Temples of Mount Koya (Japan)

21 Aug 2016

Japan was never high on my bucket list,  but through my love of sushi and gyozas plus my absolute fascination with Totoro, it became a place I just had to experience. After spending two weeks there earlier this year, I'm hooked. Here's the first part of my Japan travel series: Mount Kōya (Koyasan).

Monks in the primeval forest in Mount Koya, Japan
Monks chanting prayers at a temple in the Garan complex

Most people fly straight to Tokyo when heading to Japan, but we started our trip in Osaka. Since it's in the heart of Japan, it's easy to travel onwards. Plus Tokyo is too intense as a first destination, in my opinion.

After spending a night in Ryokan Ichei (traditional Japanese hotel), which is conveniently located a few meters away from Namba station, we took an early train from this station to Koyasan. The 2 hour picturesque windy train ride through the mountains ended with a 5 minute super-steep cable car ride.

Quiet morning tea in a room in Hotel Ichei in Osaka

We didn't even bother leaving our bags in our temple accommodation before heading straight to find some breakfast from the train station. A short bus ride from the station, the town is super small and very walkable. We were dropped off by the post office whilst many shops were still shut - some were opening - and we crossed the road to the beat of the birdie tweet synchronised with the green pedestrian crossing light.

What to eat in Koyasan?

I'd found Hamadaya on tripadvisor as voted #1 place to eat in the town and I was determined to try their highly rated tofu. Now, I'm not an idiot. I know tofu is not an exciting food no matter how many days one has starved for, or under any definition. Hamadaya is also not a restaurant at all, simply a tofu factory with a front shop and a long windowsill to sit on. They make two types of tofu (well, one type and two dressings), sometimes three. But boy do they deserve to be #1.

A lady came out to greet us when we arrived. She explained this is a family factory and they've been making tofu simply for years. The secret to their amazing tofu, she claimed, was that it was made from sesame seeds rather than soya, and it was blended with Kudzu, a root that grows locally (for consistency) and the spring water that comes from the mountain (which you can taste, as it springs right outside the shop).

We waited five minutes before our tofu appeared in front of us. It was simply served with a bit of wasabi on soy sauce. We cut a slice and tried it. A peace of heaven. The silkiest, creamiest, yummiest piece of heaven I'd ever tasted. Or maybe I was really hungry. We decided against a second serving so as to not spoil the memory and moved on to find our accommodation to drop off our bags, not before drinking some of that delicious spring water.

Where to stay in Koyasan?

We'd done a lot of research prior to booking our temple stay in Mount Kōya and settled for Yochi In, a Buddhist Shukubo (monk lodging) established in 1127 by an imperial prince. The temple is a five minute walk from the Kongobuji and the main temples. One thing that struck me a lot was how despite taking in hundreds of tourists every year, the temple was very basic, traditional and spiritual. The trainee monk who greeted us spoke virtually no English (nor did we expect him to), so we communicated via drawings and google translate. The rooms are bare and (I hear) cold in winter, and the services minimal - it's the true simple experience of living like a Monk. We didn't book dinner at Yochi (which needs to be done well in advance at any monk temple) and instead ventured out to check out the sights at Koyasan. The one thing that was absolutely worth doing the next morning, was to wake up early and take part in the prayers and chants ceremony.

What to do in Koyasan?

There's a lot of discussion online as to whether visiting Koyasan is worth it or not. I think one has to go with the right expectations to really enjoy it. If you're thinking you're going to head there and there's going to be lots to do and see, you're in for disappointment. The town is an incredibly picturesque town, and there are things to experience there, for sure. But the town is one to wind down in, go for a walk, meditate, think, feel, explore, try.

We walked to one end (the East end) and started from Koikakuin temple. We were even considering a forest/mountain walk, but an early sign warning us of bears in the area promptly put me off. Instead, we made our way back towards the centre of town through all the main temples, Kumagaiji, Karukayado, Kongobuji and the Garan, etc. This walk is pretty straight forward as all the temples are pretty much bundled together, and by walking around slowly we were able to appreciate the silence.... and even got to see the monks praying.

We also took some time to quietly sit down in a temple and trace our own chants.

Okunoin Temple & Cemetery

My favourite part of Koyasan comes later, after dinner. We'd decided to visit the Okunoin (the monk cementery) after-dark, so that we could appreciate its beauty without the hundreds of tourists that visit it every day.

Luck would have it that it would rain that evening, and so we entered the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi when there was literally no one else around. After crossing the Ichinohashi Bridge we made our way through the temple marked with thousands upon thousands of tombs and memorials, joined together by a long, long path lined with lamps that are lit at night. The place was eerie and incredibly quiet. You could hear the rain drops coming down on the cold stones and dripping from the canopy of trees up above.

At some points Chris and I would become a bit separated as one of us would walk ahead of the other to take pictures or explore. As soon as we realised this we would have a little panic and quickly try and find the other. This might be a unesco sacred site but at the end of the day, it was dark and we were in a huge cemetery. 

The Okunoin is the home of the resting mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, who is the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the point of walking this long path through the primeval forest and cemetery was to get to his mausoleum. The mausoleum is preceded by a the Hall of Lamps, some of which have been burning for over 200 years. At this point of the night and with visibility very low due to the humidity and fog - we were keen to get to the end.

It took us over an hour to get to the end, by this point we were truly spooked. But the arrival at the Temple of Lamps was about the most magical thing I've ever experienced. It's as if I'd been teleported to a Miyazaki film myself. In the midst of the blue darkness, a thousand little bright yellow lights floating in the air, suspended from the ceiling of this amazing temple. We walked around it to reach the Mausoleum and quietly offered our prayers, slowly pacing around the area trying to take it all in. We were at the end, we'd made it.

Finally, after a while we walked away from this magical experience and looked over our shoulders as we said goodbye to it - I didn't even try to take a picture of it, nothing would have done it justice. But as we moved away after a few steps the darkness engulfed us once again and we picked up the pace back out of the place!

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