I first heard of Koyasan when I quizzed a vegetarian friend about her own Japan trip. When I asked her what her highlight was, she paused and said, probably Koyasan. I was immediately intrigued and bookmarked it for a future visit.
Koyasan is well known for a number of things, but of most interest to most foreign visitors is probably the chance to stay in a temple lodgings known as shokubo. Although I’m not religious in any way this was something new and different for both of us.
Kanazawa – Koyasan Day 4
We said goodbye to Kanazawa station, with a round of ice cream and bread. A series of long train rides and transfers later, we found ourselves slowly making our way up the mountain. The cable car up to the Summit is by far the steepest cable car I have ever taken in my life! I looked out at the scenery with a mix of fear and excitement.
At the top of the cable car station, there were station attendants who helped everyone get on the right bus to their lodgings. This is particularly important as pedestrian traffic is forbidden on the windy road between the cable car station and the actual town.
The temple we stayed at: Yochi-inn, was a little far from most of the other lodgings. However, it was by far the most reasonably priced temple lodgings we could find for our dates. As an added bonus, it was directly opposite from the main garan complex, which houses many of the most profilic temples in Koyasan.
One of the highlights of shokubo is shojin ryori, or traditional Buddhist cuisine. I was pleasantly surprised by just how flavourful the soup was. Despite being vegetarian it had a deep almost fishy flavour. I can’t say that I found the pickles that convincing, but the tempura and superb Japanese rice completed the meal.
Dinner finished rather early so we had time to do a brief bit of exploring. We wandered over to the Daimon and the start of a very long pilgrimage route. Seeing as the temple had a 9pm curfew, we weren’t too keen on starting a 4 day walking trail. Instead, we made our way back to the Garan temple complex and the rest of the town. Even by night the myriad of temples, small and large were incredibly impressive.
Koyasan – Osaka Day 5
At 6am it was already light but still very chilly. Somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed for morning service at 6:30am.
If you’re expecting a completely authentic temple experience, this is not it. There are TVs in the rooms, the monks ask if you would like alcohol with dinner and there are even handy guide cards to help English speakers follow along with sutras. However, it is probably one of the only and best chances that foreigners have to interact with Japanese monks and experience life in a Japanese temple. At this morning prayer, the monk who oversaw it had excellent English and was more than happy to answer our questions on Buddhism and the path to becoming a monk in Japan.
Breakfast was a very simple affair. Rice, tofu, pickles and miso soup. Interestingly, the monks that had breakfast with us, also chanted another sutra before and after eating. Their breakfast was considerable more spartan, with only soup and rice.
Seeing as it was still early on in the day we decided to make the most of things and start our sight seeing early. We made our way back through the garan complex, towards the Tokugawa Mausoleum. Even though these two buildings commemorate the first two Tokugawa shogun they are surprisingly small and a little run down.
Kongo sanmai in was next on our list of places to check out. I was a little confused at first because it was marked as a rhododendron garden on one of the maps we received. Although the only rhododendrons I saw were starting to wilt, the temple has a lovely little garden and pagoda. I dare say it was one of the better tended gardens in all of Koyasan. I paid a rather modest sum to explore the grounds, but I’m fairly sure that you can also stay in the temple as well.
On the far east side of Koyasan is the Okunin temple walk. The grave stones leading up to the main temple feature memorials dedicated to a litany of famous figures, both ancient and recent. We were particularly caught up in the monuments dedicated to famous warriors and leaders in the Sengoku era. We also couldn’t help laughing at some of the more modern monuments, such as this one, which we supposed was commemorating the death of Panasonic.
Photos are not allowed at the main temples dedicated to Kobo Dashi. As a lay person without too much knowledge of esoteric Buddhism I wasn’t too sure what to expect. However, the sheer number of Japanese people, young and old alike making trips out to this area makes it pretty clear just how important this area is.
On our way back to collect our luggage we made a brief wagashi pit stop at Kasakuni.
This modest looking store only has a few simple varieties of wagashi, but everything we tried was pretty good. In fact the kurumi mochi was so good I good have easily eaten 5 of them. If it weren’t for all the extra travelling we would have to do I would have bought a box to eat later.
Our actual lunch was all the way on the other end of town at KadoGoma tofu. Although the variety lunch was exceedingly pretty it was the udon noodles that really made an impression. The soy milk dashi dipping sauce was far superior to any normal tsuyu I have ever tried.
With the afternoon heat setting in we made our back to Koyasan station. On the way to Osaka, we both slept so well that an elderly Japanese lady woke us up for the transfer! Getting to Osaka station was a sensory overload. The crush of people and maze like streets were almost too much! It was worlds away from the contemplative temples and flora of Koyasan.
Luckily, before too long, I tapped into my city girl roots and was ready for a round of exploring and dinner! Enya yakitori was just what I was craving. The highlights were definitely the cheese tsukune, shitake mushrooms and negi yakitori. As an added bonus it was also one of the first opportunities I had to practice my Japanese extensively. Somehow we managed to muddle our way through ordering and made a pretty good night out of things.
Koyasan is not the easiest place to get to, but by and large it is worth the hassle. It would be somewhat misleading to just label it as a place to experience temple lodgings. The austere aspects of monkhood are somewhat glossed over, giving way to a much more tourist friendly experience. Even with the tourist and car traffic this windy mountain town felt unique and just a little bit magical.
A trip to Koyasan is not fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass. We bought the Koyasan World Heritage ticket at Shin-Imamiya station. The regular ticket cost 2,860 yen and covers the round trip from Shin-Imamiya to Koyasan. It also entitles you unlimited bus rides in Koyasan and discounts to some of the attractions.
We were advised to leave behind bulky luggage in Osaka before proceeding to Koyasan. I can not recommend this enough. There are a fair few stairs on the trip to Koyasan. Not to mention the cable car up to the mountain can get very cramped and so can the buses in the town. We left out luggage in the Osaka station coin lockers, but there are also plenty of lockers in Namba station where you can easily stash things.
A nighttime tour of the okunin grave walk was much recommended. We were unable to do it because Yochi-in has a 9pm curfew. However, if you’re keen I suggest either staying somewhere much closer to okunin as many temple lodgings will shut their doors after a certain time at night. An alternate itinerary is to stay in a temple lodgings for one night to experience shokubo and to follow that up with a night in a guest house with no curfew.