Kōyasan – Getting Spiritual

In November 2019, I took my parents to Japan for their first time – and my seventh – over two weeks. This series is to be read as a diary, and serves as a place to showcase the pictures taken and preserve the memories made.

The daimon gate (lit: huge gate); a Japanese Important Cultural Property marking the entrance to Kōyasan

There is much about ourselves we can learn when we observe the moon. When it is full, it is dazzling, clear and pure, as is our mind when in a state of harmony. But as the moon changes phases with the passing of days, so to do our ever mercurial minds. To understand this is to divine one of the many teachings of Shingon (Japanese esoteric) Buddhism, where the lessons are inferred and implicit, never taught or explicit – and always hark back to nature.

And boy, is nature in its element in Kōyasan.

Date of trip: 14/Nov/2019 – 28/Nov/2019

This post may contain affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please visit the Affiliate Marketing Policy for more information.

All experiences – food, accommodation and activities in this post were independently paid for.

Series Contents

Day 1 – Hiroshima (introduction)Day 2 – Okayama/Kurashiki
Day 3 – OsakaDay 4 – Mount Koya
Day 5 – KyotoDay 6 – Kyoto
Day 7 – ArashiyamaDay 8 – Kyoto
Day 9 – Uji & NaraDay 10 – Hakone
Day 11 – HakoneDay 12-14 – Tokyo

Japan Day 4 – Kōyasan / Mount Kōya

But first up, a spam of momiji! Because there was no place in Japan where these were better.

It is certainly odd that I prefaced this entry with an unusually religious bent, but who writes about St Peter’s Basilica or the Hagia Sophia without a reference to their underlying meaning? But even if Buddhism isn’t your particular sutra, Kōyasan (or Mt Kōya – 高野山) – the ecclesiastical centre of Shingon Buddhism – also happens to be one of Japan’s most remarkable sites in general. To wit: even as an atheist, I’ve visited no less than three times.

Located in Wakayama Prefecture, Kōyasan refers to both the name of the temple settlement founded over 1200 years ago by the monk Kūkai (AKA Kōbō-Daishi – who needs an entire article to himself), and the 800m-above-sea-level plateau bordered by eight mountain peaks said to resemble a lotus plant. That last one’s a bit of a stretch – for the life of me I can’t visualise it – but like most apocryphal origin stories, it’s certainly is alluring.

Given its isolation, natural beauty – especially during autumn – and the plethora of spiritual sites, one can’t help but feel a tingle of something greater, especially after experiencing one of Kōyasan’s temple stays. Known as shukubō (宿坊), this is the traditional lodging method for pilgrims making their way here. If you’ve ever stayed at a ryokan, shukubō will be very familiar: Japanese-style (washitsu) rooms, an elaborate breakfast & dinner service, and quite often, a relaxing hot spring bath (onsen). The difference is that your meals will be fully vegetarian. Obviously. Again, if you’ve had even some experience with Japanese cuisine, you’ll know that this is in no way a disadvantage.

I’m not even sure if Kōyasan has accommodation that isn’t shukubō, but I strongly suggest you don’t do standard hotels or hostels here if your budget can afford it. A visit to Kōyasan is synonymous with a temple stay here, a yin that should not be separated from its yang.

The entrance to Ekōin, our shukubō for this visit. It is one of only few temples that offers viewing of the goma fire ritual, and is the starting point of the Okunoin cemetery night tour (more on this later).
You may not want your sound up for this one!

Ekōin is the best of three temple stays I’ve experienced – it’s the only one I’ve done that’s offered guests viewing of the goma fire ritual, it served some of the best vegetarian I’ve had in Japan, and the Okunoin night tour departs from here. Nuff said! I booked mine – and pretty much every hotel – via hotels.com (affiliate link).

For me, there is no place in Japan that combines the sense of serenity, beauty and spirituality more harmoniously than Kōyasan. If an atheist like me can derive this level of completeness from a temple settlement – three times, no less – it’s worth considering, no?

Getting here is not as easy as an A to B (instructions here), and the tourist crowds we faced during autumn definitely did put a dent in the tranquil atmosphere. You can try winter for a much quieter, albeit less colourful visit which guarantees you very little crowding. As per one of Shingon Buddhism’s key teachings – there’s a balance to be struck; it’s up to you to find it.

Except the coffee. At $8AUD for an assuredly unbalanced (read: bad) cup, I’m going to say that this is not the place to get your caffeine fix.

This post may contain affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please visit the Affiliate Marketing Policy for more information.

All experiences – food, accommodation and activities in this post were independently paid for.

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