I’ve been in Japan for over a year and a half now, but visiting Koya-San last summer really left an impression on me. From being surrounded by enormous, moss covered trees in Japan’s largest cemetery, watching the lanterns along the path slowly flickering awake, to attending early morning Buddhist prayers with a burning ceremony that I barely understood, to sharing vegetarian Japanese meals with my friends while wearing yukata, it was a trip filled with moments that are hard to find in everyday life.
I was able to share this unforgettable experience with Justin, and my college friend Dawn who was visiting Japan for her second time! :) It was one of our stops during our trip around the Kansai area!
About Koya-san (in a nutshell)
Mount Koya (or Koya-san in Japanese) is an area surrounded by mountains in Wakayama Prefecture, about 1.5 hours from Osaka. It is also the heart of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, home to more than 100 temples. The head temple is over 1000 years old! The area is famous for how secluded it is, and for offering overnight temple stays at many of it’s temples, where visitors can experience morning prayers and vegetarian meals.
Fun fact: There is no mountain called Koya in Japan! “Mount” Koya is just the name of the temple area, but it is in reality surrounded by 8 peaks (at around 1,000 meters) resembling a lotus flower. The Japanese still call it Koya-san, or Mount Koya.
Getting (Up) There
Getting to Koya-san was an experience in itself… It started with taking a train from Osaka all the way to the end of the line, at which point the tracks had been starting to wind themselves into the mountains. We then switched to a cable-car-train-mix-like vehicle, which pulled us up a set of tracks to the altitude of around 800 meters.
After that journey along a crazy steep incline, we were herded onto buses which headed farther up the mountain along the road connecting the many temples, and got off at the closest stop to our temple.
The temple we stayed at was called Kumagaiji, and located in a pretty convenient location, in my opinion. It was close to the entrance of Okunoin, which I will talk about later, and close-enough-to-enjoy, but far-enough-to-feel-secluded walk from the “town” area, which had a post office, and some places to eat.
We were greeted by a young monk who explained the temple regulations to us in English. It turned out that he was a student at the university there! Koya-san has a university for monks!!! My image of a monk has always been that of a man older and wiser than me (most likely bald), dressed in a set of robes. But our friendly monk host was younger than us!! Even though he was bald, and wore a set of robes, when we saw him off duty around grounds, he was wearing JEANS! And a T-SHIRT!! I half expected to see him eating a cup of instant noodles, browsing Instagram the next time I saw him! It blew my mind! It’s still blowing my mind today!!
Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, the temple itself was beautiful! The building was designed with pale, wooden interiors, smelled like fresh wood, and was very well kept. Our windows and doors were Shōji panels, Japanese-style wooden lattices filled with light paper. The rooms were very simple, with one low table, and pillows for seats. We had two joined tatami rooms to ourselves, with windows overlooking the garden.
Meals were brought in on trays, and at night, thick, Japanese futons were set up for us to sleep on. With the fan going, a light mountain breeze coming in through the window, and the sound of crickets and frogs filling the air outside, it was the most restful sleep I had had in months. :) Just thinking back to that moment gives me chills!
We had regular western toilets down the hallway from our room, and a lounge area with couches to sit on. A short walk through the temple brought us to the male and female separated bathing areas, which were indoor communal baths. They also had a shower for those who preferred to bathe in privacy in a western style. In addition to that, they had many other rooms for guests, as well as halls for larger events.
Wandering the Graves of Okunoin
When we got to our temple, we had some time to kill until dinner, so we decided to flip through the town guides and tackle one of the recommended spots. While we were thumbing through guides, a flash thunderstorm hit the area. It chased away most of the humidity, leaving us with a cool, misty evening that was a very much welcomed break from the 30℃/ 90℉ temperatures we had been dealing with!
