Wakayama Prefecture is one of those places that really doesn’t get enough attention. With beautiful scenery and amazing traditional areas, there’s so much waiting to be discovered! One of those spots is the large temple area spread over the top of the 800-meter high Mt. Koya.
Everywhere in Mt. Koya, or Koyasan as it is also called, there are precinct grounds of temples. Surrounded by 1,000 meter-tall mountains, the basin, about 6 km from east to west and 3 km from north to south, looks like a large lotus flower. When you set foot in the precincts of the Kongobu-ji Temple, the head temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, you suddenly are presented with a panoramic view from the mountain forests and it feels as though you have stumbled upon another world.
In this article we will tell you about what there is to see and how you can enjoy the inner sanctuary of the Kongobu-ji Temple.
- Table of Contents
- What is Okunoin?
- Shukubo Ekoin: an unforgettable one-day ascetic training experience
- Find inner peace during a night walk on the anniversary of the death of Kobo Daishi
- Enjoy Koyasan through other tours also offered to learn more about the other-worldly Okunoin.
- Enjoy Koyasan sweets
- The temperature differences can be extreme on Koyasan. Be prepared!
What is Okunoin?
The mountain, Koyasan, is the sanctuary where a renowned Buddhist scholar, Kobo Daishi, practiced meditation, and it is seen as one of the most sacred areas. The sanctuary is about two kilometers from the Ichinohashi entrance. There are tens of thousands of graves along the path of worship that runs through the Osugi forest, and a majestic atmosphere fills the air. After sunset the glimmering light from the stone lanterns creates a subtle and profound atmosphere which is very alluring.
Staying at a shukubo so as to leisurely spend time sightseeing will better enable you to get a deeper understanding of Koyasan. Shukubo are lodgings for pilgrims at temples and shrines. They are beautiful spaces where you can wander around historic buildings and gardens, enjoy Buddhist cuisine, and even experience various kinds of “ascetic” training.
Because there’s so much to do even in this one spot, we’ve put together a one day training experience that you can do at the shukubo near Okunoin and a tour on which you can visit Okunoin at night.
Shukubo Ekoin: an unforgettable one-day ascetic training experience
Of the 117 temples on Mt. Koya about 50 have shukubo. One of them, Shukubo Ekoin, which is just a short walk from the Okunoin Ichinobashi Entrance, is where Kobo Daishi built a five-storied pagoda.
Here at Shukubo Ekoin you can experience one-day ascetic training. Let’s take a look at what that entails.
Ajikan is an esoteric form of meditation conducted in the Ajikan Dojo from 4:30 p.m. for about 30 minutes. In front of a lotus flower with “A” written in Sanskrit (representing Dainichi Nyorai), one corrects his or her posture, adjusts his or her breathing, and tries to feel at one with the world.
Clearing one's mind of unnecessary thoughts is not easy, but afterwards, you’ll feel very refreshed. It is good to practice at those times when you return home feeling irritated.
Copying sutras is one of the simplest training methods that has been practiced since ancient times. Here it is done by tracing over a faintly printed sutra with a brush pen. This is something you can do in your own room and all that is required is for you to not worry about the time but carefully and calmly trace each character. The completed copy is then offered to the Ekoin.
From 6:30 the next morning, high priests chant sutras in the imposing main hall, their voices reverberating in the morning air.
Next, from 7:00 a.m., the Goma Kito will be held in the Kongoin Bishamon-do. The Goma Kito is a form of prayer offering made by priests who make a Gomadan [wooden prayer sticks arranged in a stand] before the alter of Buddha which is then set on fire as the priests pray for various things. Observers put their hands together in prayer and pray not only for themselves but for others, too.
A one-day ascetic training experience gives you the opportunity to reevaluate yourself, heal your mind and body, and keep your thoughts healthy.
Training at Ekoin is conducted by priests who can speak English. In addition, there is an internet space and wireless LAN that can be used freely by the shukubo guests, making this a great place for foreign tourists.
Shukubo Special Head Temple Ekoin宿坊 準別格本山 惠光院
- Address 497 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
- Phone Number 0736-56-2514
Hours: Check In is between 2:00 p.m. And 10:00 p.m.; Check Out is until ～ 10:00 a.m.
Closed: always open
Access: From Nankai Koyasan Station take the Nankai Rinkan bus, get off at the Karukayado-mae 9 stop, and walk 2 minutes
Find inner peace during a night walk on the anniversary of the death of Kobo Daishi
The twenty-first of each month is designated as Odaishi-sama no Hi [Day of the Great Teacher], and is a time when various events are held in various parts of Japan to commemorate Kobo Daishi. On the night before at Koyasan, to commemorate the passing of Kobo Daishi, worshipers walk from Ichinohashi to his mausoleum carrying lanterns.
Beyond the gently flickering light, at the Torodo (the place of worship at the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi), one's attention is turned to the horaku (chanting of sutras and sounds of music in worship) and howa (stories based on the teachings of Buddhism). Sleeping in the tranquil quiet of the Okunoin you will probably awaken with an inner peace the next morning.
heart healing, Otaiya Night walk心の癒し・お逮夜ナイトウォーク
- Address Ichinohashi entrance 555 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Dates: the 20th of each month from 7:00 p.m.
