|Okunoin, Koyasan, 15 October’16|
Japan, oh, Japan.
Blessed thanks to a work opportunity that happened at short notice (you’ll read more about it soon!), I was more than happy to return to Japan this October and spent six days based in Osaka, this time.
It being my sixth trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, you’d think that I’d be sick of the country by now, but nothing could be further away from the truth! Japan holds a unique position in my heart, and every visit further cements my love for this beautiful country that is like no other.
With three days to spare for leisure on this Japan trip, I decided to center my travel plans around Osaka this time. As I would be flying to and fro from Kansai International Airport, it didn’t make sense to venture out too far from Osaka/Kansai region and shell out a few hundred dollars for a railway pass like I did previously.
A bout of extensive research and googling about places of interest possible by traveling from Osaka and around the Kansai region turned up many options. After much consideration, I ended up deciding on a visit to Koyasan, UNESCO World Heritage Site, also touted as the most sacred place in Japan!
|Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery|
Mount Koya (高野山, Kōyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures.
Today, Koyasan is home to headquarters of the Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism, as well as the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and over one hundred temples. Many of the temples (shukubo) also take in guests, where you can get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle, eating vegetarian monk’s cuisine (shojin ryori) or even attend morning prayers and meditation sessions to attain your inner zen.
Spiritual peace aside, I was completely smitten by the beautiful photos I found online of Koyasan, as well as the chance to get an insight into an entirely different side of Japan by experiencing a temple stay on Koyasan.
Koyasan is in its full autumn splendour during end October to early November, and that would be the best time to visit!
You can choose to visit Koyasan as a day-trip or an overnight stay, but we went with booking an overnight temple stay via HotelsCombined.com for the complete experience!
|Trench dress: TheVelvetDolls // White shirt: Uniqlo // Jeans: Topshop // Bucket Bag: Rabeanco // Boots: Tip Toe Collections|
How To Get To Koyasan
Koyasan is reasonably accessible though it’s a bit of a challenge – It takes a train (or two) to get to Gokurakubashi Station, from where you need to get on another tram that climbs up Koyasan, before hopping on a bus to bring you into the town of Koyasan.
It sounds a little scary, but things are pretty straight forward once you get on the right train to Gokurabashi Station! All in all, it takes 1.5 to 2 hours from Osaka, which isn’t too bad at all.
Fortunately, Nankai Railway offers something called the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket – this nifty pass provides a round trip to Mount Koya (train and tram both), unlimited travel on buses on Mount Koya and discounted admission to selected tourist attractions on up to two consecutive days.
Koyasan World Heritage Ticket is available at major Nankai railway stations and travel agencies in the Osaka area. We purchased our Koyasan World Heritage Ticket from Nankai Namba Station, where the train to Koyasan also departs from.
With the Limited Express Version, for just 540 yen extra, we could take a direct Limited Express train straight from Nankai Namba Station to Gokurakubashi Station, saving us the hassle and time of doing a train transfer.
Important note: The Limited Express Version only allows you to ride a limited express train from Osaka to Gokurakubashi, but not back to Osaka. You’ll need to pay a fee of 780 yen at Gokurabashi Station (go to the ticketing counter!) on your way back to take the Limited Express Version back to Osaka!
|Koyasan World Heritage Ticket|
Also included in the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket – Unlimited use of Nankai Rinkan buses on Mount Koya, and discounted admission to some famous sight-seeing spots, Kongobuji, the Reihokan Museum and the Kondo Hall and Daito Pagoda at the Garan.
If you’ll be spending a night or two around Dotonbori/Namba area, it makes the most sense to fit Koyasan into your itinerary right before checking into your Airbnb accommodation at Dotonbori/Namba (This link gets you $40 off your first Airbnb booking!), which is exactly what we did!
To minimize hassle, we packed the necessities for our overnight stay at Koyasan into YZ’s cabin luggage and stowed my large luggage inside a locker at Nankai Namba Station for 700 yen a day (that works out to be 1400 yen in total for two days). This was a good move because it made the traveling up and down so much more convenient.
We reserved our seats on the 2.36PM Limited Express Train and had some lunch at Nankai Namba Station: This mean bowl of soba at Nankai Soba cost 500 yen!
Snacks for the train ride ahead: McDonald’s chicken nuggets and a limited edition bacon potato pie! It was surprisingly good, creamy and savory on the inside with McD’s signature crisp pie crust.