We chose to visit Okunoin that evening, which is the mausoleum of the founder of this sect of Buddhism, Kobo Daishi. Surrounding Okunoin is the largest cemetery in Japan! You walk along a path through 200,000 graves, big and small, nestled among towering cedars. The journey is especially beautiful at dusk, which is when the lanterns along the path start lighting up.
Interesting fact time!
The little statues with the red cloaks bibs on them are called jizou. A jizou is a statue of a bodhisattva (person who has reached enlightenment in Buddhist practice) who is a protector of the dead, usually of children who have passed away. Jizou statues can be used by some people as a way of coping with miscarriages as well. In addition to being a patron of the deceased young, jizou can also be used to protect travelers.
After twenty minutes of walking along the path, you cross a bridge beyond which photography, food, and drink are forbidden, and arrive at at the mausoleum. In front of the mausoleum, you find Torodo Hall, which is also known as the Hall of Lamps. It contains over 10,000 lamps, some of which are special gifts from important people like emperors. The lamps are always kept lit, and have been kept lit for over 1,000 years.
After exploring the inner areas as much as time allowed, we did a bit of a speed walk back to our temple, which we had to get to by a certain time to catch our dinner.
Morning Prayers and Fire!!!
We woke up the next day early in the morning to head off to take part in morning prayers at 6:30 am. There were some monks in the hallways, who helped direct us to the main hall, an area of the temple with Buddha statues, candles, taiko drums, decorations, and more – a place of worship. We took off our shoes, and gathered around the monk who was to lead the prayers.
Apart from a quick, “Sorry, no English!” from the monk, everything was in Japanese. Even if I did have a better understanding of Japanese than I currently do, most of the prayers consisted of chanting, which may have been hard to decipher anyway.
After the prayers, we were invited to participate in a fire ceremony, during which we were given thin, flat pieces of wood on which we could write a wish. We each took turns slowly getting up and throwing our pieces of wood into the fire while the monk chanted.
This was a bit of an otherworldly experience! It was my first and only Buddhist prayer session to date, and it was very interesting for a number of reasons. The main reason was that I am Catholic, and while I have paid visits to a synagogue and various types of Christian churches, I am for the most part unfamiliar with what actual services look like in non-Christian religions. In Catholic services and prayer meetings, there is a lot of call-and-response, which requires the participants to respond to the priest or leader throughout various prayers and ceremonies. There are also a lot of actions that are performed, like alternating between sitting, kneeling, and standing for key parts of the service, as well as bowing, shaking hands, making the sign of the cross, etc.
In the morning prayers I experienced at Kumagaiji, we stayed in a seiza (kneeling) position for most of the prayers, and there was no response from the participants. It was a more still, meditative experience, which was very different from what I was used to. To be fair, I am comparing 20+ years of a variety of Catholic services, Catholic school, and family experiences to one morning prayer session in a language I didn’t understand, so I am sure there is a lot I missed. Regardless, my impressions remain!
Monk Meals! Vegetarian Delights!
A temple stay is intended to give you a slice of the Buddhist monk life, so in addition to the morning prayers, another unique aspect of staying at a temple is enjoying shojin-ryori, which are traditional, vegetarian meals prepared by monks.
Shojin-ryori do not contain meat, but contain fish, tofu, seaweed, fruits, vegetables, rice, and other types of Japanese food. We even had an amazingly delicious cheese filled avocado as one of our dishes! I love avocado!!
The meals were brought into our rooms on personal trays, as you can see below. Each person usually had two little tray tables, upon which our meals were separated onto many tiny bowls and plates. For both dinner and breakfast, the temple workers described our dishes in English, which was very sweet of them.
Wrapping Up with Random Moments
That was our Koya-san experience! :) I really enjoyed this trip – it was honestly one of my favorites for many reasons, and I will always remember it as something truly unique that I experienced in Japan. Even though it is a bit of a pain in the ass to get to, it is worth the trek because it really is something special.
I’ll wrap up this post with some random shots and moments from the trip.
As always, thanks so much for reading! :)