A Visit to the Okunoin Cemetary and an overnight Koyasan Temple Stay, are a must-do for many visitors to Japan, especially those seeking a spiritual experience and an insight into Japanese worship and culture.
On paper, the journey to reach Mount Koya – respectfully known as Koyasan in Japan – seems a bit convoluted. But the travel (usually from Osaka or Kyoto) via train, cable car and bus is a beautiful journey and well worth it to visit the centre of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.
Brought to Japan in 805 by Kobo Dashi, the Shingon Buddhist sect’s headquarters are based on this remote mountain top, and there are several historical temples here, many of them offering a unique overnight experience to guests.
A key attraction of Koyasan is Okunoin, the site of Kobi Dashi’s mausoleum, located within a vast graveyard in the woods, the largest cemetery in Japan with over 200,000 tombstones.
During the hours of dusk, lanterns are lit along the pathways through the moss- and lichen-covered stone memorials and shrines.
In daytime, the tall forest canopy filters the sunlight, creating a beautiful interplay of light and shadow. It’s a hugely different aesthetic to the typical European cemeteries and gravestones I’m more familiar with, and walking slowly along is immensely calming, a spiritual experience irrespective of one’s faith or belief system.
We stayed at Shojoshin-in, a beautiful temple dating from 824. It sits just next to the path leading into Okunoin, so its location is very convenient. Guests can stay in regular rooms within the main temple building, using shared gender-separated bathrooms, or book the hanare (a private residence in a separate building, with its own private bathroom and toilet).
One of the highlights of a stay at a Koyasan temple is the chance to try shojin ryori (traditional Bhuddist vegetarian cuisine), served for dinner and breakfast.
In the morning, guests are invited to observe the monks at prayer, and are shown around the temple.
Other temples offer participation in meditation sessions, and guided walks around Okunoin, so I recommend researching what is available before making your booking.
Travel to Koyasan by train from Osaka to Gokurakubashi, changing at Hashimoto station if a direct train is not available. From Gokurakubashi, take the cable car up the mountain, and finally a ten minute bus ride from the top station into the town centre.
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