We were lucky to get fantastic weather during our stay. October is always a great time to visit Japan – You get the cool temperatures that come with the dying of summer and perfect sunny blue skies on good days.
The train sped steadily past sprawling suburban areas until we finally reached dense forests and nothing but green wilderness ahead of us.
Arrived at Gokurakubashi Station!
We stepped out of the train in anticipation, instantly aware of the dip in temperatures and the quiet stillness of the mountain air. Here was a different world already, away from the frantic bustle of Osaka’s cityscape.
The next step was to get onboard the funicular that would bring us to the top of Koyasan. This 5-minute tram ride climbed at an incredible 60 degrees and looked positively antiquated!
Up up and away we go!
It’s a two-way track that serves two cars, one that heads up and another that heads down – These two cars run on the same track and only bypass each other simultaneously in clockwork precision in that tiny split-track, so cool!
We boarded the Nankai Railway bus that’d bring us into town, free with our Koyasan World Heritage Ticket.
Although the railway staff had given us a map of Koyasan together with the bus route, we still missed our stop somehow! We ended up alighting at the next stop and walking a longer way to look for our temple accommodation, Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin.
The longer route wasn’t a chore at all, the cold mountain air and lush foliage were such a treat for the senses!
Although it’s not quite autumn yet on Koyasan in mid-October, there were already fall leaves turning colors into rich hues of orange and scarlet.. Just gorgeous!
I confess, I’ve been stalking the #koyasan hashtag on Instagram ever since I planned Koyasan into my itinerary. I was fervently keeping my fingers crossed for a sight of those resplendent red hues, so glad that I wasn’t disappointed!
|Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin|
Temple Accommodation on Koyasan
We finally arrived at the doorstep of Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin (just next to Koya Police Station #5 Bus Stop), our temple lodging for the night around 5 pm in the evening, and headed straight to check-in!
I booked Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin via HotelsCombined, a website that trawls through all the top travel websites from around the world, including Booking.com, Expedia, Hotels.com, Agoda and more, allowing me to compare prices and book the best possible deal!
There were quite a few temple lodgings to choose from via HotelsCombined but I finally decided to splurge on Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin because the temple grounds looked beautiful, plus it is the only temple on Koyasan to have its own outdoor onsen!
It was my first time booking through HotelsCombined, and I found the booking process fuss-free and seamless. The final price was around $460 (inclusive of tax) which worked out to be around $230 per pax inclusive of dinner and breakfast.
Rather pricey indeed, and if you don’t care for an outdoor onsen, I’d recommend booking one of the many other temple lodgings available via HotelsCombined, prices vary depending on how early in advance you book and can go as affordable as $100 per pax.
|Rock gardens inside Fukuchi-in|
The landscaped rock gardens within Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin were spectacular!
Even the gravel had been carefully raked through in patterns.. I am guilty to confess that I accidentally stepped on the gravel and destroyed a bit of it… Lol T_T
Upon checking in, an English-speaking temple staff brought us on a tour of the temple grounds. All shoes were left outside the lodging while we changed into slippers provided for us.
Love the calm and tranquil views around the temple. The gardens were all meticulously taken care of and so well-maintained, without a single rock out of place.
Our traditional Japanese-style room with tatami floors!
The rooms are only lockable from the inside, but each room has a safety deposit box to store your valuables. Amenities were simple, with just a small television and Japanese yukata (bathrobes) and towels provided for use.
Shared bathroom facilities also include a washing-up area with huge mirrors and hairdryers. There are no private bathrooms, as with most ryokans (Japanese-style inns).
We were informed that dinner would be served at 6.45PM and so we decided to get the most out of our money by heading straight for a soak in the onsen!
The public onsens are separated by gender, and like all onsens, require you to strip down completely before entering the bath area.
|Outdoor onsen at Fukuchi-in!|
Got lucky and had the onsen all to myself hehe.
The outdoor onsen was such a luxurious treat in the cool weather! A good soak in the hot spring water helped to loosen up my muscles and unwind. I felt so much more relaxed and rested! The onsen was unquestionably the highlight of the stay at Fukuchiin for me.
Lounge area for post-onsen chilling!
Dinner was served punctually at 6.45 pm and came in a stack of lacquered wooden trays that were laid out for us in our room. The staff kindly helped us snap a picture too! All ready to tuck in!
Most temple accommodations on Koyasan serve Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, also known as Shojin ryori. “Shojin” means vigour or energy and “Ryori” means cuisine. Presented in its simplistic Zen setting, it has an alluring gourmet taste that draws out the natural flavors of the freshest of vegetables.
