Okunoin cemetery

Life And Death on a Serene Japanese Mountain

Mount Kōya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mount Koyasan a.k.a Mount Kōya is mystical town located amid eight mountain peaks which are said to resemble a lotus plant. This unassuming town is the perfect spot to recharge when traveling around Japan. Lindsay, (my wife) and I decided to go on a whim and we found it to be a truly restful spot. l’ll explain why it’s so unique and describe their beautiful temple, sacred cemetery and a place to stop if when you need a pick-me-up between these two spiritual spots.

For me, Mount Kōya is on par with Jerusalem and Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment.) On this mountain, the sacred-ness permeates through almost everything.

Koyasan cable car
Koyasan cable car

Getting There
From Osaka it takes 2 hours to reach the top of the mountain but it feels as if it’s a world away. Osaka’s population is almost 2.7 million, the city is a modern, noisy and bustling. Mount Koyasan population is roughly 3,000 and the small town is very dated – and when I was there it almost felt vacant.

The further you are from big cities in Japan the more trains tend to be more charming and vintage. The Koyasan Cable Car did not disappoint. This train, built at roughly a 45 degree angle, carried my wife and me up the steep mountain.

As we ascended the mountain we were parallel to a beautiful stream descending the mountain. The small red bridge over the stream made me think of so many Japanese paintings and drawings.

As the train climbed it started to rain. To be honest, the rain started to dampen my spirit. However, a few minutes later the rain turned into snow! It was poetic, calming and beautiful. It helped set the mood for the rest of the visit.

At the top of the mountain the snow blanketed everything and deadened every sound. It made everything including us very peaceful. 

Henjoko-in, our accommodations and a monastery
Henjoko-in, a temple that has rooms for travelers

You’ve arrived:
Once we were in town we made our way to the temple ryokan: Henjoko-in. The monks were very hospitable and walked us to our room. Staying in this wooden monastery had its highlights and challenges.

The room was very simple. A closet, a window onto a small courtyard and a shrine area. The floor was covered with the tradition tatami mats and there were futons that would be laid out on the mats for us while we were at dinner.

After settling in we were invited to dinner which was comprised of simple vegetarian dishes. We were eager to eat. There may have been some mountain vegetables I didn’t recognize but it was all very tasty. The one noteworthy point – Lindsay’s paper lantern that surrounded the Sterno-like fire and was keeping the soup hot – caught FIRE! We doused it out. YIKES!

Lindsay settled into the room and I went for a short walk to take a few photos. Walking quietly in this small mountain town was wonderful. The snow, the quiet, the crisp cold air – I found
very rejuvenating.

Our dinner prepared- by the monks
Our dinner – prepared by monks

We went to bed wearing a bunch of clothing to stay warm. We were awakened with a gong for the morning prayers. The chanting was quickly explained. For me the room seemed to levitate. Just beautiful.

Lindsay had to move during the chants a few times. The intense incense smoke drifted right to her nose. It reminded me of the cartoons where the smell of food wafts through the room and makes a direct path to the characters nose. 

What to do, where to go:
If you are just there for a day or so like we were, I feel there are 3 main spots to visit: Okunoin Cemetery, Kongobuji Temple and Kasakuni.

Small Statue
Jizo Bosatsu in the Okunoin Cemetery. A stone figurine that represent spiritual beings who strive for the enlightenment of all creatures

Okunoin Cemetery The center of this cemetery is a mausoleum of Kūkai.  Okunoin is one of Japan’s most sacred sites and the lagers graveyard in Japan. 

First a little history that will give the destinations more meaning:

  • Kūkai (a.k.a.Kobo Daishi) lived  27 July 774 – 22 April 835
  • Kūkai was a Japanese Buddhist monk, civil servant, scholar, poet, and artist who founded the Esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism
  • Japan-Guide.com notes, “Instead of having died, Kobo Daishi is believed to rest in eternal meditation as he awaits Miroku Nyorai, the Buddha of the Future, and provides relief to those who ask for salvation.” 

Besides New Orleans I don’t visit cemeteries during a vacation, but this is different. This is intense but calming and beautiful but eerie. Once in the cemetery you can’t help but marvel at the  200,000+ tombstones along the almost two mile long approach to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. 

Kongōbu-ji Temple This temple was originally built in 1593 and is primarily known as the world headquarters of the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Britannica.com points out, “Koyasan Shingon Buddhism may be considered an attempt to reach the eternal wisdom of the Buddha that was not expressed in words and, thus, not in his public teaching.”

Britannica continues, “The sect believes that wisdom may be developed and realized through special ritual means employing body, speech, and mind, such as the use of symbolic gestures (mudras), mystical syllables (dharani), and mental concentration (Yoga). The whole is intended to arouse a sense of the pervading spiritual presence of the Buddha that lies inherent in all living things.”

Besides soaking in this mindful environment one of the highlights of this temple is the Ohiroma Room with gilded sliding doors that have have ornate cranes painted by Kano Tanyu in the 1600’s!

Halfway through the tour, we were invited to enjoy some tea and a cookie in a large tatami hall. Since it was very cold, I was happy to have tea and since I probably haven’t met a cookie I didn’t like, I was happy to indulge!

Behind the building is the Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest rock garden in Japan. The garden built in 1984, contains 140 large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi. The rocks represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds to protect the temple. Perhaps the temple, the snow, the mountain or the tea but we left feeling very happy, meditative and relaxed. 

Being on a sacred mountain top is special enough but here’s how to make it even more heavenly. Stop in Kasakuni, it’s a traditional sweet shop. After sliding the wooden door open and stepping in you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. 

They sell a variety of mochi displayed in simple wooden trays that may have been well used for a few many years if not decades. If you have a sweet tooth like me, you’ll have a hard time choosing, I can recommend the hanami dango!

The Sweet Shop
The perfect pick-me-ups!

There is also free tea in this cozy store. But don’t linger, I’ve read that it’s best to order, eat and when the sugar rush kicks in – move on!

To conclude:
I love Japan. This town is the cherry on top and a great respite from racing around the Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. I would like to visit each season in Mount Koyasan as I feel each season would have a significantly different atmosphere. This is certainly a pilgrimage of sorts but I don’t feel you need to be a Buddhist, you simply need to be sensitive to the enchanting, sublime and alluring nature of Mount Koyasan.

Have you been to Mount Kōya or another sacred spot? Please share below.

Read more: boutiquejapan.com/mount-koya/

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