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Mount Koya: A Night in a Buddhist Monastery

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

Red pagoda temple in Koyasan village, Japan

It is cold up here on the sacred mountain of Kōyasan. And when I say cold, I mean freezing!

We have a nighttime cemetery walk planned later this evening, as well as an early-morning fire ritual ceremony tomorrow, and I have nothing appropriate to wear.

It is early-April and springtime in Japan, but even down in the valleys it has been unseasonably cold, and the thin winter coat I had thankfully packed at the last minute has seen daily use during our trip around the country.

Up here, winter still has a firm foothold.

And so as we make our way down the short local high street, I keep my eyes peeled, and when I see a store that looks like it might sell something useful, we pop in. I grab a neck warmer, some gloves and a pair of long johns - clothing I had never thought to need at this time of year.

It's only when we get back to our room at the monastery later that I notice the latter is marked 'female undergarments'. Oh well, I'm desperate - and just thankful to have found something to augment the few layers of warm clothing I'd packed. Because one thing is for sure: There is no chance I'm missing out on that tour - I've been looking forward to it ever since we started planning this trip to Mount Koya and we came across the evocative photos of the cemetery at night!


Getting to Koyasan

Earlier that morning, we had left our accommodation in Osaka, and taken a Nankai Railways train from Namba station all the way to Gokurakubashi in the Wakayama prefecture. (These private local trains are the easiest and most direct way to reach Mount Koya, but are not included in the JR Rail Pass. It is possible to use JR trains to get reasonably close to Koya at Hashimoto station, before changing to a Nankai train to reach Gokurakubashi, which would be cheaper but take a little longer.)

Since we were only spending one night in Koyasan, we opted for the World Heritage Ticket - a rail pass which includes return travel between Osaka and Koya over consecutive days, including the Koyasan Cable Car and unlimited travel on the local buses, as well as discounts to a few of the sites on Mount Koya. (Bear in mind that the cheaper version of this ticket does not allow travel on some of the even faster 'Limited Express' Nankai trains, so upgrade to the comprehensive ticket if you are keen on using these.)

A 1-night stay also meant we weren't too keen on lugging our luggage around with us - a problem easily solved by the inimitable Takkyubin forwarding service - our suitcases would await us at our hotel the following day while we made our way to Koya with only a backpack each for company.

And so after an easy 90 minutes journey through the Japanese countryside, the views ever more scenic as the train chugged higher, once arrived at Gokurakubashi station we all piled off the train and onto the Koyasan Cable Car - a funicular which whisked us further up the mountain to Koyasan station. And from there, it is another 10 minute bus journey - required, as walking this stretch of road is not allowed - which winds languorously around some tight bends beneath verdant forest foliage, and up into the mountaintop village itself.

Things to do in Koyasan

The Danjo Garan temple complex on Mount Koya

Having stashed our bags at our accommodation for that night - the Ekō-in Temple - it was time to do some looking-around.

But first things first: by now it was lunchtime and we were in need of some grub. Somewhat randomly, we wandered into restaurant Hanabishi on the high street, and were very pleasantly surprised. While potentially one of the slightly pricier lunch options in Koya-san, the restaurant is more than worth it for their delicious and authentic bento boxes, served in an understated traditional Japanese setting. The service was prompt and courteous, and we were beautifully looked-after.

Suitably fed, and ready to do some discovering, we headed for the sights.

Mount Koya is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a Japanese Buddhist sect founded by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan's most famous and revered historical religious figures, in the early 800's. There are over a hundred active temples dotted around the mountaintop - many of them open to visitors - as well as various museums, minor shrines and pilgrimage trails, and of course the cemetery, in what is one of the primary places of Buddhist worship in the country.

Koyasan itself is a stunner of a mountain village with gorgeous scenery at every turn, and there is plenty to productively occupy an afternoon. Most of it is easily walkable, and we began our discovery at the Danjo Garan - the grand monastic temple complex, conceived and constructed by Kobo Daishi himself over 1200 years ago.

