A Unique Experience – Koyasan Calling

Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage spot (Photo credit: John Thet)

Text by S. Rani & Photos by John Thet

Venture to Japan’s spiritual heartland of Wakayama for unique experiences to cleanse body and soul

Wakayama, Japan’s epicentre of spirituality, is just an hour’s train ride from Osaka. Its pristine forested mountains, UNESCO heritage trails, sacred shrines, beautiful beaches and onsens, or natural hot springs, offer something for everyone. Whether you seek Nature, spirituality, adventure or wellness, Wakayama offers you unique experiences to cherish. It’s an escape to heal the mind, body and soul. In this first feature in a two-part series on Wakayama, we visit Mount Koya, or Koyasan, a temple mountain in northern Wakayama nestled along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route.


Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage spot (Photo credit: John Thet)

Okunoin Cemetery in Koyasan is one of the most revered places in Japan. It is the resting place of the high monk Kukai, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi (774–835), who founded Shingon Buddhism. Devotees believe that he resides in the mausoleum at Okunoin in a permanently meditative state. Many bring offerings for him on their visits and worship from outside Torodo Hall, which fronts the mausoleum. The hall is permanently lit with more than 20,000 lanterns.

Stretching over two kilometres, the cemetery is Japan’s largest and houses more than 200,000 tombstones. It includes the graves of over 20,000 monks as well as a memorial honouring the victims of World War II. Private day and night tours led by an English-speaking monk are available.


Budhist Temple in Koyasan (Photo credit: John Thet)

When visiting Koyasan, experience how the ascetics live, with any of 51 Buddhist temples serving as temple stays, or shukubos. There are many to choose from, including Saizen-in, Eko-in, and Rengejo-in. Rooms are tatami floored and some even come withonsens and balconies.

To really get in the spirit, join the monks in meditation, prayer and chanting. Learn a new skill and master the art of shakyo, or sutra copying, which will help to soothe your mind and calm your nerves. Buddhist vegetarian cuisine – syojin ryori – is made with vegetables and wild plants (but no strong flavours like onions and garlic) and served by the monks themselves.


Shojin ryori: A Buddhist meal served at Koyasan’s Joki-in Temple includes a dessert made from tofu. (Photo credit: John Thet)

An important ingredient in Buddhist vegetarian cookery is Koya-dofu, or frozen-dried tofu, which originated at Mount Koya in the early 1600s during the Edo Period. Shingon monk Mokujiki Shonin developed the process of freezing firm tofu, allowing it to stand in a shed for two weeks, thawing in warm water, expelling the water, and then drying using the heat from charcoal braziers. The resulting spongy tofu is rich in protein.

Tofu is a key ingredient in the shojin ryori cuisine served in the temples. A meal comes with grilled, deep-fried and pickled items, and is accompanied by a soup and tofu dish. Another popular dish is goma-dofu, or sesame tofu, which is cooked using roasted and ground sesame seeds and boiled with starch from arrowroot powder. Nourishing and healthy, the dish is a staple of the monks.

For out-of-the-ordinary culture and cuisine, Koyasan is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Koyasan attracts pilgrims and Nature lovers seeking spirituality and enlightenment. Japanese belief is that one can feel the presence of God in these woodlands. It is the perfect place not only to enjoy the pristine countryside and cultural landscape but also to experience peace and tranquillity, much needed in our fast- paced, modern lives.

An imposing 25-metre-high vermillion wooden gate, known as the Dai-mon Gate, marks the entrance to Koyasan. Kongobu-ji
is the head temple of the Shingon Buddhist sect. The interiors are stunning, with each of the halls being thematically decorated. The Betsuden, a temple annex added in 1934, showcases the four seasons. Don’t miss the Banryueti Rock Garden and its beautifully sculpted rocks, before enjoying a cuppa at the Tea Garden. Koyasan is also home to the Konpon Daito, an almost 50-metre-high pagoda that houses five sacred images of Buddha.

An imposing 25-metre-high vermillion wooden gate, known as the Dai-mon Gate, marks the entrance to Koyasan


Kongobu-ji Temple (Photo credit: John Thet)

In 1593, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan at the time, had Seigan-ji Temple built to commemorate his deceased mother and to pray for the enlightenment of her soul. In 1869, Seigan-ji was joined with another temple, Kouzan-ji, and became the head temple of Koyasan under the name Kongobu-ji. The temple is the head temple to about 3,600 branch temples of the Koyasan Shingon Sect nationwide.


Danjo Garan: The spiritual home of Shingon Buddhism. (Photo credit: John Thet)

Danjo Garan is a sacred area founded by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) as a place for the study of Shingon Buddhism. The Kon-do Hall was constructed first, followed by the surrounding buildings. The construction of Konpon Daito required the greatest work among all the buildings. Many of the buildings you see today were rebuilt due to the loss of the originals because of fires caused by lightning. The sole remaining original building is the Fudo-do, a designated national treasure.


