University of Wisconsin–Madison

Koya-san

9000 meters high, two and a half hours from Osaka, 2 trains a bus and a cable car away resides Mount Koya (in Japanese it is called Koya-san with the “san” referring to mountain). I had planned to explore Koya-san after my supervisor recommended it; in fact my supervisor loves Koya-san so much he has travelled there on three separate occasions! I wasn’t expecting much other than a mountain top that would look pretty and some nice views of the surrounding valley, but little did I know it was like a smaller Kyoto!

I set off at 9, expecting to make a morning of the mountain, but didn’t arrive at the base of Koya-san until 11:30AM! From there, everyone piled in an old fashioned (and a little rickety) cable car.

The ride up was very steep, but we arrived in one piece and no one else seemed to be worried!

Once we arrived at the top, it was still another 10 minutes bus ride until everyone offloaded at okunoin, a famous mausoleum where many graves date back to the feudal system built inside a gigantic forest with trees up to 600 years old.

It took half an hour walking down the main path before reaching the main attraction: the temple of Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi, legend has it, was a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled to Japan to find a new site for monastery training. He arrived at Koya-san and. Upon deciding this would be the place to build, threw a coin to mark the spot for when he came back.years later he came back, found the coin he has thrown at the base of a tree and began building his monastery.

Temples are as beautiful and only slightly less abundant as Kyoto! Obviously there are less temples than Kyoto simple because Koya-san is a smaller area, but by number of temples per area, Kyoto and Koya-san could be equal! What made Koya-san even better was how few tourists there were (unlike Kyoto)!

On the walk back through okunoin, I stumbled upon a room filled and lined with gold lanterns. It was beautiful and I was hesitant to enter, but a monk at the entrance smiled and ushered me in. I was in awe; it is one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.

After okunoin, I took the bus to the other end of town which only took five minutes, where the massive temple Kobo Daishi built, called Konpon Daito, towers.

Five minutes walk beyond that, the Diamon gate rests at the edge of the mountain with a beautiful view of the valley below. However, I am not sure why the gate is so far away from the temple, and not clearly designated for the Konpon Daito temple. It stands at the edge of a clearing in the forest, on a hill facing a different direction than Konpon Daito temple. Some other temples, such as ones in Kyoto or Nara, have gates before their temples, but they are clearly connected as you can see the temple from the gate and there is a clear walkway from the gate to the temple. The Daimon gate had none of this.

After checking out all these pretty cool sights in the middle of this forest, rain started to come and so I quickly headed back to the train station to begin the commute home.

Many people stay overnight at Mount Koya, and you can even stay in a temple! If I had known this sooner, I would’ve definitely done this. Koya-san is also super foreigner friendly, and I would say half the people there when I went were foreigners! Everything is also in English so there was no trouble figuring out where to go. I was not expecting so many temples on a mountain, but I was pleasantly surprised. I perhaps would not recommend Koya-san for short time visitors of Japan just because it is so far out of the way, but if you have a couple days to spare and want to experience a totally different part of Japan, Koya-san is the place to go!