Shojin ryori is usually simple, vegetarian fare and emphasises on eating seasonally, gentle seasoning and reducing waste as much as you can.
The main ingredients used include seasonal vegetables, dried foodstuffs such as seaweed, mushrooms, and tofu products whereas the main seasonings include salt, soy sauce, mirin and miso.
It is typically presented in a tray setting with a variety of dishes. Attention is also placed in its presentation, colors and taste to intrigue the 5 senses. A healthy cuisine, with no artificial colorings and flavorings, that brings high nutritional value.
There were so many dishes, many of which I didn’t recognize but ate anyway, HAHA. Surprisingly, most of the food tasted good despite everything being vegetarian/unrecognizable!
You might be surprised to find out that you can order yourself a bottle of sake or umeshu to accompany your dinner, but don’t expect it to be cheap. Even the bucket of ice came at a charge!
|Shojin Ryori dinner at Fukuchi-in|
I enjoyed the unusual dining experience, something that’s uniquely Japanese and you’ll never be able to find anywhere else in the world!
The temple doors close at 9 PM sharp, so we decided to stay in to enjoy a quiet night. Futons were laid out for us after dinner was cleared away, and we had a cozy night snuggling together on our futons!
Woke up to breakfast being served at 7.15am! There were morning prayers at 6am, but we were exhausted and didn’t manage to get up in time to take part in the morning prayers. It was just wayyyy too comfortable snuggled up in the futon on a chilly morning….. I did manage to get myself up for a soak in the indoor bath before breakfast, though!
Breakfast was a less elaborate affair than dinner, but the hot soup was comforting and warm first thing in the morning. We fuelled up on breakfast, rested a little while and packed up our belongings before checking out of our room at 9 am.
We were allowed to leave our baggage at the temple while we traipsed off sight-seeing, which was awesome!
|Parting shot at Fukuchi-in|
All in all, it was a good night’s stay at Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin, although I felt that our stay at the temple was somewhat commercialized and not as authentic as I’d imagined it would be. It was a beautiful temple still, and there wasn’t anything unpleasant about our experience.
If you’re looking to experience a temple stay still, perhaps check out the various temples available via HotelsCombined for the best value-for-money experience! 🙂
We headed off to the bus stop right outside our temple to wait for the bus bringing us to our first stop of the day, Okunoin – Koyasan’s famous cemetery and masoleum of Kobo Dashi.
|Bus map of Koyasan|
The bus routes are pretty straight forward and in fact, the entire Koyasan isn’t that big and is coverable on foot as well as by bus.
Our modern pilgramage begain at the Ichinohashi Bridge (first bridge) that marks the traditional entrance to Okunoin. Custom has it that one should bow to pay respect to Kobo Daishi before crossing the Ichinohashi bride. (Which I only found out after reading a sign upon crossing the bridge, duh.)
|Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery|
Okunoin’s cemetery is the largest in Japan with over 200,000 tombstones lining the almost two kilometer long approach to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.
Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.
I’m usually slightly creeped out by cemeteries, but Okunoin somehow felt serene, calm and peaceful. The weathered tombstones and statues seemed like they belonged to the cedar forest, with many of them overgrown with moss and creeping vines.
|Moss-covered gravestones at Okunoin|
Sunlight filtering through the tall cedar trees gave an ethereal and other-worldly look to Okunoin.
Stone lanterns befitting of a Hayao Miyazaki film. Spirited Away, perhaps? The stone lanterns are lit up at night, when you can visit for a surreal night-time stroll.
|Tall and imposing cedar trees in Okunoin|
Thousand-year-old cedar trees lining the pathway, providing us with shade and cool air.
|Asekaki Jizo shrine|
An interesting stop within Okunoin is a shrine where the statue of Asekaki Jizo (Sweating Jizo), a bodhisattva who takes the place of others in suffering, is found.
To its right is the Sugatami-no-ido, the Well of Reflections. Legend has it that if you look into the wall and do not see your reflection, you will die within the next three years. YZ and I peeked in and thankfully our reflections both showed up 😛
|Jizo statues in Okunoin|
Jizo statues can be found all around Okunoin, many of them “dressed” in bibs and hats discolored by the constant exposure to the elements.
Gorgeous colors of autumn adorning the trees on the way to Kobo Dashi’s mausoleum.
My best companion and I 🙂
Incredibly blessed with the perfect weather and autumn foliage that turned early and really made my day!
