Koyasan is one of the most sacred sites in Japan. It is a temple town that sits on a 900-meter plateau surrounded by eight peaks in the Kii Mountain Range, which some say represents the eight petals of a lotus flower. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Koyasan, Japan is the center of Shingon Buddhism, introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, who is also called Kukai. He searched for a place to build a temple and chose this secluded, wooded mountaintop.
Now, there are over 100 temples at Koyasan and it has been a sacred site for pilgrims for over 1200 years.
5 Things to Do in Koyasan, Japan
1. Visit Danjo Garan
Danjo Garan dates back to the founding of Koyasan. It was built by Kobo Daishi in the 9th century and is one of the central temples of Koyasan. Garan means a quiet and secluded place where Buddhist monks may train.
The Konpon Daito Pagoda means Great Pagoda. It is a beautiful vermilion two-tiered pagoda that is 49 meters tall. Construction began in 816 and was completed 70 years later. The current structure was rebuilt in 1937.
The Kondo Hall is a large wooden temple used to hold major ceremonies and Buddhist services. It was originally constructed in 819 but has burnt down many times. The current structure is from 1932.
2. Visit Kongobuji Temple
Kongobuji Temple is the head temple of more than 4000 temples of Shingon Buddhism. The temple was originally built in 1593 and rebuilt in 1863.
The exterior looks like any other temple, but go inside to see the real beauty. There are many rooms featuring impressive paintings on sliding doors, a gold-plated room, and a ceiling of carved flowers. You can also see a kitchen with traditional stoves and relax with some hot tea inside a large tatami sitting area.
The Banryutei Rock Garden was built in 1984 and is the largest rock garden in Japan. There are 140 pieces of granite from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, and white sand from Kyoto. The rocks represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.
3. Visit Okunoin Temple
Okunoin Temple is the largest cemetery in Japan and the resting place of Kobo Daishi. It is believed that he entered an eternal meditation for the liberation of all beings.
Ichinohashi Bridge is the traditional entrance. Visitors should bow to pay respect to Kobo Daishi before crossing.
There are over 200,000 tombstones along the two-kilometer approach to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Many are five-tiered stupa representing the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space from the bottom up.
You will also see rows of statues wearing bibs. Jizo Bosatsu watch over and protect children, travelers, and the souls of the deceased in the afterlife. Near Gokusho Offering Hall are the six forms of Jizo, where visitors can throw water at the statues and pray for deceased loved ones.
Once you reach Gobyobashi Bridge, there is no food, drink, or photography allowed. You should bow before crossing and keep your voice down while in the sacred area.
Torodo Hall, or Hall of Lamps, is in front of the mausoleum and the main hall for prayers because you can’t enter the mausoleum. There are 10,000 lanterns that are always kept lit.
If you go at night, keep in mind that the cemetery is poorly lit and the Hall of Lamps is not open.
4. Eat Shojin Ryori
The main cuisine in Koyasan is Shojin Ryori, which is Buddhist vegetarian. It is the monk’s diet that was established by Kobo Daishi. It is basically vegan and is supposed to include five flavors, five colors, and five cooking methods.
Koyasan is famous for Sesame Tofu and Koya-dofu.
Sesame tofu, called Goma-dofu in Japanese, is made from roasted white sesame seeds. It is boiled with a starch and has a nutty smell and silky texture.
Koya-dofu is freeze-dried tofu. It’s believed it was discovered by accident around 800 years ago when some tofu froze and was delicious when thawed out.
5. Experience a Temple Stay
Of the 117 temples at Koyasan, 52 offer lodging, called Shukubo. This is a very old tradition to give pilgrims a place to stay the night. Now, many of the temple lodgings welcome foreign tourists.
It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience the lifestyle of Buddhist monks. The rooms are traditional Japanese with futons on tatami flooring, sliding doors, and shared facilities. A stay typically includes dinner and breakfast and access to a Japanese style bath.
Keep in mind that it is not luxurious and best for just one night. You should send your suitcases to the next destination and only take an overnight bag. Most temple stays don’t have elevators and they don’t want suitcases scratching the wood floors and tatami mats.
How to Get to Koyasan
Travel from Osaka to Koyasan takes about two hours via the Nankai Railways. You need to take the Nankai Koya line from Namba Station to Gokurakubashi Station. Then, transfer to the cable car. At Koyasan Station, there are buses that will take you into town. Once in town, Koyasan is very walkable. Many of the sites are within minutes of each other.
You can get a Koyasan World Heritage Ticket that is valid for two days. The discount ticket includes round-trip train tickets, cable car tickets, unlimited bus rides, and discounted admission to select attractions.
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Becki and Shawn
Japan Travel Specialists
Hi, we’re Becki and Shawn! We love Japan and are truly passionate about Japan and Japan travel.
We’ve lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for 20+ years, so we know where to go, what to see, and how to get there. Join us in Japan for an adventure of a lifetime!