Venue: Meeting in front of the Koyasan Shukubo Association Ichinobashi Information Center (may be canceled due to bad weather. Please check the information page of the website beforehand).
Fee: free *Reception is from 6:30 p.m.
On the 21st, the Day of the Great Teacher, the Hoon-in Koya Market is held at the Kongobu-ji head temple. The Hoon-in Koya Market is a market giving thanks to Kobo Daishi for his divine protection and delivering a life of fulfillment. There are also many types of attractions waiting to be discovered in Koya Town.
You can taste delicious local foods, experience special events held only on the 21st, and sponsor shops in the town provide refreshments in the form of meals, teas, sweets, and the like as well as special services all designed for the amusement of visitors.
- Address Parking at Kongobuji Temple 132 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Dates: the 21st of each month 10:00 a.m. ~ evening
Venue: in front of head temple Kongobu-ji (may be canceled due to bad weather. Please check the information page of the website beforehand).
Enjoy Koyasan through other tours also offered to learn more about the other-worldly Okunoin.
(1) Koyasan Okunoin Night Tour
Don't worry if you are unable to participate in the Otaiya Night Tour held on the 20th of every month. Awesome Tours offers a Koyasan Okunoin Night Tour that is held every day. A qualified person will accompany you from the meeting place and guide you through the precincts of the Kongobu-ji to the mausoleum.
Walking along the path to the temple lit only by the light of stone lanterns creates a mysterious air as nothing else is visible. Part of the charm of the night tour is seeing the silhouettes of flying squirrels moving among the large cedar trees, hearing the sounds of animals in the depths of the darkness, and realizing that living creatures exist among these many tombs.
This is a very enjoyable and easy to understand tour for first-time visitors to Koyasan as the tour stops at each important point for a detailed explanation. There are always two English-speaking guides on standby, so this tour is also recommended for foreign tourists. For those staying at the distant Okunoin shukubo, fortunately there is a round-trip bus that will enable them to return before the curfew.
Tour fee: from 2,300 yen (payment in advance online, including tax)
(2) Okunoin Day Tour & Koyasan Premium Hiking
Awesome Tours also organizes many other tours. One of these is the Okunoin Day Tour & Koyasan Premium Hiking tour. After attending a special ritual in Okunoin, participants will walk along a section of the ancient pilgrimage trail. Participants are able to enjoy a panoramic view of the mountains surrounding Koyasan. This is a delightful and easy tour as no mountain hiking techniques are required and a lunch is also provided.
Participation fee: from 4,700 yen (that is the amount for one person in a group of four, including tax) *Please make reservations at least 2 days in advance.
(3) Kimono and Tea Ceremony Experience
If you would prefer not to go hiking, then how about wearing a kimono and experiencing the tea ceremony? This authentic tea ceremony held in Ekoin is limited to one group at a time. This is recommended for travelers as it is not necessary to bring anything. Learning the correct way to perform the ceremony from a tea master makes for a wonderful memory.
Participation fee: from 4,000 yen (that is the amount for one person in a group of four, including tax)
For more information about other tours also offered please check the website.
*Participation fees are those as of November 2019
Telephone: 0736-26-7311 (English is possible)
Closed: always open
Enjoy Koyasan sweets
Koyasan is famous for its Shojin Ryori [Buddhist Cuisine], but all the sweets here also are noted for their deep flavor. Here are some suggestions for light snacks you can eat while walking about.
The history of yakimochi is old, tracing its beginnings to a salty rice cake made by an old woman at the time Kobo Daishi founded Koyasan. In comes in two types of palm-sized soft white rice cake and mugwort rice cake wrapped around bean paste that is not too sweet (110 yen each, including tax). You should eat them as soon as possible as the expiration date is usually after two days.
The famous confectionery, Mirokuishi, is a bite-sized candy shaped like the Miroku Stone, which is said to be the stone of fulfillment of the spirit located at the side of the pathway leading to Okunoin. The buns, lumpy bean paste wrapped in moist dough and slowly steamed, have an elegant taste. These make excellent gifts because they will keep for up to 14 days. (A box of 6 starts at 700 yen, tax included)
For those who don't particularly like bean paste, I suggest trying the Fresh Cream Daifuku [soft rice cake filled with whipped cream] Koya Mu. This is a pure white, round daifuku filled with Koya tofu powder kneaded into a fresh cream made from vegetable oil and Turkish delight. There are two types of flavors: plain and Kishu plum & jabara flavor (160 yen each, tax included). We recommend food hopping in Koyasan.
The temperature differences can be extreme on Koyasan. Be prepared!
Koyasan is an area where the differences in temperature can be extreme. In summer the temperature is 5 to 10 degrees lower than that in the city and in winter it becomes covered in snow. When going on a night tour between spring and autumn, it is a good idea to bring along an extra outer layer of clothing. You should also remember to bring rain gear because the area also gets relatively more rain. There are stone-paved pathways and stairways so sneakers are recommended.
If you are well prepare you will be able to fully enjoy all that the Koyasan World Heritage Site has to offer.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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