Koyasan, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.
Have you ever dreamed to retreat in a monastery, to stay overnight in a Buddhist temple or to practice meditation in an exceptional natural place? If you are considering this sweet project, then Koyasan, in Japan, is the destination where it is possible to live a similar experience.
Koyasan: one of the sacred sites in Japan
What is Koyasan? This word means “Mount Koya” in Japanese.
– First, it is the second holiest mountain in Japan after Mount Fuji.
– Then, Koyasan designates a Buddhist sanctuary built 1200 years ago on the mountainous and wooded plateau of Mount Koya (Koyasan). It is located 60 miles south from Osaka, in the Wakayama prefecture.
This set of Buddhist monasteries and its necropolis are among the holiest sites in Japan. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it attracts millions of visitors and worshippers each year which are fascinated by this amazing founding place of esoteric Shingon Buddhism.
Finally Koyasan also designates the small town which developped around the sacred sanctuary, (almost) away from the rest of the world.
Of the 2,000 temples that existed in Koyasan in the 17th century, only a hundred remain today, 52 of which offer hospitality. Staying in these temple-inns, the “shukubo“, is the opportunity to live several unique experiences that we describe in this post, in our travel blog Heulys.
Access to Koyasan map
A. What to see in Koyasan?
1. It all started with Kôbô Daishi
In 816, a monk named Kûkai, better known by the posthumous name of Kôbô Daishi (Great Instructor of the Law), introduced in Japan the esoteric Shingon Buddhist sect after having studied his teachings in China. This new form of thought flourished widely in Japan and today, Shingon Buddhism counts more than 10 million worshippers and makes Koyasan a hotspot of pilgrimage. The monk Kôbô Daishi is one of the most revered religious figures in Japan.
He established his monastery in an exceptional place, away from the world, in the heart of the plateau of Mount Koya. For over 1000 years, monks have led an ascetic life dedicated to study, meditation and prayer for the well-being of humanity.
2. Koyasan : at the heart of the monastic city
Having left Osaka to reach Gokurakubashi, small town located at the foot of Mount Koya, we take the funicular which climbs to Koyasan. During our ascent, which lasts only a few minutes, we cross the mists hanging on the sacred mountain and observe “from above” the forest of coniferes. The atmosphere is already mysterious …
At the top of the plateau, a bus takes (many) visitors to the center of the Buddhist city. Having crossed the imposing Daimon gate, we drive on the main street flanked by many monasteries and also by a few restaurants, souvenir shops and a tourist information center. It takes barely 10 minutes to cross the small city by bus. But it is on foot that most visitors discover the fabulous religious heritage built by Kôbô Daishi and his disciples.
While walking in the heart of Koyasan, they discover a magnificent traditional bridge which spans over a peaceful pond (Hasu-Ike pond). It leads to a small sanctuary located on one of its banks.
This place is magical.
After checking in at the Jokiin temple where we will spend the night, we set off to discover the most sacred site of Koyasan (and one of the most sacred in Japan), the Okuno-In cemetery.
3. Okuno-in cemetery : the the holy necropolis
This cemetery, located at the eastern end of the city, is a huge necropolis. It shelters the mausoleum of Kôbô Daishi. It is for him that for more than 1000 years, thousands of pilgrims have come every year to pray and pay tribute to the venered monk.
First, from the Ichi-no-hashi bridge, which is the entrance to the Okuno-in cemetery, we take the 1,2 miles long cobbled pathway that leads to the mausoleum. As a result, we stroll through a thousand-year-old forest, composed of cedars, cypresses and conifers. 200,000 tombstones, pagodas, stupa, torii, statues, are scattered around, all covered with vegetation and moss. These steles made of stones are dedicated to the memory of ordinary men but also to that of feudal princes, samurai, and monks.
Daylight barely penetrates the dark forest. The red bibs worn by the jizos, little deities who protect the children, bring a colourful touch in this shadowy environment.
Finally, an hour later, amazed by this proliferation of ancient memorials, we cross the Gobyo-bashi bridge which leads to Kôbô Daishi’s mausoleum, the most sacred place of Koyasan. According to an ancient belief, the monk is sitting in meditation, still alive, awaiting the deliverance of all human beings.
In this spiritual heart of Koyasan, the pilgrims and worshippers who came to pay tribute to the revered monk purify, themselves and pray. Opposite, the Torodo temple is illuminated by the 10,000 lanterns donated by worshipers.
Despite the large number of visitors in the city, there is not any crowd in the silent forest. On the contrary, we are carried away to a very peaceful and timeless universe.
