walking through the mist on koyasan

My Guide to Temple Hopping on Koya-san

Koyasan, or Mount Koya, is known across Japan as being the most sacred spot for Buddhism in the country. So any visit up the mountain needs to be filled with temples, and religion. But, what’s the best way to see all the big spots in just one day? Read on to find out!

Arrive the night before!

Although you can make Koyasan a day trip in itself, it’s so worth it to stay overnight at a temple there. It really allows you to immerse yourself in the culture, and ultimately gives you more time to explore the mountain.

koysan temple stay

Ekoin – My temple stay on Mount Koya

Staying in a temple also means you have the chance to explore some of these sights at night – which makes for a truly eerie and unforgettable experience. Ekoin, the temple I stayed in, actually offers a nighttime walking tour of Okunoin – the graveyard near by. Sadly, when I was there it was raining, and they don’t go during bad weather as the paths can get quite slippery. So, I just took myself on a little walk instead! Walking around at night, I only saw one other person, and the low light gave the cemetery such a mysterious quality!

koyasan tombstones at nightkoysans tombtones at night

Okunoin

The main sight to see on Koyasan is Okunoin. This is Japan’s largest cemetery and is home to the tombstones of many important historical figures in Japanese history. A lot of these tombstones are extremely old, and are covered in moss.

small buddha statue at okunoin on koysanbuddha statue at okunoin on koyasan

You could easily spend hours wandering around and exploring each and every tombstone, but just following the main paths allows a pretty in-depth experience too. Once you’ve walked the length of the graveyard, you come across the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi – the founder of esoteric Buddhism. This is an incredibly sacred site, and no photography is allowed. When I was there, I even saw a man pouring his heart out in prayer, eventually dropping to his knees in tears. It was such a personal moment and I didn’t really know how to react. I saw him again later, walking around another part of the temple, and he was smiling and seemed quite relaxed, so I hope his prayers helped him.

After finishing up at Okunoin, hop on a bus and head for Daimon. Don’t worry about navigating the buses up here, there are signs and announcements in English along the whole route, so it’s easy to find your way around!

Daimon

Daimon is the main entrance to Koyasan. It’s a huge gate at the top of the mountain, and from here you can set off on one of the many hiking trails around the mountain. I only recommend doing this in good weather though, as a lot of the paths are narrow, slippery, and have no barriers! On a clear day, you can even see nearby Awaji Island from here. It was definitely not a clear day when I visited! The mist was thick and covered everything around us, but also gave a great mystical vibe to the day.

mist covered gate at daimon on koyasanwalking through the mist on koyasan

After enjoying and taking pictures at Daimon, head on down the road towards Danjogaran. If you’re feeling peckish, low on energy, or hearing the call of nature, stop off at the Family Mart on the way. They even have tables outside, so you can sit and eat your lunch here and rest your legs for a bit!

Danjogaran

Danjogaran is a temple complex, just a short walk from Daimon. There are lots of buildings and sights to explore in here, and a couple of them require an entrance fee. These entrance fees are expected of you, even though there is nobody checking that you’ve paid. It’s only a few hundred yen so be sure to do your bit and throw some money in the box when asked.

mist covered temples on koyasanCIMG1675

There are some interesting spots here, including a tree from which one of the monks apparently ascended to heaven- but not before dropping his rice scoop! A really great spot to learn more about Buddhism, and take some great pictures!

exploring temples on koyasantombs of the gods on koyasan

If you’re feeling a bit templed out, this is a great place to stop and head back down the mountain. But, if you’ve got some energy left, theres one extra site you can cram in!

Kongobuji Temple

Another short walk down the road is the last stop in our tour – Kongobuji Temple. A smaller temple, and if you need to skip one for time or energy, it would be this one. It does have a very nice rock garden here that you can explore and enjoy, but other than that, it’s fairly run of the mill.

kongobuji temple on koyasan

Audio Guide

When I visited Koyasan, I really wanted to learn as much as possible about the culture and history that surrounds the place. So, when I saw a sign for hiring an audio guide I decided to grab one! You can hire them from one of the information centers on the mountain located along the route. I grabbed mine right at the start, outside Okunoin. There are many spots throughout all the temples that offer audio explanations, and I found it much more interesting that just walking around. The audio guides cost only 500 yen for the day, and are super easy to use!

Have you been to Koyasan? What was the best part for you? Did I miss anything out? Let me know in the comments below!

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My guide to temple hopping on koyasan

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22 thoughts on “My Guide to Temple Hopping on Koya-san

  1. A Busy Bees Life says:

    What a beautiful experience. I think people find a lot of peace and inner healing through prayer so the man might have felt better through that which is why he smiling. I don’t think I would walk alone at night here, but the experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am happy you got to experience that.

  2. Rea says:

    Very nice experience. I would love to visit Japan, it looks so calm and spiritual and organised. Staying in a temple is another thing I would like to experience – just stay there with myself and my thoughts.

  3. Rashmi & Chalukya says:

    We would love to do temple hopping and staying overnight in a temple would be such an awesome experience waking up rejuvenated. Sad that rain ruined your tour but glad that you decided to explore n your own. Beautiful pictures btw and we believe that mist has added beauty to your pictures

  4. The Editor says:

    Such a peaceful place, perfect for solo travelers. I would like to visit this place soon when my trip to Japan push through next month.

    – Blair Villanueva

  5. Liana says:

    It seems like you had such an amazing experience even tho the weather was a bit gloomy. I love discovering new culture through their own lenses and that’s what you did. It’s just amazing how you’re talking about it and how you mentionned the realization of such an experience of yours! Temples have always intrigated me, and I do believe I will cross their path one day! x

  6. Brooke says:

    Wow lovely! I Have always wanted to visit temples in Japan, They seem like such calm, spiritual places and what an opportunity to soak it all up and learn, since you visited on your own. 🙂

  7. Shounak says:

    Japan us always been a mystery to me and still is as I haven’t yet set my foot there , night visit in the graveyard sounded like one those terribly scary Japanese horror movies 🙂 anyways nice write up about an uncommon and calming experience .

  8. Vyjay Rao says:

    This is truly a mystical experience. Your pictures border on the surreal and vividly bring out the spirituality and mysticism associated with these temples.

  9. travelerettenyc says:

    How beautiful! I just love Japanese temples and shrines. I’ve never been to Koya-san but I did climb Mt. Misen the last time I was in Japan and it was a wonderful experience.

  10. karen278 says:

    How fascinating! I recently did lots of Temple Hopping in Sri Lanka, and I find them places of serenity and calm. I must try to travel to Japan soon though, so I can temple hop there, as well as explore this beautiful country, which I have never done yet. Karen

    • GeekGirlGoes says:

      Oh wow, temple hopping in Sri Lanka sounds awesome! I’d definitely recommend coming over to Japan to everyone! It’s been such an amazing experience for me these last 2 years!

  11. Tamz says:

    Such a lovely place. I’ve never heard of this place before so reading about it and seeing the photos was quite an eye-opener. And your writing is really good too, with just the right kind of descriptions for the whole experience

  12. chantae says:

    I love the little details you include – about the man praying and the tree to heaven, it’s all very sweet. I love temples and spending the day exploring them 🙂 You’ll love Angkor Wat when you visit Cambodia for sure.

    • GeekGirlGoes says:

      Yes I have, and yes they do! I love that movie! It was the first Ghibli movie I ever saw. It did leave me a little confused at first, I’d never seen anything like it – but I soon grew to love it! There’s a lot of cool places around Japan that could have been pulled right out of one of his movies!

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