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Asia travel

Five reasons to visit Koya-san, Japan

Stay overnight in a temple, eat delicious vegan Japanese food, find your own piece of nirvana on Japan’s sacred mountain

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 2:38pm

If the hectic pace of Tokyo is one side of Japan, the holy mountain retreat of Koya-san is the other. Here in the Kii mountain range, the skyscrapers are replaced by historic pagodas and temples, urban sprawl by cedar forests. A short train journey from Osaka or the ancient capital of Nara, the Unesco World Heritage site of Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture offers a glimpse of what life was like 1,000 years ago. Well, almost; the journey up the mountain from Gokurakubashi train station is via a funicular railway, much like the one that ascends The Peak in Hong Kong. What greets you at the top couldn’t be more different. This Buddhist enclave offers the chance to stay overnight in a temple, eat fabulous food, wander through an ancient cemetery by moonlight before witnessing early morning prayers. Maybe you’ll even find your own piece of nirvana.

Experience shukubo

Imagine a traditional 9th century Japanese home. What does it look like? Overlooking an immaculate garden, with paper screens, tatami mat floors and futons, the accommodation offered by Koya-san’s 52 temples that take overnight guests – a practice known as shukubo – is as traditional as it gets. Be prepared for shared bathrooms, although this is part of the charm; bathing in a public hot-spring bath is a must-do in Japan.

However comfortable the temple lodgings are, the real attraction is an invitation to join the morning Buddhist ceremony. Open to all guests, this dawn prayer is not to be missed, though some travellers have complained that these mystical, meditative moments can be ruined by incessant photography. That’s certainly not the case at the 1,000 year-old Ekoin, where the 6am ceremony – which lasts about 30 minutes – in its main worship hall is quietly observed by all. Monks at Ekoin also perform the more dramatic goma taki, a fire ritual where wooden plates bearing personal wishes (you can write one for a small fee) are tossed into the fire during the chanting of mantra over the beating of a taiko drum. It’s all highly atmospheric and not to be missed, but restrict yourself to a couple of photos.

Feast on shojin-ryori

Japan isn’t known for its vegetarian food, and it’s common for most dishes to have at least some fish flavouring. Not so in Koya-san, where for some visitors the vegan cuisine of the monks is worth the trip alone. All the temples that offer accommodation also provide simple shojin-ryori meals (roughly translated as ‘cooking ascetics in pursuit of enlightenment’), which are generally served in the guest rooms.

With no meat, no animal products, no onion and no garlic (though the monks will happily fetch you Japanese sake or beer), the 100 per cent vegan shojin-ryori is simple and delicately flavoured. A balance of five colours and flavours, each serving includes udon, tofu, mountain potatoes, sesame tofu, yuba (soya milk film), and the infamous natto (fermented soya beans). Dashi stock is made from seaweed or vegetables, and it’s all irresistibly delicious.

Visit the Danjo Garan

Thanks to its bright red colour, the grand two-storey Konpon Daito pagoda at Danjo Garan is one of the most striking sights in Koya-san. Only a short stroll from the small town’s main road, Danjo Garan is a collection of over 20 buildings, from the main Kondo hall to many smaller shrines, pagodas and unmistakably Japanese tori gates.

Inside the Konpon Daito pagoda is the Dainichi Nyorai, or Cosmic Buddha, a statue that fills most of the building’s 45-metre height. It’s a terrific sight, as is the equally impressive smaller wooden pagoda behind it.

This complex is devoted to the study of Shingon esoteric Buddhism, brought from China in the ninth century by Kobo Daishi. Koya-san was founded by Daishi as a dojo (school) of Shingon, and it remains its headquarters. There were about 2,000 temples in Koya-san a couple of hundred years ago. That has dwindled to 123 today, but the town, and Danjo Garan in particular, remain a photographer’s dream.

Brave the Okuno-in cemetery

There are few graveyards worth visiting as a tourist, but Okuno-in has to be one of them. A lantern-lined cobblestone path reaches into a cedar forest past more than 200,000 tombs, some of which date back 1,000 years. It’s at its most atmospheric at nightfall, when the lanterns come on and cast eerie shadows. Travelling through the silent cemetery you can see huge statues, great stone tori gates and ancient, crumbling and moss-covered tombs stacked between huge cedars. There are dozens of bizarre and unexpected sights, from tiny red-bibbed Buddhas in tree hollows to corporate-sponsored cemetery plots bearing well-known brands such as Panasonic. If you’re brave enough, take a torch and follow one of the many stone paths into the pitch black forest.

The entrance to Okuno-in is a short walk from town, and it takes about 30 minutes to reach its centre – and Kobo Daishi’s venerated tomb – if you have a camera with you, give yourself at least an hour each way. You could also return in the daylight to see what you missed.

Marvel at Toro-do’s lanterns

Okuno-in doesn’t have to be visited at night – most people come by day – but those who cross the Ichi-no-hashi bridge at its centre after dark are treated to an unforgettable sight. As you stroll around the temple hundreds of permanently lit lanterns glow orange, lighting-up the wooden structure and throwing a soft glow into the surrounding forest. It’s believed that a few of the lanterns have been burning for over 900 years.

However, the reason why many pilgrims to make the journey to Okuno-in, and to Koya-san, is to pay respects to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. One of the most sacred places in Japan, whatever time of day or night you reach Toro-do you’re sure to witness someone praying and lighting incense. There may even be groups of henro, or pilgrims, which are an integral part of any visit to Koya-san. They’re easy to spot, usually dressed in white shirts, sedge hats and carrying a kongo-zue walking stick. They’re here to see Daishi’s grave – the holiest spot in Japan – which is precisely why there are so many tightly-packed tombstones in Okuno-in. Koya-san appears on many ‘100 places to see before you die’ lists, but it also transcends them.

Getting there

Although it’s possible to visit Koya-san on a day trip from Nara or Osaka, an overnight stay (which is easily possible from Tokyo) barely does this special place justice. The journey on the Nankai Electric Railway may seem complex, but the punctuality of Japanese trains makes it quick and easy. From Hong Kong you can fly to Osaka Kansai International on Hong Kong Express or Peach, or to Tokyo on Vanilla Air. For more info go to