This vast sacred precinct is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and comprises around 20 temples and other buildings, including the Chumon Gate and the gorgeous red 'Great Pagoda'. The Kondo, the main pavilion at the heart of the complex, is used during major religious celebrations - the original building on this site was constructed in 819, though it has burnt down several times and the latest incarnation dates back to the 1930's.

We wandered around the rest of the temple complex, taking in the mystical buildings in their serene environment surrounded by towering trees, before ambling down to view the Hasuike lotus pond.

Crossing the road from the Danjo Garan, next we found the Reihokan Museum, the primary museum in Koya and a building containing treasures relating to Koyasan's cultural heritage. Filled with statues, paintings and drawings, and other religious icons, this modest museum is worth a bit of time for anyone with an interest in Buddhist relics, of which many priceless examples are preserved here.

And also worth a look, not far away is the Kongobuji temple - the head temple on the mountain, and its Banryutei garden - the biggest zen rock garden in Japan.

Okuno-in cemetery

A pathway leads through the Okuno-in cemetery in Koyasan

By now it was mid-afternoon, and we had one more important stop to make: the Okunoin cemetery.

Of course, we had our nighttime tour of the cemetery booked for later that evening, but we were really keen to see it during the daytime too, and we would not have the time the following day.

An easy 15 minute walk across to the other end of town brought us to the Ichinohashi Bridge, and the entrance to the graveyard.

Walking through the Okunoin cemetery, Japan's largest, is a singular experience, and the sense of it is hard to put into words.

We were surrounded on all sides by countless tombs, as well as the ever-present torii gates and a myriad toro lanterns, all carved from stone. The weight of the ages was palpable here. Some tombstones were no longer upright, many were discoloured - mottled by the greys and greens of the lichen that covered them. Patchy carpets of deep green moss were everywhere.

There were the ubiquitous Buddha statues, here dressed in bright vermillion bibs (said to have been placed there by those who have lost children, in the hopes that they will be looked after in the next life) that were a heartbreaking reminder of loss, and made a vivid contrast to the surroundings.

And all was enveloped in the majesty of the old forest, cedar trees a thousand years old towering over us at a dizzying height - silent, impassive observers.

Photos of the Okunoin cemetery, showing tombstones and buddhas, in Koyasan Japan

The Buddha once said "As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are", and a visit to Okunoin surely embodies that philosophy. It is an experience that is impossible not to be moved by, and we continued through the cemetery in mostly silent contemplation.

Deep in the heart of the graveyard, we reached the Gobyobashi Bridge, the gateway to the holy inner sanctum of Okunoin.

It is an opportunity for visitors to ritually purify themselves by washing their hands at the temizuya, under the vigilant gaze of the row of Mizumuke Jizo statues, before crossing over the bridge into the sanctuary, and on to where Kobo Daishi is said to have entered the next world.

Behind the temple we found the Kobo Daishi Mausoleum - the building in which he entered deep meditation 1,200 years ago in order to safeguard his followers throughout eternity, and where he is believed to remain to this day, ever praying for their salvation.

Torii gates and buddha in Koyasan's Okunoin cemetery, Japan

And beside it is the magnificent Torodo Lantern Hall, only open during daylight hours.

Removing our shoes, we entered the silent space. And, in a village rife with the spiritual weight of the ages, in the heart of a cemetery not short on other-worldliness, this was a sight to captivate. It was not only mesmerising in its mysticism, it was also breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful. Over a thousand lanterns surrounded us, some of which have been burning for a thousand years themselves, and it was hard not to be swayed by the history represented here.

Too soon though we ran out of time, and regretfully we redonned our shoes and turned around to make our way back to our accommodation for the evening, to officially check-in and start the afternoon's activities at the monastery. But safe in the knowledge that we would soon enough be back to further our discovery of this enchanting place.

Koyasan accommodation: A 1-night stay at the marvellous Eko-in temple

The Eko-in temple in Koyasan, our accommodation for one night

One of the more popular shukubo temple lodging options on Mount Koya, the Ekoin temple is a great choice for anyone wanting to experience a stay in a Buddhist monastery.