This is the main gate to the entire Koyasan area. Reconstructed in 1705, it is a two-storey wooden structure standing 25.1 metres tall, with a kongorikishi (guardian deity) on either side of the gate.

The Dai-mon Gate marks the entrance to the revered pilgrimage town of Koyasan. Photo: Shutterstock


A museum preserving important cultural assets of Koyasan, including national treasures.


The mausoleum for the Tokugawa family was built in 1643. The construction was ordered by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun, and took 20 years to complete. The mausoleum shines with gold on the inside and is richly decorated with delicate designs. It enshrines the past shoguns Tokugawa Ieyasu and Tokugawa Hidetada.


Konpon Daito was constructed by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) as a centre for the study of Shingon Buddhism. In the centre of this tower there is a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai seated in the Taizokai and surrounded by four protector Buddhas from the Kongokai. This is a unique three-dimensional mandala that is comprised of statues and brilliant paintings covering both the tower’s walls and its
16 massive columns.


Mie-do Hall was constructed as a Jibutsu-do Hall (building for enshrining Buddhist images) and Nenju-do Hall (building for chanting sutras). The present building was reconstructed in 1847, and with its gently sloping roof and extending eaves, is one of the most elegant buildings in the entire area.


This is the legendary building where the monks Karukaya Doshin and Ishidomaru, without recognising each other as father and son, practised asceticism. Many paintings recounting the story can be seen inside the building.


Until 1872, women were prohibited from entering the grounds of Koyasan, a place for Buddhist training. For this reason, a Nyonin-do Hall (building for women) was built at each or the seven entrances from where it is said that women prayed toward the temple grounds. This is the only one of the seven Nyonin-do Halls now standing, reminding visitors of its past.

Nyonin-Do Hall (Photo credit: Shutterstock)


Kon-do Hall was originally built in 819 by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) as a kobo (lecture hall). The present building, the seventh reconstruction, was completed in 1932 and is used for major ceremonies of Koyasan.


Picking oranges at the foot of Koyasan. (Photo credit: John Thet)

With its rugged mountain regions and fertile soils, Wakayama boasts several orchards and traditional fruit farms, including Kannonyama Fruits Garden, which is more than 100 years old. Many varieties of fruits are found all year round, depending on the season. February to May sees the cultivation of strawberries, while peaches are in season from end June to mid-August. Grapes are harvested in the months of August and September, oranges in October and November, and persimmons from mid- October to December.

The area at the foot of Koyasan grows peaches, persimmons, and mandarins throughout a year. Another area known for producing succulent and juicy oranges is the village of Kamiakizu. Fruit farms like Kannonyama Fruits Garden and Hayashi Farm allow visitors to try their hand at fruit picking, and many farms have an eat-all-you-want policy.


Wakayama faces the Pacific Ocean and occupies a large slice of the Kii Peninsula. The prefecture is part of the Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto. Inland Wakayama is dominated by the Kii Mountains, home to World Heritage ancient pilgrimage routes, sacred shrines, and mountaintop temples. Along the 600-kilometre coastline, there are world- class beaches, hot spring resorts, and fantastic ocean views.


Kansai International Airport is the principal airport serving Osaka, the closest main city to Wakayama. Trains take around 80 minutes from Osaka’s Namba or Shin-Imamiya Stations to Gokurakubashi, for the five-minute cable car ride up the mountain to Koyasan. From the top station, it’s a 10-minute bus ride into the town centre.


Koyasan is served by three bus routes. The main line connects Koyasan Station with Okunoin, a second line connects Koyasan Station with Dai-mon Gate, and a third line connects Dai-mon Gate with Okunoin. All bus routes pass through the Senjuinbashi intersection in the middle of town, where the Koyasan Tourist Information Center is located.


You can visit Koyasan all year round, but many visitors prefer the pleasant weather in spring (mid-March to May) and early autumn (mid-September and October). Japan’s famous cherry blossom season is mid-March to mid-April, with Koyasan’s sakura blooming towards the end of that period due to the higher elevation


The highlight of visiting Koyasan is a temple stay, or shukubo, which gives you the chance to interact with resident monks and enjoy shojin ryori, traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Some of the recommended shukubo are Souji-in, Ichijo- in, Hongaku-in, Saizen-in, Rengejo-in, and Eko-in.

For more stories from this issue, get a copy of Asian Geographic Passport No.156 or subscribe at https://shop.asiangeo.com

The largest and the longest-running Asian Dive Expo ADEX Japan 2024 will be held on 25-27 October 2024 in Tokyo, Japan.


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