Spotlight: Koyasan (Mt Koya)

The other weekend, I had the pleasure of making the journey into the heartland of Wakayama Prefecture to the snowy precincts of Koyasan. Koyasan, or Mt Koya, is home to a temple complex that is celebrating its 1200th year in 2015 and ranks among travelers’ favorite destinations in Japan.

The temples of Koyasan were founded by the monk Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi) upon his return from China. Kukai brought with him Shingon Buddhism and needed a place to establish it in his home country of Japan. A legend of Koyasan says that before Kukai set sail, he threw a three-pronged vajra (a type of Buddhist instrument resembling a thunderbolt) into the wind and stated that wherever it landed he would build his temple there. While searching the woods of Wakayama a few years after his return, a hunter and his two dogs led Kukai to a the tree where the vajra had embedded itself. You can see the famed tree on the grounds of the Garan complex.

The complex of Koyasan extends for several kilometers, from the Daimon (Big Gate) on the western end to the Oku-no-in cemetery. Here are a few quick facts about the sites along the route:

  • Daimon – This massive entrance gate is where the main pilgrimage trail – the Choishi Michi – terminates. It’s considered Koyasan’s main entrance – a gate has stood here since the 12th century, although the current structure dates from 1705. The gate is guarded by two statues known as the Kongo Rikishi (Guardian Deities).
The Daimon at Koyasan
The Daimon at Koyasan
  • Garan Pagoda and Temples– This is Koyasan’s central temple complex, started by Kukai himself. It’s on the grounds here that you’ll find the famed pine tree, as well as the bright, 45 meter tall Konpon Daito Pagoda. The interior boasts a rare, three-dimensional mandala and a large statue of a cosmic Buddha. This is the only place in Koyasan where you will also find a Shinto shrine on the grounds, a throwback to the joining of the religions for centuries before the Meiji Restoration split them apart.
The main pagoda in the Garan temple complex
The main pagoda in the Garan temple complex
  • Kongobuji – This is the main monastery of the Shingon Sect but it wasn’t built until the 1590s, when warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi wanted it constructed to commemorate his mother. The temple’s main tourist draw are its beautiful painted sliding doors, even the realistic winter scenes in the room where Hideyoshi made his nephew, Hidetsugu, commit ritual suicide. There is also a lovely dry rock garden here – the largest in Japan – and you can enjoy free tea in the large tatami “lounge”.
Part of the garden at Kongobuji
Part of the garden at Kongobuji
  • Oku-no-in – This is Koyasan at its mysterious best, especially in winter or on foggy mornings. Kukai himself is buried in the temple at the back … or rather, in “eternal repose” in the an underground cellar. Some of the lamps here have supposedly been kept burning for over 900 years. The rest of the cemetery is filled with celebrities – from medieval warlords to modern-day CEOs – who wanted to spend their afterlife near Japan’s most influential monk.
Just a few of the graves in Oku-no-in
Just a few of the graves in Oku-no-in

One of the highlights of a trip to Koyasan is an overnight stay in a temple lodging. I’ll share my own experience in the next entry!

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