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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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!
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!
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.
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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