Japan’s sacred mountain – Koyasan


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Danjo Garan Temple complex


For a long time, I have been wanting to visit Mount Koya or Koyansan, a sacred mountain in the Wakayama region. It is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism ( a Chinese-influenced esoteric sect), introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Located in the lush Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, the monastic site has 117 temples and 52 of them offer temple lodgings or Shukubo to the public.

Unfortunately, the scenic cable car was out of service for a few months due to a disruptive typhoon last winter, so I had to take a train from Osaka, followed by two bus rides to reach the mountain. Yet the fine weather upon arrival made it all worthwhile. Sunny blue sky was not what I had expected ( I think I was misled by all the misty and snowy photos online), but I could hardly complain about this!

After much online research, I decided to spend the night at Saizen-in, a small temple with 24 guest rooms and a rock garden created by Mirei Shigemori, a notable modern garden and landscape designer.





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I have stayed at a temple in Kyoto before, but the self-catering accommodation was located in a new building within the grounds, so I didn’t feel like I was staying at a temple at all. At Saizen-in, the Japanese-style tatami rooms have modern amenities like a flatscreen TV (which I was surprised to see), wifi, a safe and an under-table heater for my feet (which i loved). And like most Japanese-style accommodations, the toilets (very clean) and bath are shared among the same sex.

After checking in, I left the temple and headed towards the town centre to grab some lunch, followed by a visit to the Kongobuji temple. The organic vegetarian set lunch at Bon On Shya Cafe and art gallery was delicious and satisfying, and I especially loved the strong coffee and tofu cheesecake.


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Top row: Bon On Shya cafe and gallery


Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji temple is head temple of Shingon Buddhism, hence the temple is Koyasan’s main tourist attraction. The temple contains many nature-inspired sliding screen doors painted by the famous painted Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) from the Kyoto Kano school. The temple’s Banryutei Rock Garden is the largest rock garden in Japan. Built in 1984, its large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.







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Kongobuji temple and its rock garden


Besides Kongobuji temple, the most popular attraction at Koyasan is undoubtedly Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most prestigious cemetery. It is the resting place of the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi, and more than 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. There are regular night tours of the cemetery, but I think it would be too creepy, so I wasn’t too keen on this idea.

What struck me most as I walked through the 2km-long cemetery was the ancient cedar trees. I think these tress help to make the place less eerie. Apart from monks, many historically important figures are also buried here, and you can tell by their massive tombstones. The path leads towards Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum, located behind Torodo Hall, which is filled with 10,000 lanterns. This is a pilgrimage site, so phones/photos are strictly forbidden.


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Okunoin cemetery


Everything was within my expectations until I strolled towards the newer looking part of the cemetery… I first spotted a tombstone for the Panasonic Corp, followed by a coffee cup and saucer-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. Yet the most bizarre one has to be a rocket for the aerospace firm, Shin Meiwa Kogyo. Is this most sought-after cemetery in Japan? Definitely. If you were a ‘nobody’ in this lifetime, then getting a spot here would probably elevate you to a ‘somebody’. It seems like status still matters in the afterlife!


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After the long hours spent strolling around the cemetery, I took a bus back to Saizen-in before dinner time. The delicate and seasonal vegetarian/vegan dinner was served inside my room, and it was served by a friendly monk/lay person (not entirely sure if he is a monk because he worn non-monk clothing and doesn’t have a shaved head) who could speak quite good English. I asked him about the famous rock garden, and he told me that the room that faces the garden is occupied and so it is not available for viewing. However, he said he could try to arrange for me to see it after breakfast the next morning when the guests have checked out.



Vegetarian dinner at Saizen-in


The following morning, I got up early to attend the morning prayer and sutra chanting. I have been practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and studying mostly Zen Buddhism for the last few years, but I am not familiar with Shingon Buddhism and their rituals, so the session was a new experience for me. I also followed other Japanese guests and queued up to offer incense, which is considered a standard Buddhist tradition that takes place in many parts of Asia.






After breakfast, I went to see the friendly monk/lay person from last night and he told me to follow him. It turned out that a group of Japanese women have booked the garden room, but they gave him permission to let me in and admire the gardens! The three gardens were planted by Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich “Koyasan” of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

After we left the room, he led me upstairs to show me a different view of the garden, then he ook out his phone and enthusiastically shared with me photos that he has taken during different seasons. I felt very moved by his kind gesture.



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The rock gardens designed by Mirei Shigemori


Before leaving the mountain, I went out for a short stroll to enjoy another day of blue sky and warm temperature. It was a serene morning with few visitors and cars – it was a huge contrast from Osaka where I had stayed earlier. I felt great and was a bit sad to leave this behind.



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After checking out, I wanted to ask the receptionist if I could see the monk/lay person before I leave, and luckily, he was just walking down the corridor. I thanked him for everything and we chatted a little before I headed off. I don’t think my stay would have been the same if I didn’t encounter him. I probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but I think it was his hospitality that made the stay even more memorable.




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