Koyasan, or Mount Koya, is a monastery nestled up in the Japanese mountains and the place where Shingon Buddhism was introduced by the revered Kobo Daishi, also known as the father of Japanese culture. Koyasan is the start or end point of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, and many tourists also make the trek to experience an overnight stay in traditional Japanese temple lodging, or shukubo, where they are able to gain insight into the daily rituals of Buddhist monks.
Surprisingly, Koyasan was more touristy than I thought it would be and there was still quite a bit of traffic despite the town being more secluded. However, this didn’t detract from the spirituality of the place and visiting Koyasan offers a unique and alternative experience while travelling through Japan.
Staying overnight on Koyasan at the Ekoin temple
There are up to 50 different Japanese temple lodgings found throughout Koyasan, and the hubby and I chose to stay at the Ekoin temple. The Ekoin temple is a lovely balance of the traditional and modern. The first thing you’ll do is remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers before being ushered to your room by a monk. The guest rooms are simple and furnished in traditional Japanese style with tatami mats, bamboo screens and a futon to sleep on. The toilets and shower facilities are communal-style. Wi-fi is also available, which I wasn’t expecting at all! I suppose Monks need to check their emails as well.
The Ekoin temple is quite a large, sprawling building and it’s a little bit like navigating a labyrinth with all of the connecting hallways, rooms and floors. Pay close attention when the monk brings you to your room to avoid getting lost later on.
In our rooms we were able to practise our Buddhist sutra writing. Hand copying sutra – or shakyo – is a form of meditation and it has the ability to bring the practitioner peace of mind (similar to chanting).
Traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, or Syojin Ryori, is served for breakfast and dinner, which is delivered to your room and set up and laid out by the monks. The food was delicious!
We had the opportunity to participate in Ajikan meditation (meditation of Shingon Buddhism) in the Ajikan Practice Hall of the Ekoin temple. This involved sitting in the right posture, inhaling and exhaling slowly, and concentrating on counting your breaths. It was explained that we start our life with a breath and end our life with our last breath, so breathing is a critical aspect of our physical, spiritual, mental and emotional being. If you feel stressed, upset, sad or any negative emotion, then focus on your breathing in order to calm your pulse. It was also encouraged to think of your problems as a pebble in a garden. If looked at closely in isolation, you will surely focus on it, but among a garden, a pebble is nothing. WORD.
We were able to observe the monks partake in their daily morning prayers, which was well worth the early morning start. It was an incredibly spiritual experience, and I almost felt like I was intruding as I watched the sacred ritual being performed. However, the monks were genuinely welcoming and didn’t seem bothered by having additional spectactors.
We saw a sacred fire ceremony being performed whereby one monk burned blocks of wood with written prayers on them on an open flame, while another monk beside him chanted guttural sutras and drummed in a hypnotic manner. The rhythmic and repetitive chanting and drumming holds you spellbound and it was truly one of the most captivating things I have witnessed.
We thoroughly enjoyed our overnight stay at the Ekoin temple on Koyasan, and were so grateful that we could participate in and witness rituals and ceremonies that we would never have had the opportunity to see otherwise. The monks at the Ekoin temple were friendly and helpful, possessed a great sense of humour and were happy to impart their wisdom and knowledge in respect to their journey to enlightenment.
The monks shared some of the teachings of the Shingon Buddhism that is practiced in Koyasan, and I related to the philosophy because it is centred on the person. It is taught that everyone has a Buddha heart covered in sins, passions, greed and selfishness. It is up to you, however, to uncover your own Buddha heart and to recognise that everyone else has a Buddha heart – even your enemies. I like that the religion is accepting of the fact that people are imperfect but encourages everyone to search for their own enlightenment by connecting the internal to the external. When you are in perfect alignment with your environment you will find contentment. I guess the difficult part is being content within your environment and adopting a mindset that recognises that material things and immediate circumstances don’t really matter in the end.
I have definitely taken away a lot from their teachings – even if I’ve yet to practise it!
Legend says that you will leave Koyasan feeling as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders – even if you do have heavy bags to carry – and I would have to agree even after spending only a night there.
The sacred and ethereal Okunoin cemetery in the Japanese mountains is a must-visit while in Koyasan. It is the largest cemetery in Japan with over 200,000 tombstones, and it is also the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The tombstones in the Okunoin cemetery are shrouded by mist, surrounded by towering trees and overgrown with moss, which contributes to the other-worldly atmosphere of the grounds.
The Ichinohashi Bridge is the traditional entrance to Okunoin cemetery, and visitors are asked to bow before crossing the bridge in order to pay respect to Kobo Daishi. The next bridge, Gobyonohashi Bridge, leads to the temple grounds and no photography or food and drink are allowed from this point on. The mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is found behind Torodo Hall (Hall of Lamps) and it is said that Kobo Daishi is still resting there in eternal meditation.
During our stay at the Ekoin temple, a monk took us on a night tour of the Okunoin cemetery, which was both insightful and a little eerie at times. There is a legend that states if you trip over a certain set of steps, then you will die in 3 years – needless to say everyone was particularly careful not to fall over. There is also a well where it is said that if you see your reflection in the water when you look down, you will also die in 3 years. No-one was quite game enough to have a look down the well – myself included.
I would recommend seeing the Okunoin cemetery during both the day and night for different experiences – although I’m not sure if I would be brave enough to go on my own at night.
How to get to Koyasan
Koyasan isn’t the easiest place to travel to and it may take you a few connections to get there. We travelled from Kyoto, but the best way to get to Koyasan is to go through Osaka regardless of which direction you’re coming from.
Purchase a Koyasan–World Heritage Ticket from Nankai Namba, Shin-Imamiya or Tengachaya Station. The ticket includes a round trip from Osaka to Koyasan, unlimited travel on buses on Koyasan as well as discounted admission to certain tourist attractions and souvenir discount coupons (valid over 2 consecutive days). It is worth purchasing the ticket even if you don’t go to any of the tourist attractions as you still save on the regular full-priced fares of the travel to and from Koyasan.
Take the local train from Nankai Namba, Shin-Imamiya or Tengachaya Station to Gokurakubashi using the Limited Express (80 mins), Rapid Express (90 mins) or Express train (100 mins). From Gokurakubashi, catch the cable car up to Koyasan.
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