My first ever trip to Japan in 2006 was created around an article I had read in the Independent about a place called Mount Koya (高野山), or Koya-san as it is known in Japanese. I was determined to go and stay on this mountain in a temple and eat tofu with the monks who lived there, and so I did. It was magical, and looking back on it now I still can’t quite believe I managed to arrange it and get there by myself!
Nine years and eight months later, on 30th November 2015, I set off once again for Koya-san. I was so excited to go back, but also nervous. What if the magic had gone? What if it wasn’t how I remembered?
I set off from Kyoto as I had done do many years before. I was much less nervous about the journey this time – it’s a journey I tell my customers about all the time, and of course I can read the signs now. The journey to Mount Koya is a slightly complicated one. From Kyoto’s Kawaramachi Station I used my Kansai Thru Pass to take the Hankyu Line to Awaji, and then to Tengachaya. From Tengachaya (in Osaka) I took the Nankai Line to Gokurakubashi. There are various ways to get to Koya-san, but essentially you need to travel through the Kansai region to get to Gokurakubashi, as this is where you take the cable car from, up to Mount Koya. I love cable cars – they’re kind of scary, but also super fun!
It was a beautiful day when I arrived in Koya-san – the sky was blue, and it wasn’t even that cold (although definitely a few degrees cooler than Kyoto had been). I dropped off my small overnight bag at my temple lodging, and then headed off to explore. I remembered some parts of the town, and other parts seemed completely new to me (although most weren’t). For the most part, Koya-san was the same (phew!). There was definitely more English signage around, and more Western tourists, but it hadn’t yet become completely overrun with tourists and still retained its small town feel. One major development I did spot though was a convenience store! How I would have loved that to have been there nine years ago when I struggled to find lunch and was too nervous to go in any restaurants. The convenience store has been open about three years, according to the staff member I chatted to in the store.
2015 was a big year for Koya-san – 1,200 years since Kukai founded a monastery in Koyasan. Kukai (空海), also known posthumously as Kobo Daishi (弘法大師), introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japan in 805 and he was one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. Celebrations were held in April and May, which I would have loved to have attended, but I was grateful to be able to visit in the year of the anniversary and see evidence of the celebrations still around. In commemoration of the 1200th anniversary of the founding of Koya-san, Chumon (the Middle Gate) was rebuilt. The main gate of Koya-san is the Daimon (Great Gate) and the gate to the Danjo Garan is the Chumon. The original Chumon was constructed around the time of the founding of Koya-san, but it was burned town in 1843.
Passing through Chumon, I noticed these tall wooden poles with kanji written on them standing in front of Kondo (Golden Hall). There are ropes attached to these poles, connecting to Kondo, the main building. Apparently, these ropes are here so that people could feel connected to the centre of Koya-san and Buddha, even when it was incredibly crowded with pilgrims visiting for the anniversary.
My timing was good, and as I wandered around the Danjo Garan Complex I was fortunate enough to witness monks going about their daily prayers. They walk in formation from temple building to temple building, chanting and praying. It’s quite something.
One could easily get ‘templed out’ in Koya-san, but not me. I love a temple building, especially when it’s painted red and the sky is bright blue.
I noticed lots of people crouched around a tree searching the ground and discovered that this was the Sanko-no-Matsu, or the ‘pine tree of the three-pointed vajra’ (三鈷の松) and they were searching for pine needles with three points which represent the vajra (a ritual implement of Esoteric Buddhism). Legend has it that just before Kukai left China he prayed that he might be shown the ideal place to build a monastery for teaching and then threw a three-pointed vajra into the air. It is said that the vajra rode on a cloud and disappeared into the sky going east toward Japan. Later, in Japan, Kukai wandered through the mountains in search of a place to build his monastery and is said to have encountered a tall hunter with a white dog and a black dog. The two dogs led Kukai to Koya-san, where he discovered the vajra he had thrown from China lodged in a pine tree. He knew then that Koya-san was the place to build his monastery.
One of the most interesting parts of Mount Koya is Okunoin (奥の院), Japan’s largest cemetery with over 200,000 tombstones and home to Kukai’s mausoleum (no photos are allowed here out of respect). It’s vast, and there’s so much to see you could never take it in. Wandering around, I spotted everything from ancient moss-covered ‘gorinto’ (五輪塔) (stupas made of five elements) to modern monuments depicting rockets and even a Yakult (ヤクルト) bottle. It’s an absolutely fascinating place!
That night I settled in my ‘shukubo’ (宿坊) temple lodging, Fukuchi-in (福智院), and enjoyed a delicious ‘shojin ryori’ (精進料理) vegetarian Buddhist meal – it was this type of cuisine that led me to Koya-san nine years ago.
Staying in a shukubo is one of the main attractions of Mount Koya, and there are dozens to choose from. The experience will vary from temple to temple, but one thing they all have in common is the chance to join in the early morning prayers or meditation. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world, despite the 6am start. No photographs are permitted during the ceremony of course, this is not for tourists, but after the ceremony the monks opened up the doors to the garden and allowed us to take pictures. Despite the chilly morning air, this was an incredibly special way to start the month of December, and to start my day.
Of course, breakfast followed, and that was delicious too!
There’s nothing like a crisp, early morning stroll through a quiet, sacred town to really make you feel alive. The weather wasn’t quite as bright that day, but I still enjoyed a good wander before I had to pick up my bags and get moving on to my next destination.
Before too long it was time to get back on the cable car and make my way back down the mountain. My next destination was going to be quite a shock to the system after this spiritual experience!
Fun fact: Did you know that Mount Koya is taller than the Skytree (東京スカイツリー) in Tokyo? I saw a sign erected for the anniversary which was at altitude 634 metres, which is the height of the Skytree. Mount Koya itself is 800 metres high. The Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan, and the tallest tower in the world.