anywhere.


This eerie but very peaceful graveyard has a history of over a thousand years, and as the site of the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi himself it is the heart of the Shingon Esoteric Buddhist sect and one of the most important spiritual sites in all of Japan. The traditional entrance is the Ishinohashi (literally “First bridge”), from which it’s a two-kilometre walk through two hundred thousand graves to Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum. Most are small, unmarked, moss-covered graves, but those of feudal lords stand out for their grandeur, including the four-hundred-year-old tombs of the warlord Matsudaira Hideyasu and his mother, which are built entirely of stone. While this is a Buddhist graveyard, there are many toriis (ceremonial gates to Shinto Shrines) signifying the graves as holy places; many of these built before the separation of Shinto and Buddhism into distinct religions (in 1868).
A shorter path from the Okunoinmae bus stop cuts the walk (to the mausoleum) in half, and passes instead through more modern graves identifiable by the corporations which paid for them rather than the deceased they entomb. This is partly because, during Japan’s bubble era, corporations became the new ‘family’ for Japanese people, so they were expected to provide for all their employees needs in life, so why not in death too? But, in reality, many of these graves are advertisements for the companies themselves, the most famous of which is one for a termite control company, officially praying for the souls of its white ant victims.

Both paths meet at the Gokusho Offering Hall, where visitors throw water at the Buddha statues, which is believed to wash away bad karma from themselves or their departed family members. Behind the temple the path continues over the Gobyonohashi Bridge to the temple and Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum. The region beyond Gobyonohashi Bridge is a very, very sacred spot (even relative to the rest of the graveyard), and photography here of all types is prohibited, as is the use of mobile phones or other electronic devices, and the consumption of food and drink. Visitors are expected to bow towards Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum before and after crossing the bridge. To the left of the bridge, in the stream, are small wooden memorials to “water babies”, placed there by mothers for their miscarried or aborted babies.

A few metres past the bridge is the Miruko Stone, housed inside a small thatched structure. Visitors are invited (after throwing in a few coins as an offering) to reach their hand in and try to lift the stone onto its upper platform. If you can’t lift it, you need to go vegan – or work out more – as it’s believed that it feels lighter for people with better karma. It also offers a direct connection to the Mirukou Boddhisatva, the future Buddha, who followers of Shingon Buddhism believe will return to Earth to save those unable to reach enlightenment themselves, thus bringing universal salvation to all sentient beings (including, presumably, all those white ants).

Buddhas outside the Gokusho Offering Hall

Kōbō-Daishi’s tomb itself is a surprisingly modest wooden structure and is barely visible from its ceremonial gate. Faithful followers can often be seen chanting and prostrating outside it. In front of the tomb is the Torondo Hall (Hall of Lamps), the main hall of worship in the Okunoin cemetery. Visitors are free to enter the hall, which is the largest and busiest hall of fire rituals and offerings that I have seen in Japan, with paintings of Kōbō-Daishi himself on the central altar. But the most striking feature of this ornate building is its more than 10,000 namesake lamps, two of which are believed to have been alight since AD 1088. The basement contains 50,000 statues which were donated to the temple by worshippers in 1984, to mark the 1150th anniversary of Kōbō-Daishi’s passing. The hall is free to enter and closes at 17:30.

The graveyard takes on a surprisingly peaceful atmosphere at night. But my favourite time to visit is at dusk, when the graves are still visible, but the lamps come on to light the way towards Kōbō-Daishi’s resting place (see photo above). Please be careful, however, as these ancient stone paths can become slippery, especially during or after rain, or worse still frost. If you don’t mind missing the chance to see the goings on in the Torondo Hall (or going back at another time), I recommend entering the graveyard by the Ishinohasi Bridge shortly before dusk, walking up the two-kilometre path through the old graves as the lamps along the main pathway come on, and then walking around the mausoleum after dark, when the sanctuary is usually deserted and is lit up by its 10,000 lamps (but please don’t be tempted to take photos, out of respect for Kōbō-Daishi and because of the many security cameras quietly watching over his tomb). Then walk back along the newer, shorter route (which is also safer at night) to the Okunoinmae bus stop, and either take the bus or walk back to where you are staying. Bring warm clothes (except during fine summer evenings), a mobile phone for emergencies and a good torch (flashlight) if your phone doesn’t have one.
I highly recommend the night-time tour (¥1,500) offered in English by the Ekoin Temple (although other temples’ tours may be just as good). The Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club run tours of the cemetery (as well as Danjo Garan and Konbuguji Temple – see Daishi Kyokai below) starting from 9:00 for the same price. Tours start from Ishinohashi, and can be reserved by emailing or calling 090-3263-5184 or 090-1486-2588, or emailing ➚mail@koyasan-ccn.com➚.

