Sunday, February 17, 2019

THEPENGYO IN JAPAN Part 3: Magical forests, temples, and history in sleepy Koya-san

Sitting next to Totoro in Koyasan

While planning my trip to Japan, I was researching a second destination after Tokyo to visit. After an amazing time in Hakone last year, I wanted to find something more serene, small-town, and quiet. Basically the opposite of Tokyo. Koya-san seemed like the perfect candidate: a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is home to one of the most important places for Buddhists and is an oft-visited site of pilgrimage. The town was founded by monks, who created something inhabitable out of nothing in the mountains. These monks struck a deal with samurai, who ensured the survival of the temples against unfriendly forces.



The Ascent: Getting There


Cable car to Koyasan
View of the route of the cable car to Koyasan

The Chinese characters of Koya-san literally translate to "Tall wild mountain." It should come as no surprise that the town of Koya-san is a bit difficult to reach. Not impossible, but you'll have to do a bit of advance planning so as not to miss train connections. One misstep could set you back a day. You might even get stuck IN Koya-san on your way out. Literally the cat village scenario from a Murakami novel (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World for you die-hard fans).


Therefore, if you'd like to visit the small mountain town, I'd recommend you either plan heavily in advance or settle for a day trip from Osaka, where it is but a 2 or 3 hour journey from. To get there from Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Shin-Osaka Station (2hr 45min). Then, switch to the Midosuji Subway Line to Namba Station (15min, ¥270). From Namba Station, you may Nankai Koya Line to Gokurabashi Station at the foot of Mount Koya. OR, take the Nankai Koya Line from Shin-Imamiya Station to Gokurabashi Station. Bottom line is, you must somehow find the Nankai Line to end up at Gokurabashi Station.


At Gokurabashi Station, you must transfer to a cable car to get to the top. The 45 minute long ascent is a scenic one, gliding precariously through lush green forest and grinding to a stop at the top. At last, you have made it to Koya-san. Buses into the town are available at the cable car terminal.



Temple Stays: All You Need to Know

The exterior of our lodging, Sekishoin Ryokan Shukubo temple stay in Koyasan Japan
The garden within Sekishoin Ryokan Shukubo temple stay in Koyasan Japan
The interior of Sekishoin Ryokan Shukubo bath house

A big reason why I wanted to visit Koya-san in the first place was because I specifically wanted to stay at a temple stay (shukubo). This specific shukubo is also a Ryokan, which is a lodging containing an onsen, or Japanese bath house.

Temple stays are quite popular on Koya-san, but very expensive. There is only one guesthouse in town (the closest thing to a hostel you'll get to), and it is booked out very quickly. The booking process for these temple stays can be a bit tricky. There is a very unhelpful official shukubo website where it lists the various lodgings available but does not allow you to sort by price, location, or anything for that matter. In addition, bookings must be made by calling the premise, making it extremely difficult to plan for if you are not in Japan. What I ended up doing was booking through Agoda, which helped facilitated the process. The full amount of the booking must be paid on site and in cash, however -- keep that in mind!


While the price was steep, the experience was most definitely worth it. Splitting the room with two others, I was able to enjoy our humble lodgings and somewhat disconnect from the outside world (despite the place being equipped with WiFi; airplane mode is magical). At night, you are able to enjoy the onsen; there are two pools with varying degrees of heat. If onsens aren't your thing, there are also shower stalls on every floor. In the morning, you can choose to participate in the monk prayer ceremony and breakfast. It is quite early, at 7AM, so set your alarm well ahead. Breakfast will be a traditional vegetarian monk meal; definitely take advantage of this and get your money's worth!



Koyasan Sekishoin Ryokan: A standard temple stay on the main road of Koyasan, providing breakfast, ceremony, and onsen. 

Address: 571 Koyasan,Koyacho,Itogun, Koya, Koya, Japan 648-0211 
伊都郡高野町高野山571, 高野, 高野, 日本 648-0211
Price: JPY 22,680 / night


EAT: Traditional Buddhist Vegetarian Teishoku



A shot of a complete traditional Buddhist Japanese meal in Koyasan
A delicious vegetarian buddhist meal in Koyasan Japan

The Buddhist monks living on Koya-san were clearly not content with a flavorless life; they have created a special type of vegetarian meal which is far from bland. My favorite item would have to be the lightly flavored, silky freeze-dried sesame tofu. Topped with a small dollop of wasabi, it is refreshing, subtle, and delightful. Another favorite is the small side of sautéed bean sprouts and onions, which taste almost like gyudon toppings. And don't sleep on the red bean mochi, wrapped in a leaf. The mochi is both sweet and earthy thanks to its wrappings. Overall, a well-balanced meal with all flavor profiles represented. And it's completely vegetarian.

