Discovering Koyasan – an offbeat cultural adventure in Japan

Japan is an immensely fascinating country where endless arrays of adventures await all kinds of travelers. Tiffany of TOPSHELFMISCHIEF shares her adventures in Koyasan, Kansai.

I remember my first night very clearly. It was raining (not surprising because it is in the mountains) and I was afraid that my slightly open shoji (paper) windows would not be able to withstand the moisture. But, as with Japanese-anything, the architecture proved to be of the upmost quality. No leaks in my room that night!

After braving the public bath, slipping into my yukata (bathrobe), and finally figuring out how my futon blanket worked, I lay down to rest and looked around the room from the lowest point on the floor. The crouched table adorned with a tea pot, the tatami mat spanning the area, the sliding doors and closets, and the floral-inspired paintings on the wall were some of the highlights of the traditional layout of my lodging.

“It is SO beautiful here,” I thought to myself, “What an amazing culture!” The sound of the rain drops on the roof outside eventually lulled me to sleep. Is it possible to feel so at home in a foreign country?

Welcome to Koyasan!

In recent years, Japan has become a top tourist destination. But here’s one place you probably haven’t heard of: Koyasan, a beautiful mountain complex where you’ll meet monks, eat traditional food, and visit the dead.

The Journey to Koyasan

Did I mention that I was in the mountains?

Beautiful Mount Koya, also affectionately called Koyasan, is located in Wakayama Prefecture. I visited there after a short stay in Osaka and, after, I planned to continue onto Kyoto. Although it is in such close proximity to these bigger cities, I will warn you that it is not one of the easiest trips you will ever take.

I wish I could say it takes one simple train ride and you’re there. I wish I could say you have the option to helicopter your way in. But, sadly, if you want to visit this pilgrimage destination then a combination of trains, cable cars, and buses are in your future!

the journey to Koyasan - getting there via cable car

For me, getting from Namba Station in Osaka to Koyasan Station took about 1 hour and 40 minutes. After that, depending on the schedule and what stop want you to go, it took another 20 minutes to reach my accommodation via bus.

From wherever you are coming from, use Koyasan Station as your ultimate destination. You will always be routed towards Gokurakubashi Station and from there you will take a cable car to reach Koyasan Station.

(Side note: make sure you use the restroom before you leave. At Gokuraskubashi Station, there was only what I like to call a “squatty toilet”. Yes, this means there is a porcelain hole in the ground and no other options! So, if you have bad aim like me or just feel uncomfortable using this type of bathroom – make sure to “go” before you go!)

The uphill trip takes another 5-7 minutes. Enjoy the view! When you finally reach Koyasan station, ask any helpful attendant what bus stop your lodging is and they will lead you in the right direction. Now hop on that bus!

Japanese buses are little different. You get on the back of the bus and grab a ticket. You pay only when you actually reach your stop. You walk towards the bus driver, show your ticket, pay, and get off.  It should cost you less than 500¥ to fund your whole bus ride. Keep in mind that exact change is usually required. But – no fear – there are machines near the conductor where you can get smaller denominations of coins. If you can, make change ahead of time so you do not hold up the line when it is time to disembark!

MONKey-see MONKey-do – living with the monks

Did you know that Koyasan is one of the centers of Shingon Buddhism?

Many pilgrims and tourists choose to visit Koyasan as just a day trip, but I would recommend spending the night to get the full experience. The original draw to this location for me was the shukubo lodging that is offered by multiple temples in the area. You live like the monks, you eat like the monks, and (at some temples) you get to meditate and pray like the monks. With their guidance, you have the opportunity to delve into a tiny portion of a monk’s lifestyle.

Did you know that Koyasan is one of the centers of Shingon Buddhism? You can live with the monks and learn Ajikan meditation, practice Buddhist sutra writing, and join in early morning prayers and ceremonies.

At the temple I stayed at, we had the opportunity to learn Ajikan meditation, practice Buddhist sutra writing, and join in early morning prayers and ceremonies. It was completely eye-opening to see such humble beings living in simplicity and devotion.

For some, this type of stay might sound a little intimidating. Aren’t monks supposed to evade any sort of pleasure? I had heard rumors that monks sprinkle dirt on their food just so it will not taste good. *Sigh* That was a literal sigh, mind you. This is where research trumps ignorant assumptions and reveals the beautiful truth. There was a line in an instruction email sent out before my trip that stuck out to me: “This is a temple run by Buddhist monks so please do not expect to receive the same services as what you would expect at a ryokan or hotel. The level of service will be lower.” It makes me wonder if people were going there with the mindset that these monks would be waiting on them hand and foot!  This is very clearly not a 5-star hotel, but what it lacks in “service” is made up for with history, authenticity, and novelty.

Eko-In

The temple I stayed at was called “Eko-In”. When you walk through the ornate gate, the first thing you see is an open courtyard with a quaint pond and traditional stone lantern as its centerpiece.

