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Mount Koya is one of the most sacred sites in Japan and the home of Shingon Buddhism, a sect which has millions of followers across the country and dates to 805 AD. The vast monastery complex of Koya-san was founded by a monk, Kobo Daishi (Kukai), who built the first temples on the plateau of the mountain in 826 AD.
Today, there are over a hundred temples atop Mount Koya, with some of the biggest being the head temple of Kongobuji and Kukai’s mausoleum, Okunoin. A visit to Koya-san is a spiritual pilgrimage and a truly authentic cultural experience.
To get to Mount Koya, which is in the Kansai region, the best route is from the city of Osaka. The Nankai Line express train from Nanba Station passes through the countryside of Wakayama to reach Gokurakubashi Station at the end of the line. The last part of the journey is via the Koya Cable Car, which pulls you up to the peak.
Once you reach the peaceful plateau of the summit and take in the spiritual atmosphere and gorgeous natural surroundings, any tension you have will lift from your shoulders. It’s hard to believe that you’re only two hours away from busy Osaka.
Many attempt a day trip to Koya, but the best way to see everything the mountainside escape has to offer is with an overnight stay at a temple. Immerse yourself in Shingon Buddhism and understand the monks’ way of life, eating vegetarian food (shojin ryori) and attending prayers.
Other popular activities in the area include hiking the pilgrimage trails around the beautiful natural scenery, learning about Buddhism with a lecture at a temple or at a museum, as well as simply sitting back and using the tranquil setting for quiet contemplation.
A visit to Koya-san is the perfect tonic to a busy sightseeing trip to Japan’s crowded and neon-bright cities, offering a glimpse into the world of Buddhism and religious Japan.
The plateau of Mount Koya is a cool 800 metres above sea level. Therefore, keep in mind that although it may be a sunny spring day in Osaka, the same may not be true of Koya-san’s summit. However, with such lush woodland surroundings and ancient temple buildings, Mount Koya is beautiful in any season, whether it’s covered in snow or the warming colours of autumn leaves.
An overnight stay in the monasteries of Mount Koya feature on both our Rural Japan Tour and our Food & Art: Cultural Tour of Japan. Both itineraries include a round trip from Osaka and a stay at a temple, where you will live side by side with Shingon Buddhist monks.
Wayfairer works with Shojoshin-in, one of the oldest and largest temples in Koya, which was once the humble hut residence of the monk Kukai. Your stay includes dinner (5pm) and breakfast (8am), both of which are shojin-ryori (vegetarian). You’ll stay in a Japanese-style Hanare cottage room, which includes bathroom facilities.