We ended our visit to Okunoin there, but you can also enter the mausoleum, or visit Torodo (Hall of Lanterns) in front of it. The Hall of Lanterns contains 10,000 lit lanterns and is a sight to behold!
Ice cream break before we took a bus to the other end of Koyasan, Daimon (Great Gate)!
Daimon (Great Gate)
|Daimon (Great Gate)|
This large gate marks the entrance to Mount Koya. Originally, the central gate was a “torii” gate located further down in the winding valley below. That gate burned down from forest fires and lightning, and it was rebuilt in its current location in 1705.
The two-tier tower spans across five section and is 25.1 meters tall. It is flanked by two Vadrajhara figures; they are considered to be the second largest such figures in Japan, after those at Todaiji, and are the work of Edo-period sculptors.
An inscription reads: “Kobo Daishi appears each morning, makes the rounds, and offers us salvation,” expressing the idea that Kobo Daishi is always with us.
We walked our way through the town of Koyasan, where you can find bustling activity with tourists and locals alike.
A shop selling Japanese trinkets, handkerchieves and even henro (pilgrim’s) robes.
|Lunch at Family Mart!|
Settled our lunch at Family Mart along the way! Oden, onigiri, fried chicken and sandwiches, you can’t go wrong with these at any Japanese combini.
Chumon (Middle Gate)
|Chumon, Middle Gate|
Chumon, also known as the Middle Gate.
This twin-tiered, five-sectioned tower stands at the lowest point before the entry to the Kondo. Following a large fire in Tempo 14 (1843), the Garan Danjo burned to the ground, save for the easternmost tower. The original Chumon gate was lost at that time, and for many years it was not restored. For the first time in 170 years, celebrating the 1,200th anniversary of Mount Koya’s founding, it has been rebuilt.
Four figures are consecrated here: Jigokuten, Tamonten, Komokuten, and Zochoten. Jigokuten and Tamonten date to the original Chumon gate and were spared the fire. They have been preserved and restored up to the present. Komokuten and Zochoten are new originals courtesy of Myokei Matsumoto, a master Buddhist sculpture carver.
Konpon Daito Pagoda
|Konpon Daito Pagoda|
Another historical building in Koyasan is the Konpon Daito, tallest building in Koyasan!
Kobo Daishi and his successor Shinzen Daitoku devoted themselves to the construction of this pagoda, which took from 816 through 887. Kobo Daishi referred to this pagoda as a representation of the universe, and, as it played a role as the central training dojo for the Shingon Sect, it was called the Konpon (principal) Daito. This is believed to be Japan’s first square two-storied pagoda. It enshrines an image of Vairocana in the womb real and is surrounded by four Buddhist figures from the Diamond Realm. The sixteen pillars that support it are inscribed with images of sixteen boddhisatvas, drawn by Insho Domoto. Images of the eight patriarchs who spread the teachings of esoteric Buddhism can be found in the four corners of the interior, with the inside of the pagoda itself forming a mandala.
From the Konpon Daito, you can then walk to Kongōbu-ji, one of the most well-known temples in Koyasan that has the largest Banryūtei (蟠龍庭) rock garden in all of Japan. (We gave that a miss because it was really crowded!)
Bought ourselves some roasted chestnuts for 780 yen, pricey. The chestnuts were really huge and ripe though!
|Stunning weather on Koyasan|
More autumn foliage on Koyasan!
|Loving the autumn foliage on Koyasan!|
So glad we managed to catch some of those autumn colors despite being a couple weeks too early :’)
We left Koyasan around 2.30 pm and took the bus back to the station to catch the tram down to Gokurakubashi Station! To best plan your schedule, refer to Hyperdia.com, which is your best information portal on train timings around Japan.
|Back down to Gukurakubashi via tram|
Remember to head to the ticketing office at Gokurakubashi Station if you want to reserve a seat on the Limited Express train back to Osaka! We reached Osaka around 5pm and made our way to our Airbnb accommodation located just a short walk away from Nankai Namba Station.
Goodbye to Koyasan, one of the most beautiful and spiritual places in Japan!
It was surely a one-of-a-kind experience for me and I truly appreciated the zen respite we enjoyed during our stay at Koyasan. Hope you enjoyed reading about our time on Koyasan!
PS. All photos in this blog post were taken with the Olympus E-PL8 or iPhone 7 plus.
For more of my Japan travelogues, check out these posts as well!
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