Eko-in at Koyasan

Along with two other early arrivals, I was greeted by a young monk dressed in humble brown robes. At this point, I had only run into English speakers at the airport or train stations, so I was surprised to find that this monk spoke my native language so fluently! It was almost odd to hear my language again after being surrounded by only Japanese for a couple of days. There were only a couple of monks who could speak English, but most of them knew simple phrases.

Something I noticed right away was that ALL of the monks there were very young – probably in their mid to late twenties. It would have been wonderful to chat with them about their choice to become a monk (and their lives in general), but their duties kept them so busy it was hard to hold a conversation.

Because I was a solo traveler, I stayed in another building where I assume the smaller rooms are.  I was a little disappointed I would not be staying in the main temple but, once I saw my room, those feelings were quickly dispersed. Knowing that I would be staying in a traditional tatami room really takes me back to an image in my mind about ancient Japan.  It is absolutely a once in a lifetime experience to stay the night at a temple like this.

Lucky for me, Eko-in is one of the few shukubo lodging that offers a couple things exclusively. In addition to attending their daily prayers, you are able to attend a Fire Ceremony right after.  Also, they provide meditation lessons in the afternoon and a night tour of the massive Oku-noin with an English speaker. If you were struggling with picking shukubo lodging, I would suggest going with Eko-in.

Living with the monks at Koyasan

An unusual meal

I am not going to lie. When it comes to the food that was served to us, I had no clue what I was even putting in my mouth!

As part of your service, a monk will personally deliver your dinner and breakfast to your room. On a low-bending tray, there are various small bowls and dishes with different items of food inside. The best way to describe it is like Japanese tapas!

Traditional Japanese meal at Koyasan

“Whoa, was that jelly?”, “Hmm, I have never had tofu cooked like this before!”, “I don’t think I that“, “Rice? Yes, let’s just say that was rice.”, “Miso soup! I KNOW THIS!”

As you can see from my thoughts, it was basically culinary Russian roulette! This mostly vegetable-based meal is called Shojin ryori and is part of the everyday diet of Buddhist monks. As someone who eats very unhealthy (fried foods are my favorite!), I will admit that a lot of the meal was a bit tasteless. But that is all part of the adventure! I ate every single bit of what was offered to me out of pure respect.

You are meant to eat shojin ryori on the tray they provide for you on the floor. They had hot tea and white rice available as well. I felt very Japanese!  Every bite was a surprise and I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing such a new type of cuisine.

Okunoin: Like Day & Night

I’ll admit it. I like cemeteries. Before you picture me brandishing a black veil and laying a single red rose on a lost lover’s grave or pulling out my sacred stones to conjure spirits in the middle of night, stop there! What I mean is I like cemeteries of the historical kind! And Okunoin is an amazing example of that.

Koyasan cemetery

Known as the most sacred and expansive cemetery in the country, Okunoin is an absolute must-visit.  The reason why so many pilgrims venture here is to see the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and pay their respects. He is believed to be in eternal meditation. You’ll most likely see groups of Japanese pilgrims donning all white robes, a walking stick, and beads walking around this holy area. Their greetings of a gentle nod and quiet “Ohayo gozaimasu” encompass the sweet nature of the Japanese people. It was very comforting to be sharing this space with them. When you reach the entrance of Okunoin, you are welcomed by towering old cedar trees and thousands of a combination of ancient and new shrines and monuments.  You’ll understand why so many venture here to enjoy its beauty, history, and sacred background.

Koyasan altar

If you don’t plan on taking your time exploring the (even though you should!), allot at least an hour to enjoy the atmosphere and find the mausoleum to pay your respects. However, if you plan on meandering down every plot and are curious to see what is around each corner, you should put aside at least 2-3 hours to play. There are great photo ops at every angle!

But what you HAVE to do is visit Okunoin at night! It is a completely different experience! The thin paved walkways are dimly illuminated by a multitude of lanterns. The canopy of tall cedar trees is almost non-existent as they are masked in the darkness. There are no camera-carrying tourists to bump into. Your only companions are the thousands of bib-wearing Buddhas and stone-faced statues. It all sounds very spooky, but I found the quiet to be incredibly peaceful. If you are too creeped out to venture out there by yourself, you should sign up with Eko-in to take part in their night tours (you do not have to be staying there in order to participate). It cost about 1500¥ and, weather-permitting, an English speaking monk will lead a guided tour of the cemetery. He tells you of the history of Koyasan and Buddhism, the legends of the area (a lot of death theories here!), and it is SO worth it!

Koyasan at night

I got separated from the group after the tour had ended. At first, I creeped myself out by wondering who could be watching amidst all the dead. But that feeling of dread was quickly exchanged with a sense of peace and gratitude. I remembered I was in one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and unique countries in the world. All I could do was walk back quietly in the dark and continue on with my adventure. I was thankful to be there.