Danjo Garan (壇上伽藍)

Temple grounds: always open.
Konpon Hall and Pagoda: 8:30-17:00
Ten minutes’ walk west from Bon An Sha and the city centre.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山152
152 Kōyasan, 高野町 Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Admission:
Temple grounds: free.
Konpon Hall and Pagoda: Both ¥200 (and covered by the Combination Ticket).
I recommend both.
Most important temple complex at Koyasan; grounds are free to enter.




Commonly referred to just as Garan, this is the most important temple of Koyasan, and a must-visit while up the mountain. The two main buildings are the Konpon Daitō Hall (根本大塔) and the enormous, two-level Konpon Daitō Pagoda. Legend has it that when Kōbō-Daishi began searching for a centre for his new Buddhist school, a black and a white dog (symbolising two local deities) led him to this sacred spot, surrounded by eight peaks which resemble lotus petals, so he chose the site for the heart of his new Buddhist school. (As beautiful lotus flowers grow out of muddy water, in Buddhism they symbolise the purification of the spirit to reach enlightenment, despite being born into the murkiness of the material world.)

Kōbō-Daishi began building both structures himself; however, he was not able to finish either in his lifetime, and the main pagoda was completed around 876, forty years after he entered his “eternal meditation”. All the structures have burned down several times over the centuries, and the current hall dates to 1932 and the pagoda to 1937. Additional buildings and pagodas have been added over the centuries to what is now a large complex which offers some good photo opportunities.
The Konpon Daitō Hall enshrines a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing; however, on my visit it was hidden in a cabinet, but its surrounding altar was interesting enough. Inside the pagoda there is a three-dimensional Mandala (a Buddhist model of the cosmos) which includes a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha). Both the pagoda and the hall cost ¥200 to enter and are worthwhile in their own ways, but if you are only entering one then I recommend the pagoda, because I found walking around the Mandala and observing the model of the cosmos from different angles to be a more interesting experience. Photography is not allowed in either the hall or the pagoda.


Kongobuji Temple (金剛峯寺)

8:30-17:00 (last entry: 16:30).
In Koyasan centre, five minutes’ walk west of Bon An Shya and five minutes’ walk east of Danjo Garan.
Admission: ¥500.
648-0294 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山132
132 Koyasan, Koya, Ito District, Wakayama 648-0294
Largest stone garden in Japan.  


The largest stone garden in Japan, at Kongobuji Temple

The Kongobuji Temple (literally Temple of the Diamond Mountain) is the head temple of the Shingon Esoteric sect and its administrative centre. It was originally constructed in 1593 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Second Great Unifier of Japan, in memory of his deceased mother, and was rebuilt in 1861. It’s home to the largest stone garden in Japan at 2340 square metres, which includes 140 granite stones which were somehow brought up from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kōbō-Daishi. They are arranged to represent a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds to protect the temple, but you’ll need to have a better imagination than I do to see it.

The most famous room in the temple is the Willow Room (the third room visitors pass after entering the temple) which witnessed one of the most pivotal (and perhaps most gruesome) events in Japan’s long history. It was here that Toyotomi Hidetsugu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s nephew, was ordered by Hideyoshi to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment, along with his three wakashū (adolescent male apprentices) in 1595. As Hideyoshi had no children, Hidetsugu was raised to be his heir, however their relationship began to deteriorate after Hideyoshi’s concubine gave birth to a son in 1593. Rumours were spread of Hidetsugu committing unjust murder, and finally of plotting a coup, which resulted in his order to commit seppuku. Hideyoshi also ordered the murders of Hidetsugu’s entire family, including 39 women and children, a decision which may have led to his downfall: seven years later, in the Battle of Sekigahara, many powerful families and warlords, who were still shocked by the brutality of these murders, chose to support his rival Tokugawa Ieyasu instead. Tokugawa won a decisive victory and went on to establish the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan (from Edo, present-day Tokyo) until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The rooms in Kongobuji feature some stunning old Fusuma (painted sliding doors); however, visitors are not permitted to photograph them or even to sketch them. The newer wing of the temple contains Fusuma which tell the story of Kōbō-Daishi’s pilgrimage to China. At the end of the wing is a large tatami room, where visitors are invited to enjoy basic rice crackers and green tea (help yourself to the tea from the vending machine). On both my visits (most recently in June 2018) the crackers were vegan, but I recommend checking the ingredients on the packet, perhaps with Google Translate, in case they have changed. The green tea should just be matcha (pulverised, unoxidized green tea) so milk is very unlikely to be used. I was impressed by the old kitchen and the chimney, covered in soot, which appears in its day to have been able to prepare shojin ryori for hundreds of monks and pilgrims at a time. They would have wanted plenty of hot food during the long, cold winters.

Daishi Kyōkai (大師教会)

8:30-17:00 (last entry: 16:30)
Five minutes’ walk southwest of Kongobuji.
Ten minutes’ walk west of Bon An Shya and the town centre.
Admission: free.
Jukai (Buddhist initiation: ¥500 for)
347 Kōyasan, Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山347
07-3656-2015
Admission is free (except for Buddhist initiation).
Not much to see or do here.