It was, we found, in some ways a strange melange of the old and new... Welcomed at the entry by a monk - head shaven and dressed in his traditional orange robes - who requested we relinquish our shoes, we were then promptly and efficiently checked in by another tapping away briskly at his computer. The traditional wooden building within which we were to be housed came with the expected beautiful shoji panels, tatami mats and religious icons. And a coffee machine, WiFi and televisions.

But that is not to say that it was inauthentic - Ekoin is a working monastery, filled with monks on their way to meditation or going about their daily tasks. On the other hand, interaction with most of the monks is somewhat limited, visitors here are not fully integrated into the life of the temple, and those seeking an in-depth hands-on experience of temple life may find themselves leaving somewhat disappointed.

Our room at the Ekoin temple in Koyasan

The rooms themselves at Ekoin were slightly sparse, if far from spartan. A low table at the center of the bedroom, a clothes rack and some hangers, an oil heater and a safe, made up the bulk of the furniture. The bathroom facilities here are shared, and only open at certain hours of the day. Monks would arrive later bearing the futon mats on which we would sleep.

But what the room lacked in comforts it made up for in views. All rooms look out on the lovely traditional Japanese garden and pond at the heart of the building, which make a soothing and tranquil backdrop to a stay at Ekoin.

There are a few voluntary activities available at Ekoin, including the practice of Buddhist sutra writing, or joining the monks for early-morning prayers or their morning fire ritual, as well as meditation, and we decided to kick things off with the latter.

Socks swishing gently on the wooden walkways, we arrived at the meditation hall late-afternoon together with our fellow devotees, and seated ourselves on the small round cushions laid out symmetrically on the carpeted floor.

Even though the room had a warm feel about it, the temperature itself was slightly bracing as the wide sliding doors were open to the interior garden, and I was thankful for the double layer of socks I was wearing. The atmosphere was filled with hushed expectation, and no-one was really talking. There was not much in the room to distract as we sat and waited, apart from a large wall-hanging scroll in the front of the room, depicting a calligraphic symbol (which we would soon find out was an image of the shuji character 'A' - the first letter in the Sanskrit alphabet).

One of the resident monks arrived, and talked us through the practice of Ajikan meditation - a method unique to Shingon Buddhism. Its purpose is to bring the practitioner into a state of enlightenment, and this is achieved by centering oneself, almost fully closing the eyes and focusing on the breathing, and meditating on the image of the 'A' shuji - which represents the basic essence of all things, and is said to embody great spiritual power.

Having received our instructions, we were left to our meditating.

Sitting on the floor in a meditative position does become a bit challenging, and after a while a bit of fidgeting became noticeable amongst the participants. As a whole though, the exercise was certainly helpful in turning off the mind from external thoughts for a while, and we did come away feeling relaxed, as well as appreciative of the commitment it would take to dedicate oneself to the practice for long periods of time, day after day.

Back in our room and thawing gratefully by the heat of our oil heater, it was time for dinner.

Dinner at Ekoin temple is shojin ryori vegetarian cuisine

Meals at Eko-in temple are shojin ryori cuisine, a Buddhist form of vegetarian eating that respects the tenets of the faith, and are served in guests' rooms. The meals were served traditional kaiseki-style consisting of many small dishes, and were fully meat-free, however that did not mean that they were limiting. In addition to being beautifully presented, they were tasty and filling, and we loved both our dinner and breakfast experiences at Ekoin.

Nighttime Okuno-in cemetery tour

Dinner concluded, the sun had fully set and it was time for our nighttime cemetery walk in Okunoin, led by one of the Ekoin monks.

The Ekoin temple is perfectly located for the cemetery, and as we stepped once again over the bridge and into the graveyard, our breath fogging the air, it was like being transported to another world.