There are no dead here. Only waiting spirits.

Nighttime at Eko-in

Morning Prayers / Fire Ceremony

Since it was late October, morning prayers are strictly at 7 in the morning. It was a climb of stone steps to reach the temple. It looked like the temple I had imagined in my mind. Buddha was clearly the centerpiece of the room, flowers and offerings placed respectfully at his feet. Glittering gold lanterns and candle lined the shelves on the walls. Two monks meandered around the altar preparing for the upcoming prayer. I was surprised to find that it was not only the guests of Eko-in and the monks present. There was a large of group of Japanese sitting on one side of the room – heads bowed in prayer and beads held lightly in their hands. I assumed they were there to share in the Buddhist morning prayers as well!

At first the only thing permeating the air was the smoke coming from the burning incense at the center of the room. As the prayers started, the sounds of drums and deep chanting joined them. I sat quietly as I watched. Soon, one-by-one the Japanese crowd went up to the altar, knelt, and interacted with the incense. All of them did this. As another surprise, we were beckoned to follow suit and asked to participate as well! Luckily, I had watched very closely what they did. =P

As you approach the bowl and kneel, you notice that there is a chopped up, straw-like material (almost like a dust). You take a tiny bit of this with your fingers and sprinkle it on the burning incense. Bow again and head back to your seat. Because the prayers were held in Japanese and the English-speaking monks were not present, I was not really sure of the meaning or symbolism of our actions. I was proud that I did it without making a mistake!

After the prayers, you are led outside the temple about 2 minutes down the street to a smaller hut. This is where the Goma Fire Ceremony was conducted. The night before you have the option to write your wish (for example, I wished for the well-being of my loved ones. I know – boring! I should have wished for a new scooter) on a stick that will be burnt at the ceremony.

Amidst the sounds of enthusiastic drums, a large fire is built by a chanting monk. As he fans and makes the fire bigger, he begins to throw the sticks into the fire. This fire is believed to have a cleansing effect. The Eko-in website states, “The fire symbolizes the wisdom of the Buddha and the wood sticks symbolize human desires (the root of suffering). The Buddha burns away the root of our suffering as we pray for our wishes to come true.”

Go to Koyasan for peace, beauty, and nature

Essential information – a quick guide to visiting Koyasan

Getting there

Koyasan is located in Wakayama Prefecture, close to the more popular cities of Osaka and Kyoto. The nearest transportation hubs are Kansai International Airport if you’re traveling by air, and Shin-Osaka station if you’re traveling by bus or train.

If you plan to travel around Japan, getting a Japan Rail Pass prior to entering the country is recommended. You’ll save time by using Japan’s superb shinkansen network and you’ll get unlimited rides throughout the Japan Rail network. You can find out more about the JR Pass here.

From Osaka or Kyoto, find your way to Koyasan station. You can look for routes via Jorudan, a handy route planner for all train travel in Japan.

Booking your stay

I stayed with Shukubo Koya-san Eko-in Temple – they responded very quickly about my requested dates and the communication was always easy and amicable. You will be emailed a detailed list of instructions in regards to directions, payment, arrival/check out times, and other important details for your visit.

Here is a brief timeline of what you can expect once you arrive:
14:00-17:30 – Greeting/Check in
Shown to your room
Free time
16:30 Meditation
Dinner
1900 Night Tour of Okunoin
Shower Hours
Sleep
6:00 (Apr-Sep) & 7:00 (Oct-Mar) – Morning Prayers
Fire Ceremony
Breakfast
Free time
10:00 Check out

Summing up: An incredible journey to Koyasan

Visiting Koyasan was one of the first parts of my trip and definitely set a high standard from the get-go. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the bigger cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, I will hold special feelings for the more peaceful, quiet areas. Koyasan brought a sense of the traditional Japan I always had in my mind. If you are visiting Japan in the near future, make Mt. Koya a place you add to your list. You will not regret it.

Check out my YouTube series called “Japan Journals” and see all the other antics I got into!

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I hope this amazing guide by Tiffany helps bring more adventurous travelers to the offbeat spots of Japan! Visit her website, TOPSHELFMISCHIEF and Instagram account (@topshelfmischief) to follow along on her adventures.

All photos by Tiffany.

5 Replies to “Discovering Koyasan – an offbeat cultural adventure in Japan”

    1. I only stayed one night! I arrived in the afternoon, spent the night, and checked out the next afternoon. Koyasan is a big place, with lots to explore. But I don’t feel like I missed out on anything!

  1. Hello, btw, nice blog it is really helpful to me. Btw I will be visiting koyasan by the end of may, but i am not staying to a shukubo because i booked my self to a guesthouse(i shouldve researched more) anyways.., i want to experience the morning prayer. Is it possible to the temple for the prayer eventhough im not staying? Thank you in advance

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