Our very first day trip in Japan was to explore the mountainous region of Koya, in particular the small town of Koya-san. Koya-san is a small temple town, home to one of Japan’s most spiritual sites – Okunoin, a buddhist cemetery and location of the mausoleum of Shingon Buddhism’s founder, Kobo Daishi.
Today Okunoin is one of the most popular pilgrimage spots in Japan. There are over 200 000 tombstones that line the two kilometre approach to the main attraction of Okunoin – Torodo Hall (the main hall for worship) and Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum. It is the belief of the followers of Shingon Buddhism, that Kobo Daishi is not dead, but is resting in eternal meditation awaiting Buddha of the Future, and provides relief to all those requesting salvation in the interim. Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive such salvation is the reason why there are so many tombstones located in Okunoin.
Koya-san was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, which has ultimately led to an increase of visitors to the area. That, plus the mystical images of moss covered gravestones piqued our interest in the area and we loved the idea of a quiet trip out to the country side to experience a different side of Japan.
After a scenic ride through beautiful fir-tree covered mountains, we arrived at the Koya-san Station where we were whisked uphill in a very cool little cable car to the bus station. Here we purchased a one day bus pass to take us around the temple town.
Jumping off the bus at the stop for Okunoin, we began our walk through the cemetery. It was a quiet day when we visited, with very few others. The silence added to the eeriness. As we walked amongst the tombstones – some recent additions, large and ostentatious, others small and humble, having been erected decades ago and covered in silky green moss – we couldn’t quite describe the feeling. The cemetery was both beautiful, yet felt incredibly mysterious and ghostly despite being there in broad delight. Whilst no bodies are physically buried at Okunoin, we definitely felt some sort of ‘presence’…
At the rear of the complex towards the Torodo Hall, we came across a series of statues – these depicted Jizo, a Bodhisattva that looks after children, travelers and deceased souls. We watched as visitors made offerings to the statues, throwing water at them and praying for their family members.
We spent several hours wandering through Okunoin, appreciating the different tombstones and memorials – there was a place for everyone here. I was curious as to why the smaller statues wore clothing such as little hats and bright orange bibs – I later learnt that these are offerings made by mothers for their children to give them luck in the next life. It was both sweet and incredibly sad – evidence of a mother’s love.
We jumped back on the local Koya-san bus to explore the rest of the area, starting at the furtherest point – Daimon Gate – and working our way back towards town. The sheer size and detail of all the various temples and gates we came across was mind blowing – all of them incredibly picturesque set against the blue skies and sky-high cedar trees.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to spend as much time in Koya-san as we wanted to, as the last train back to Osaka left by 5PM. It’s definitely a spot worth staying the night in traditional ryokan accommodation and to make use of the many walking trails in the area and to really soak up the beautiful, spiritual atmosphere away from the hustle and bustle of modern-day Japan.
- How to get to Koya-san?
You can visit Koya-san as a day trip from Osaka. Take the Nankai Koya Line Express from NAMBA Station in Osaka to Koya-san. The journey takes about 1.5 hours and costs 1260 JPY / $14.65 AUD one way.
On arrival in Koya-san, you can purchase a one-day bus ticket which you can ride to view all the sightseeing spots in town. A one day pass is 830 JPY / $9.65 AUD