4. The spiritual complex of Koyasan : Danjo Garan and Kongobuji
Danjo Garan (Sacred Temple), the religious complex built by Kôbô Daishi and its followers, is the training center of the Shingon Buddhism sect. It’s the second holiest site in Koyasan. It consists of a set of buildings listed as World Heritage by UNESCO. The Kondo temple (Golden Hall) and the Chumon Gate are dominated by the red carmillon pagoda Konpon Daito. The religious city’s treasures are housed by the Reihokan Museum.
On the other side of the road, the Kongobuji Temple has remained the heart of the Shingon Buddhist sect, administering nearly 4,000 branches in Japan and abroad. Its magnificent frescoes of birds and flowers painted on sliding doors are amazing. In addition, it houses the largest rock garden in Japan, called Banryutei. The granite stones are said to symbolize two dragons emerging from a cloud, which is represented by scraped sand.
This dry landscape invites to meditation.
B. Experiences of a lifetime
Staying overnight in one of the shukubo, temple-inn administered by monks, provides many experiences, including the discovery of the monks’ daily life, the participation in a religious service and finally the experimentation of the Buddhist shojin ryori cuisine.
1. Monastic experience : an overnight stay in a shukubo
The Jokiin temple that is hosting us is ideally located just next to the Danjo Garan, in the very heart of the religious city.
Before entering the monastery, we admire its magnificent garden, adorned with fall colors.
A young monk warmly welcomes us and describes the temple’s rules of dailylife (which also applies to monks), namely: dinner at 5.30 p.m., curfew at 10 p.m. The next day, morning prayer ritual at 6 a.m. and breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
Obviously, the hard part of the day is the early time at which we have to get up, but we knew it before getting there!
Having put on the sandals at our disposal to walk inside the temple, we follow the monk through the corridors. Then, we are led to our room.
It is a traditional room, simply furnished with a coffee table, a small heater and a TV screen. The futons and duvets are stored in one of the wall cupboards and will be placed on the tatami mats after dinner.
Two Yukata are placed on the coffee table and are used to walk around in the temple and to go and enjoy the natural hot springs (onsen) also located in the temple.
All rooms have free wifi available. It shows that the monks of Koyasan maintain Buddhist traditions while opening up to technological modernity.
Therefore, the atmosphere of the place is close to that of a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.
At 5.30 p.m. sharp, a monk brings our dinner served on a tray. Wouahhhh: what a feast for the eyes!
2. Culinary experience : shojin-ryori cuisine
What is it about ? Shojin-Ryori is the vegetarian cuisine typical of the Shingon Buddhist tradition. Meals based on seasonal vegetables and wild eatable plants are cooked by the monks. This cuisine respects the very specific Buddhist rules as it is explained by the monk: 5 different cooking methods (grilled, fried, marinated, tofu-based dish and Miso soup) in order to bring about the natural flavors of each ingredient.
The aesthetic arrangement of the small, pleasantly decorated round dishes and the variety of colors immediately appeal to us. Tableware matters very much in Japan and in particular in shojin ryori cuisine, as the writer Tanizaki Junichiro reminds us:
Japanese cuisine is not something that is eaten, but something that is looked at, better still, that is meditated on.
The menu consists of a small assortment of pickled vegetables, wild plants marinated in soy sauce, small amounts of eggplant, fried mushrooms, sesame tofu, soup soy-based, vegetable tempuras cooked in soy sauce, seaweed salad, two slices of oranges, served with a bowl of steamed rice and hot tea.
Although the textures and flavors of shojin-ryori cuisine are unusual to our western palate, we are delighted with this hearty meal.
3. Buddhist spiritual experience : O-tsutome
Finally, the most enthralling experience offered by a Koyasan shukubo is to participate at a Buddhist office, the morning prayer.
As planned, at 6.30 am the next day, we go to the prayer hall, dimly lit by lanterns. Before it begins, the Grand Priest explains the process and said it was not a tourist “show” but a solemn daily Buddhist service. Taking pictures is not authorized.
Two monks recites the mantras at the monotonous rythm of the gong striking the drum.
The hosts are invited to burn the incense and bow before an image of Buddha for a short prayer. The smell of incense which diffuses slowly and the monotony of songs immerse us in a meditative, unreal atmosphere.
Does it make sense for a Westerner to participate at a Buddhist prayer ? Of course, if in complete humility he has the curiosity to discover, if not to understand, and to accept the existence of a thought that is completely foreign to him. After all, during this ceremony, everyone can give free rein to its own sprituality.
At the end of the prayer which lasts about thirty minutes, we are invited to have our breakfast together in a large hall. Again, we taste the refined flavors of shojin-ryori cuisine.To conclude, the visit of Koyasan, one of the sacred sites of Japan, takes us out of time. Despite the number of visitors (especially present on weekends), Koyasan has remained a magical place that invites spirituality.