There were few people about now, and the dark had transformed the cemetery into a different place. The pathways snaked mysteriously into the gloom, lit periodically by gentle lanterns that cast a haunting, fitful glow.

The illumination didn't quite reach the canopy of the trees, which nevertheless blocked out any starlight, and we were overshadowed by darkness. Tombs loomed out of the murkiness, the faces of the ever-present Buddha statues, thick as thieves, rendered somewhat sinister by the shadows playing over their features.

And all was quiet, broken only by the voice of our guide and the odd question from our fellow visitors.

Our tour guide for this evening walk was a young-ish monk with kind eyes and an easy smile - exactly what you imagined a monk would be. He was an endless source of information, pointing out as we went various Buddhist iconic symbols and their meanings as well as more generally telling us about the faith and its practices.

A walk at night through Okunoin cemetery with Ekoin temple guides

There was also some fascinating mythology. Like the Sugatami Well and its superstition: He who peers down the well and does not see his reflection mirrored is not long for this world. Or the Miroku stone, the 'heavy-light' stone, which is able to divine worthiness - feeling heavy to the immoral and light to the righteous.

Informative as the tour certainly was, we somehow found ourselves, time and again, falling behind our group as we were distracted by another ghostly grave, or enigmatic tombstone limned by a torii gate gently reflecting the lantern light. These ancient burials - the eternal resting places of over 200,000 monks - were a place of mystery. Eerily beguiling, unearthly and magical, and we were irresistibly drawn to them.

Eventually we found ourselves once again outside Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, and here we listened to a traditional sutra chanted by the monk leading our tour - a true privilege, and what felt like a fitting end to a truly memorable excursion and what was an unforgettable journey through time.

A guided nighttime tour of Okunoin cemetery with Ekoin temple

Back at Ekoin the temple monks had delivered our futon bedding, and we sank gratefully into oblivion, the thick coverings more than a match for the cold outside.

The following day we were up before daylight, and in the icy morning air we set off to the on-site temple where the morning fire ceremony was to take place.

The Goma fire ritual is unique to - and one of the most recognisable features of - the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and one which they practise daily.

The fire is believed to have a cleansing effect, removing negative effects and clearing thoughts and energies. Small wooden tablets - called gomaki - on which wishes and desires are written, are also burned and so sent up to Buddha, and visitors are invited to participate by writing their own gomaki wishes for a small fee.

The fire ceremony was impressive, a sensory overload of sounds, sights and smells, starting off gently but building to a crescendo of spitting fire. There was the heavy pounding of drums, the sizzle of oils and cracking of wood, the pervasive chanting, and all of it overhung by the pall of smoke quickly filling the small temple space.

In all, it was an exciting and novel experience, one we are grateful to have experienced, and which was marred only by the few individual visitors disregarding the injunction against photography. This was not a tourist show, but rather a sacred religious ceremony, as well as a privilege to experience as an outsider, and we found those taking pictures to be disrespectful of the monks as well as completely missing the point of the occasion.

Breakfast was served straight after, once again at the low table in the privacy of our own room and comprising more delicious vegetarian fare, together with a generous pot of green tea.

And soon after, we gathered our few belongings and took our leave of Ekoin and its unfailingly cheerful monks, as we set off on our onward tour of Japan. Up next would be a visit to the Hakone hot springs region, and a stay in the wonderful Gora Hanaougi ryokan.

Koyasan had been a revelation - we had found solitude and serenity, ageless mysticism and esoteric learnings, and come away with once-in-a-lifetime memories.

A buddhist monk in traditional orange robes, walking down a street in Koyasan, Japan

Is 1 night in Koyasan enough?

From our perspective, yes. Getting to Koyasan from Osaka or Kyoto is comparatively easy, and 24 hours is sufficient time to discover the main sites in Koyasan. We also felt that a single night stay in a monastery was enough to appreciate the experience. Particularly in a country that has so much else to offer an intrepid traveller with limited time. For anyone keen to discover the lesser-known parts of the holy mountain, or spend longer absorbing the Buddhist culture, more time would be necessary.

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