At the southern tip of Japan’s Kansai region, Wakayama Prefecture is home to some of Japan’s most sacred sites and a wealth of natural beauty. Here, temples and shrines are nestled in between lofty peaks and the tourist path winds through the lush forests of pristine national parks. The Kii Peninsula, where you’ll find Wakayama, is covered in dense tropical rainforests and dotted with countless historical landmarks that continue to hold massive importance in Japanese society, culture, and religion. Two sites with conglomerations of these landmarks are Koyasan and Kumano, sites of pilgrimage, practice, and reflection for adherents to Japanese Shingon Buddhism and Shinto, respectively.
The former is Japan’s branch of esoteric Buddhism, or one whose tenets are shared only in secrecy, that was founded by the monk Kukai, whose formative travels and studies in China led him to found a monastery at Koyasan upon his return to Japan. This was in the year 816; more than a thousand years later, Koyasan is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site where visitors can experience the three main sites as well as more than 100 temples. At the height of the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), there were about 2,000 temples spread out across Koyasan. The 117 that remain still brim with life. Legend has it that Kukai did not die, but entered a state of meditative trance where he remains awaiting the Buddha of the future — posthumously, he is known as Kōbō Daishi. Come to Koyasan and you can see his place of spiritual practice, where monks continue to bring food offerings twice daily.
There are legends of Shinto mountain spirits greeting Kōbō Daishi when he arrived at Koyasan, but the professed reason that he chose this location for his monastery was the appearance of the surroundings. This place is one of astounding natural beauty, leading to its protection as Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, but Kōbō Daishi chose it for the shape of the mountain peaks and valleys that make the terrain resemble a lotus flower. Over the next thousand years, the monastic community at Koyasan blossomed and flourished into one of Japan’s most important pilgrimage sites, where everyone from the most respected and venerated imperial family members to the most common citizen could come, worship, and connect with the wisdom and serenity of the setting.
Today, travelers can partake in the same traditions as all these pilgrims. Even those who are not practicing Buddhists are invited to embrace the quietude of the environment and are welcome to participate in rituals that cultivate the spiritual, serene immersion into nature that thousands of people going back generations have come here to find. People from all walks of life have come here from the settlement’s inception, coming here to rest or even be laid to rest in what is the largest graveyard in Japan. Around the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi known as Okuno-in, this graveyard is the final resting place of the rich and poor, the holiest and most devout of practitioners and those looking to rest close to Kōbō Daishi. Whether one wishes to pay respects to Kōbō Daishi or practice akijan (meditation), any traveler can take part in the daily life of Shingon monastic life.
The immersion in daily life and practice here begins with a temple stay, as Japanese dwellings are built from the ground up with ritual, tradition, and cultural aesthetic in mind. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than the Shukubo temples at Koyasan that offer travelers a place to rest their heads, their minds, and their weary spirits. In addition to learning about meditation and the design elements of the temples, guests can partake in calligraphy exercises, listen to sutra teachings, and purify their body by learning about and partaking in shojin-ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine made entirely from vegetables and edible wild plants. Those who enjoy a day hike can familiarize themselves with some of Japan’s most beautiful landscapes by trekking the Koyasan Choishimichi Pilgrimage Route, a 15-mile trail that begins at Jison-in Temple at the foot and ends at Okuno-in, passing through the massive Daimon entrance gate to the Koyasan temple complex, one of the best places in the whole country to take in a sunrise or sunset.
While the changing of seasons has a profound effect on the climate in this mountainous region, Koyasan is a beautiful place to visit year-round. January and February are the coldest months, where snow occasionally falls on the peaks and temples. Come in April and you will experience the breathtaking emergence of Spring, heralded by the blooming of cherry blossoms in the area of Wakayama Prefecture. Summer brings higher temperatures to much of Wakayama, but Koyasan’s high elevation keeps it cool. There are also rental bikes available in the area for those who are interested in taking in as much of the surroundings as possible, if you are on a time crunch by any chance.
For international visitors who want the full experience, an extended stay in the Shukubo temples is a must, as is taking advantage of the transportation pass specially available for global travelers that provides ease of access to Koyasan and discounted entry to temples and sites. While anyone is free to wander between attractions at their leisure, there is also a recommended sequential order for visiting the most important sites that will provide an extra layer of context and detail. For going it on your own, know this: Koyasan has three highlights, Kongobu-ji Head Temple, Danjo Garan Sacred Complex, and Okuno-in, which was previously mentioned.
Kongobu-ji is the Head Temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism across Japan, having about 3,600 branch temples throughout the country. It is located almost dead-center in the middle of the mountaintop and cannot be missed. Architectural buffs and those who appreciate the Japanese design aesthetic will love the elegant sliding doors with panel paintings, known as fusumae. The depictions of seasonal flowers and birds are a beautiful and brilliant tribute to the splendor of nature that surrounds Koyasan. The Danjo Garan Sacred Temple Complex marks the center point of Koyasan settlement itself, and stands on the spot where ascetic study first commenced at this site. The Great Tower (Konpo Daito) is quintessential Japanese traditional architecture, and believed to be the first instance of a two-storied, square pagoda in Japan. At 49 meters (160 feet!) tall and colored a beautiful shade of vermillion, it is a sight to behold.
Just as it has accepted worshippers and pilgrims from all walks of life for more than a thousand years, Koyasan awaits all travelers with open arms who wish to come here and learn, rest, or just admire the beauty and splendor of history and nature, intertwined.
Words by Joseph Ozment.