Cat flag at exterior of traditional restaurant in Koyasan Japan

To eat this sort of meal, simply pop into any one of the restaurants that line the main road of Koya-san (there is only one main road - hooray for small towns and their simplicity). I personally tried this un-named restaurant with a cat flag adorning the front door. The owner is a frantic, bespectacled man who will likely brush you away if you don't know what you want. And by the way, the menu is completely in Japanese. Maybe come prepared with a photo of what you want. Or a Japanese friend. Or at least Google Translate. 


Dinner option: Izakaya


Happily eating at an izakaya in Koyasan Japan
An izakaya in Koyasan Japan
Oden set at an izakaya in Koyasan Japan

Past 5PM, there isn't much to do in Koya-san. Most shops will start closing by this time, as well as the majority of temples and sights. You'll be lucky to find any open restaurants as well. For the day-trippers out there, this will not be too big of a deal. For the ones staying overnight, however, you may want to take note. 

We ended up finding a super small izakaya near the Okunoin Cemetery with a super sweet old couple running it. Always the reliable food option, an izakaya is like an old friend with a well-stocked fridge. Reliable and conveniently nocturnal, they will open their doors to you at strange hours of the night, right when you need them the most. The menu is limited but tasty - think yakitori, oden, okonomiyaki, beer, and sake. A nice and economical way to end your day. 

MUST SEE: Okunoin Cemetery


A dimly illuminated entrance of Okunoin Cemetery Koyasan Japan
Stone figureheads in Okunoin Cemetery Koyasan Japan
A path in the forest of Okunoin Cemetery Koyasan Japan

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Okunoin Cemetery is the largest cemetery in all of Japan and contains the mausoleum of the founder of Koya-san. A holy site, it is situated in the middle of a forest, giving it a quiet, magical air. The forest is littered with tombstones of other monks, as well as Japanese royalty of the past, memorials of soldiers, and more. The path from the entrance of the cemetery leads to an impressive mausoleum, where the grounds are deemed sacred and phones are not allowed. If you walk at a decent pace, it will take you about 20-30 minutes to get to the end. However, I'd recommend taking small detours and exploring the forest; some of the tombstones are of interesting historical figures while others are simply beautiful to look at. And while the cemetery is lovely at all hours of the day, there is something special about going early in the morning, when the air is cooler and the dawn mist remains lingering among the trees.

Temples, temples, temples



A rainy day at the temple in Koyasan Japan
Red pagoda on the grounds of Danjo-garan in Koyasan Japan


The iconic rotund pagoda of Danjo-garan.


Architecture detail of a temple in Koyasan Japan
A tree stump coin shrine located in a temple of Koyasan Japan

Lucky coins thrown onto a sacred tree stump on temple grounds of Kongobuji.

A calligraphy room in Kongobuji head monastery building
A calligraphy room in Kongobuji head monastery building different angle

A calligraphy-lined room in the Koyasan Temple Association.


As someone who has seen her fair share of temples, I can say with certainty that you won't be bored of Koya-san's temples and buildings. The temples are curated, preserved, and presented in such a way that is tasteful and stimulating. The sheer amount of history in each building, the stories of monks past, and the details in the architecture make for an experience that will open your eyes in wonderment.

The temples of Koya-san date back centuries ago and remain in excellent shape. While there are many, each with different stories and histories, the most notable are Kongobuji and Danjo-garan. There are several other buildings in each complex, which all have their varying uses and histories. Even the trees have a history, as shown by the above lucky tree stump, which visitors throw coins onto for good luck. While not a temple, the Koyasan Temple Association is also a worthy site to visit. Housing several historic rooms where monks performed ceremonies (including ritual suicide), it is a rare glimpse into the world of Koya-san. 

A misty landscape above the forests of Koyasan Japan

Koya-san is an unforgettable and unique little town, which not many tourists know about. If you are looking for an out-of-the-way adventure, an escape from the hustle and bustle of big cities, and a taste of history, I would highly recommend visiting this magical mountain town. 

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Stay tuned for the next part in this series: the beautiful art island of Naoshima!

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