A Zen weekend at Koyasan

I fear the clock is ticking, so I’ve been working my way through my Japan bucketlist. Before Christmas last year, I took a weekend trip to Koyasan.
Koyasan is technically the start and end point of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage (Henro Trail) in Shikoku – another thing on my life bucketlist, but that requires 3 months of putting my life on hold (as well as savings) to walk 1200km.

Koyasan is in Wakayama prefecture, so at least I got to cross off my 36th (or is 37th?) prefecture in Japan. Only a few more to go now. It is the capital and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, and a popular place to visit for a shukubo (an overnight stay at a temple). It is also home to the Kobo Daishi Mausoleum.

It is an interesting enough place to visit. I went in the middle of winter, where there were barely any crowds. It’s normally quite the tourist attraction. I took an overnight bus from Tokyo to Osaka on a Friday night, and arrived in Osaka in the morning. From Osaka, I made my way by train to Gokurakubashi station. From there, the only way up is by cable car up the mountain about 1000m above sea level.

Train bound for Koyasan:

From Koyasan

And then the cable car.

From Koyasan

I think I nearly took every kind of automotive/vehicle to get here:
A bus, a train, a cable car, and then another bus.

At the top of the cable car, you’ll reach the bus stop which gives you access to Koyasan. Apparently, it is forbidden to walk from the bus terminal into the main town centre. Plenty of buses await:

From Koyasan

This particularly weekend happened to be super snowy and freezing cold. I spent much of the time being very cold.

Koyasan is a small town atop of a mountain. It has a population of about 4000 people, presumably most of whom are monks, given that there are over 100 temples found here.

Entrance into Koyasan:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Koyasan and Wakayama Prefecture both ticked off the bucketlist. Here’s the proof:

From Koyasan

The main attraction here is the Kobo Daishi Mausoleum, which is a 2km walk through the sacred burial ground of Okunoin where you’ll find over 200,000 monuments in a forest of cedar trees:

From Koyasan

There are lots of cedar trees. According to this sign, about 1300 of ’em. You could say that’s a treemendous amount!

From Koyasan

It was a pleasant, albeit very cold, stroll through the graveyard grounds. There was barely anyone around. Not a soul in sight. It was very peaceful.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Barely a soul around:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

So you get the drift. You walk about 2km along the well-marked trail until you reach the end where the main temple is.

Note: This is the NOT the main temple. This is the rest area where one can thaw out.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Here is the main temple/sacred area:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Beyond this bridge is the sacred mausoleum, and no photography permitted:

From Koyasan

For those that don’t want to walk the 2km in freezing snowing conditions through the Okunoin trail, you can actually drive/get a bus straight to the Mausoleum entrance.

I walked some more around the precincts:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

From this end, I could have walked all the way back from whence I came, but opted to get the bus back instead into the main town. I bought a pair of snow boots and chucked out the pair I was wearing. I was not prepared for such snowy conditions. Then I did some more sightseeing. There are plenty of different temples to see here.

This is the main Daimon Gate:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

It was practically a snowstorm by this stage. But nothing gets between me and my sightseeing!

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

It was below zero degrees!

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Some more trudging around in the snow:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Koyasan was/is a famous pilgrimage trail. There are about 7 roads that lead into Koyasan, but back in the day, women were forbidden to enter this area.

From Koyasan

At around 3pm I decided to check into my lodgings – a shukubo – a temple lodge. I needed to thaw out a bit. I was soo cold. Also having taken the overnight bus, I was kind of in need of a bit of relaxing and chilling out of a different kind.

The temple lodging I stayed at was big. It’s one of the more popular places to stay at – it has a nice little onsen inside and a small Japanese garden:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Inside the temple lodge, it was not much warmer. This was the indoor temperature:

From Koyasan

Thankfully, my room though was nice and warm once I cranked up the heating. That was more like it. I thawed out briefly, but heading out again for some more sightseeing before everything shut at 5pm. The town of Koyasan is quite small. Everything is in walking distance…the snow however made getting it around a lot more difficult and unpleasant.

For the rest of the day I took more photos as I walked around through more temple grounds, gardens and parks having a very zen old time.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Escape the crowds. Visit Koyasan in winter:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Later, back at the temple lodge I had a nice lovely warming onsen to defrost my body. Even had the onsen to myself as very few people were staying there.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Given that I was staying at a shukubo (temple), the meals served here are all vegetarian – a cuisine known as shojin-ryori (a Buddhist kaiseki vegetarian meal). There was no meat and no fish. There was still plenty of food though. It was quite the spread. And it’s served in your room.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

There was vegetable tempura, a soymilk broth nabe, soup, various vegetables and pickles etc, and a big portion of rice to fill you up.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

At a lot of these temple lodgings, you can also partake in the early morning meditation service, but I don’t think it was on when I was there. It seemed like a lot of the monks were away on holidays (probably somewhere warm).

The lodging had a nice small Japanese garden:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Breakfast in the morning, was another vegetarian course meal:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

On the Sunday morning, I did a tad more sightseeing before making my way back to the cable car, and the train ride back to Osaka.

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

Persimmon tree:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan
From Koyasan

View from the cable car:

From Koyasan

Back down on regular ground level, the weather was somewhat warmer and less white:

From Koyasan
From Koyasan

A day and a half (2 days max) was sufficient to see the sights at Koyasan. Probably could have saw a bit more but snow hampered the getting around a bit, even though it was all walkable, the area is serviced by local buses from one temple to another. I also wanted to get back to Osaka to do an afternoon tea there.
Koyasan is a good overnight trip if you happen to be sightseeing in the Kyoto/Osaka area. But yeah, maybe don’t go in the middle of winter.
And I stayed here.

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