Welcome back to the final instalment in the mini-series on my top Japanese locations! If you haven’t yet, make sure you check out the first two posts on Okayama and Tottori! This week I will introduce you to my absolute favourite place in Japan, situated at the top of Mt. Kōya in Wakayama. Wakayama prefecture is just south of Osaka and is known for its mountainous terrain, with many of its cities located along the coast. I was lucky enough to join my friend and her boss on a road trip up to Kōya-san to visit his favourite shrine and the surrounding area.
If you’re looking for something a little off the beaten track in Japan, I highly recommend visiting Kōya-san in Wakayama! The summit can be reached by public transport from Osaka: The Japan Guide have a handy guide on reaching the summit! As always, there’s more out there to explore – if you have travel recommendations for Wakayama prefecture, please let us know! The following sites are all situated at the top of Mt. Kōya in Wakayama prefecture.
高野山 (こうやさん) kōyasan = Mt. Kōya (san = Mt. )
和歌山県 (わかやまけん) wakayamaken = Wakayama prefecture (ken = prefecture)
Okunoin Cemetery - 奥の院
Around mid-to-late May, we set off early to Mt. Kōya. On arrival at the peak we headed over to Ichi-no-hashi bridge to follow the trail through the cemetery. Okay, I know a cemetery doesn’t sound so appealing, but it's very calming and ethereal, and I can honestly say this is my number one favourite place in Japan. High up at the mountain top, the weather was cool, the sun shone through the trees and the birds sang – absolute tranquillity!
There were other tourists and shrine-goers, but, unlike many famous tourist destinations, it was quiet enough to enjoy the stroll through the cemetery. My friend’s boss (who became our travel guide) explained some of the history behind the cemetery. Okunoin is the final resting place of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in the 9th century. In the decade or two before his death, he was granted permission to create a peaceful mountain retreat at Mt. Kōya away from ‘worldly affairs’.
The area became a highly religious site with plenty of history sat amongst the quiet forestry. The area is sacred, and the cemetery is filled with thousands of ancient graves, including prominent monks, military commanders and feudal lords. However, you will also find contributions from modern-day organisations like Panasonic and fire brigades, to honour employees who have passed away.
Alongside the path, you will notice small statues often wearing bibs or caps. This is because the statues represent the Buddhist deity, Jizo, who is said to protect travellers, children, and all souls of the deceased who are ‘in limbo’. People dress the statues that represent a lost loved one this way because red bibs were supposedly once worn by children in ancient times, and the colour red traditionally conveys protection.
As the largest graveyard in Japan, there are thousands more graves lining the 2km path and stretching back into the trees as far as the eye can see. The ancient gravestones are covered in moss and nestled between the colossal trees, inducing a peculiar and extraordinary feeling as you wander onwards. I found the cemetery very beautiful, and took dozens of photos - my favourite of which is at the top of this page!
At the end of the path is the Gobyōbashi bridge. It is said that when you cross the bridge, you also cross a spiritual boundary into a more sacred inner circle. Before crossing, you should wash your hands to the right of here, and also pour water over the feet of the statues. These statues are known as Mizumuke Jizo (or water-covered Jizo) to pray for loved ones who have passed away. I’ve heard that pouring water over only one statue (and only over the legs and feet) shows modesty!
Now you may cross the bridge towards Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum – according to Buddhist legend, Daishi is not dead but resting eternally in deep meditation. Next to his mausoleum is the torodo (or the lantern hall), where you may purchase a slip of paper on which you write your wish to leave at the temple.
Once you have crossed back over the river, you can check out the Miroku Stone, which now lies to your right of the bridge. The stone is encased in a cage, and visitors are challenged to pick up the stone with just one hand and raise it to a higher platform. It is said that 'good people' find this activity much easier than 'bad people' do. Before you leave, don't forget to visit the Gokusho hall (behind the Mizumuke Jizo) where you can purchase omamori and a goshuin.
燈籠堂 (とうろうどう) todoro = hall of hanging lanterns
お守り (おまもり) omamori = protective charm
御朱印 (ごしゅいん) goshuin = Seal depicting pilgrimage to a religious site
My friend’s boss generously gifted us goshuinchō made from the wood of the local trees, and my first goshuin is from this wonderful site! 'What is a goshuinchō?', I hear you ask: find out in this blog post all about goshuinchō!