Henjoden (traditional hall)

This administrative centre of Shingon Buddhism is divided into two parts: the Henjoden, a traditional-style Buddhist hall built in 1915, and a modern administration building. Visitors may receive Jukai (受戒), the Buddhist initiation ritual, in which participants recite the ten Buddhist Precepts (the first of which is not to ‘take life’) and “take refuge in the Buddha”. Visitors can also copy Buddhist sutra (scriptures), which is considered an act of meditation and devotion. There is also a modern (1915) temple dedicated to Kōbō-Daishi, and a set of paintings which tell his life story.
In the foyer of the administrative building there is a Visitor’s Centre, from which English tours by members of the Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club depart for Kongobuji and Garan at 13:00 and 15:00. The tours take 1.5 hours and cost ¥1,500. They also offer tours of Okunoin (the famous cemetery) daily at 9:00, starting from Ishinohashi Bridge. Tours can be reserved by calling 090-3263-5184 or 090-1486-2588, or ➚emailing mail@koyasan-ccn.com➚.

Reihokan Museum (霊宝館)

May-Oct: 8:30-17:30; Nov-April: 8:30-17:00
Last admission: half an hour before closing time.
The museum closes over the new year holiday period.
Opposite Daishikyokai (to the south/west).
Five minutes’ walk from Danjo Garan & Kongobuji Temple.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山306
306 Koyasan, Koya, Ito District, Wakayama 648-0211
Admission: ¥600 (also covered by the Combination Ticket).
“Treasure trove of Buddhist art.”
The museum can be quite cold during winter.

Koyo (autumn colours) were just beginning at this altitude on my visit in late June.

This official Wakayama travel guide rightly describes the Reihokan Museum as “a treasure trove of Buddhist art”. The main hall was built in 1921 to preserve and display the religious and cultural treasures of Koyasan, making it the oldest wooden museum in Japan (the Special Exhibition Hall of the Kyoto National Museum is older, but it is built of stone).

Treasures from the museum’s extensive collection are rotated several times a year, so it’s possible to visit twice and see different treasures. On my visit most exhibits were paintings of Mandalas and scrolls, and carvings of Buddhas, some so peaceful that they could send you straight to Nirvana (Buddhist heaven), and some are so ugly and ferocious that they could give you nightmares in your temple lodging. Some of the exhibits are over a thousand years old, including a ninth-century bronze Buddha image from China.

It’s an expensive admission fee for what is quite a small museum (the whole museum can be seen in less than an hour), photography is not allowed, and at the time of my research visit English explanations of the exhibits were limited, although it appears from online reviews that more have been added recently. If time permits, I recommend a visit to anyone with an interest in Buddhism, especially its art or history; if, however, you are visiting the Kyoto National Museum you may see similar exhibits (and more) there, depending on which are on display at the time.

Hiking at Koyasan

There are some good hikes around Koyasan; however, these change regularly due to weather conditions and temple developments, and some are not made public if they pass by sacred sites. I recommend asking at your accommodation (especially if you stay at Ekoin, where the monks speak good English) for a suitable hike for your schedule, level of fitness and the weather conditions.  Alternatively, just take enough food, water and warm clothes, set out and see what you find. The mountain is dotted with historic temples and shrines.

Signs warn of wild bears and advise hikers to carry a bell or radio (A mobile phone playing music or a podcast might be more with the times?) as the bears are afraid of humans. If you do encounter one stay calm, and don’t shout or run away. If they do attack you guard your face with your arms. Signs around the trails ask hikers to call the town office on +07-365-630-00 if bears are spotted.
Like everywhere in Japan, there is also a risk of venomous snakes. If you encounter one walk slowly away, or if that’s not possible stand still and stay calm. Never corner or trap them, as (like the bears) most snakes are afraid of humans and will retreat if given the opportunity to do so. If bitten try to remember what the snake looked like, tie a tourniquet (such as a bag from a backpack) around the affected limb and call 119 with as specific details on your location as possible, or else carry the injured person to the closest sign of civilisation and ask for help. It’s also possible to hike up to Koyasan; see Transport (above).


This image is left from my original blog post, while the rest of this page has been updated from the Koyasan chapter of my Vegan Travel Guide to Japan as a sample chapter. 

3 comments:

  1. I stayed at Koyasan in 2014, and similar to your experience, the complementary "cakes" had eggs in them. Moreover, one night one of the sweets in the temple's shojin ryori (we were at Ichijoin) obviously used milk. We asked about it by talking to the monk intern who served the food. He explained that drinking milk didn't involve killing a life, and therefore was considered OK to have it in the food. I was totally surprised by dairy creeping into traditional temple food.

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  2. Thanks for the info - it's good for readers to know that. Unfortuantely it seems to be increasingly common all over Japan for shojin ryori to contain dairy products. It's so sad when this traditional Buddhist food is so delicious, so I can't see why anyone would want to add dairy!

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