Location: Mount Koya, Japan

A trip to Japan may not be complete without a mix of the token Japanese experiences of the crazy pop culture phenomenon that is the circus of Tokyo’s Ginza and Harajuku districts, blended with a touch of tradition in Kyoto for some Geisha spotting or kimono shopping. However, for a truly off the beaten track experience that is more authentic than the Cos Play costume hanging in the shop window that you’re ‘umm-ing and ahh-ing’ about buying, getting under the psyche of Japanese culture at a spiritual temple stay atop of Japan’s sacred Mount Koya should be at the top of your list of things to do in Japan – and there’s no ‘ohm-ing’ required at this one!

Koyasan (or Mount Koya for us tourists) was originally founded in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk known as Kobo Daishi, who believed the eight peaks around this plateau to resemble a lotus and prompted him to built the first temples in the area. As a result of this, Koyasan is an extremely sacred and holy area that has been perfectly preserved (and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004), and sees hundreds of Japanese and Shingon Buddhist pilgrims visit every year to pay their respects to Kobo Daishi.

Walking through Okunoin in Japan

The Temple Stay

There are many temple lodgings (or shikuko in Japanese) in Mount Koya used primarily by religious pilgrims, and of the estimated 100 temples in the area there are roughly 50 temples that offer accommodation. Siu On and I opted for a one night stay at the Fudou-in, which was at the cheaper end of the temple lodgings price bracket, staying in a traditional style Japanese room complete with tatami mats and no television. However spartan this may sound, everything about your stay promotes well being and serenity; the room has all the basics that you would need for a restful stay including green tea making facilities, and even a toilet playing sounds of gently rushing water to help you feel the serenity as you empty your bowels (they really think of everything).

Fudouin Temple Garden

The stay also includes meals which are meticulously prepared by the monks and (be warned if you’re a carnivore) also align with their spiritual Buddhist beliefs, and are all vegan (called shojin ryori in Japanese). Don’t worry if you think you’re going to go hungry because you won’t as you’re served between 10-12 dishes, which leaves barely any room on the table. You can have alcohol with you meal which you book when you check in, and will be either Japanese beer or spirits (Sake) and is an additional cost to your stay.

Vegan feast at the Mount Koya Temple Stay

Siu On and I spent the day out exploring the town, and in the evening we retired to the onsen for a good soak (separate male and female onsens, but note that not all lodgings have onsen facilities). On our last morning we took a tour of the Fudou-in complex which was guided by the head monk who spoke impeccable English and French, and not only gave us a history of the area and temples, but also guided us through a traditional meditation and chant (like I said earlier, sans the ‘ohms’). The grounds of the Fudou-in are absolutely beautiful, and there are many little courtyards and quite rooms where you can sit and enjoy the stillness. Whilst you may feel like you’re at a retreat, do be mindful that you are staying in a working Buddhist temple with monks living and working there. The monks reside in a different area to the lodgings and you most likely won’t see them about, but do remember your manners, follow the ‘house rules’ and be respectful at all times.

Around Mount Koya

There are a lot of historical and spiritual sights in Mount Koya, with the main one being the incredibly huge Koyansan Garan Temple Complex. You can’t really miss it. It’s big, and it’s in the middle of town. In fact, I found that everything in Mount Koya was of Godzilla proportions, from the size of the temples to the height of the trees, the grand scale of many sights here all make you feel like you’ve taken the ‘drink me’ Alice in Wonderland potion! Most of the temples do require an entrance fee, however, we found that just walking around and viewing the free temples was enough for us to get a good idea of the place since you’ll be seeing a lot of temples in Japan.

Koyasan Temple Complex entryway

A little further out from the main part of town is the Tokugawa Mausoleum. This is the resting place for the Edo period Tokugawa Shogunate Clan members who made up the government for 200 years prior to the Meiji Restoration. Continuing on from mausoleums and resting places, further along the main road you’ll come across the largest and most picturesque cemetery in Japan, the Okunoin. This cemetery is free to enter and roughly 2 km in length, and is also the resting place of Japan’s revered Kobo Daishi (who is believed to not be deceased, but rather in a state of eternal meditation). Set beneath tall and ancient cedar trees, the mossy headstones and small jizo statues resplendent with beanies and bibs, makes a visit to this sacred resting place at dusk or dawn, an ethereal and out of this world experience.

Japanese Jizo Statue in Okunoin Cemetery

The only thing that we missed out doing were the many pilgrim trails in the area, which I do regret as the countryside here is incredibly beautiful, but we were short on time and hope to return again someday.

Getting to Mount Koya

Located in the Wakayama Prefecture, just south of both Kyoto and Osaka, the best way to get to Mount Koya is from Osaka Namba station (which is easily reached by subway from both Osaka and Shin-Osaka station), where you’ll need to take the Nankai Koya train line to Gokurakubashi stop. This section of your journey is also covered by the JR Pass if you have one, and you can use HyperDia to check departure times.

Once you arrive at Gokurakubashi it’s an easy cable car ride up the steep but very picturesque slopes to Koyasan station, which is also where you can catch the Nankai Rinkan bus into Koya-town. Although this section of the journey is not covered by the JR Pass, you can use a SUICA or PASMO card here if you have one, however the bus only accepts cash (exact change is preferred). The bus also stops at pretty much all the temple’s that offer accommodation so it’s not hard to navigate your way to your particular one.

The Tram to Koyasan

Mount Koya was definitely one of the most unique experiences I have had in Japan, and one that I hope to repeat again some day. The best part of it was that it felt less like a touristy activity and more like an authentic cultural and spiritual experience. Spending the night in the quietness of Koyasan was a welcomed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s mega cities, and being up in the mountains also gave us a break from the intense heat and humidity of the Japanese summer. I definitely found it hard to leave Koyasan, but I left with a much larger understanding and respect for Japanese culture as a result of this experience, and it’s one that I highly recommend if you want to delve a little deeper into your Japan experience.

If you’re thinking about visiting Japan and don’t know where to start, you can read more of my posts on Japan for inspiration and ideas right here.

All photography by Jelena Stipanicev.