Kongobuji Temple and Danjō-Garan
Next we headed over to Kongobuji Temple, the head monastery of the Shingon sect, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a military general) to commemorate his mother in 1582. However, the current structure was rebuilt in the 19th century, and still features many gilded sliding doors painted in the early 17th century by Kanō Tanyū, a Japanese artist. Kongobuji temple, meaning Temple of the Diamond Mountain Peak, is also home to Japan’s largest banryūtei rock garden! You can enter the building to see for yourself and even enjoy tea – please note there is an admission fee of around ¥200 and you will have to remove your shoes!
〜寺 (じ) ji = (as a suffix) temple. The character on its own is read as てら tera
金剛峯寺 (こんごうぶじ) kongoubuji = Kongobuji Temple (kongō means diamond)
蟠龍庭 (ばんりゅうてい) banryutei = rock garden
Heading westwards, we arrived at Danjō-garan – Mt. Kōya’s central temple complex which is brimming with enormous religious structures and historical sites. Meandering along the path, we passed Toto Pagoda and Daiedo Hall on our right before reaching Konpon Daito Pagoda and Kondo hall – two of the most prominent buildings within the complex. The pagoda is 45 metres tall and houses a statue of the central Buddha within the Shingo sect, Dainichi Nyorai (also known as the Cosmic Buddha or Variocana). You can enter the pagoda for a small fee, but photography is not permitted.
The Kondo Hall is a large wooden structure alongside the pagoda, and major religious ceremonies take place here. Enshrined here is the Buddha of medicine and healing, Yakushi Nyorai. You can also purchase omamori and other charms at the stall next to the Kondo Hall.
nyorai means 'perfect one' and is a suffix of high-ranking Buddhist deities
It is said that while studying in China, Kobo Daishi threw his sankosho (a three-pronged Buddhist ceremonial instrument) eastwards. Later, when Daishi had returned to Japan and was searching for the right location to base his new religion, he found the sankosho in a pine tree atop Mt. Kōya. This prompted Daishi to found the Shingon headquarters at the mountaintop, and he began constructing what would become Danjō-Garan. To the left of Konpon Daito Pagoda and behind the Kondo Hall, is the pine tree where Daishi is believed to have found his sankosho. Out of respect, it sits behind fencing painted bright red to match the pagodas.
三鈷杵 (さんこしょ) sankosho = A double-ended trident used in Buddhist ceremonies
After Daishi’s death, many more pagodas and halls were constructed on the site, including the Kōya Myojin Shrine (which enshriens local Shinto deities), the Miedo Founders Hall, the Toto Pagoda and the Saito Pagoda. To the south of Kondo Hall is the chūmon or 'main gateway' to the religious site - this too is an immense structure common to Buddhist sites and often feature statues of warden gods. We circled around the site several times to ensure we saw everything – make sure you don’t miss the beautiful lotus pond nearby!
中門 (ちゅうもん) chūmon = central gate to the main hall of a temple
蓮池 (はすいけ) hasuike = lotus pond
The Reihokan is a museum dedicated to preserving and showcasing ancient religious works of art owned by various temples on Mt. Kōya. The museum has three exhibitions halls, and displays both temporary and permanent artefacts. Amongst artwork depicting the Buddhist nirvana, sutras, statues and various ancient mandalas is a scroll highlighting the superiority of Buddhism written by Kobo Daishi himself! If you’re a big history buff, the museum is another fantastic opportunity to see the remaining artworks and artefacts from Mt. Kōya. From memory, I think you also have to remove your shoes here, but don’t worry, you are provided with slippers!
霊宝 (れいほう) reihō= sacred treasures
Okay, so this was a pretty long one, but I thought I would get in as much of my trip as possible! I really hope this blog post (if not just the photos) has inspired you to visit Mt Kōya! It's perhaps my most cherished memory of travelling in Japan and I definitely recommend seeing it for yourself. I don't think pictures ever fully capture an experience (standing next to the trees in Okunoin cemetery makes you feel tiny!) The ethereal cemetery alone is somehow both eerie and peaceful, and everywhere you look is just so photogenic! As always, I'm sure there's more to explore as I've only described what I got up to on my daytrip to the sacred mountain top. Thanks again for checking out my travel recommendations, and if you haven't already, make sure you read the other blog posts on Okayama and Tottori!
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