October 5, 2017
When you read in the guide books about Koyasan, a remote temple town high in the mountains of Kansai with more than 100 temples nestled in the wooded hills graced with majestic old growth Japanese cedar, who wouldn’t want to experience such a place? Then you read about getting there from Kyoto, 3.5 to 4 hours with 4 transfers, and you wonder if it is really worth it. Yes, if you have the time, it is worth it. In this post I will talk about the sights of Koyasan and in the following posts about logistics.
The first week in October Kyoto was jam packed with tourists everywhere we went. Although admittedly we mostly hit top sights. In Koyasan we had all the beauty and majesty of top notch temples without the crowds.
Arriving at Hongaku-in, our temple lodging for the night, at just after noon we dropped our bag, got some lunch in town and headed to the Kongobu-ji temple, headquarters for the Shingon sect.
On beautiful clear afternoon the light was a little harsh but the temperature perfect for strolling.
The temple’s worn dark gray wood exterior contrasts with its elegant interior chambers graced with superbly painted screen doors.
Most interior photos are not allowed but I snuck one in. Information sheets at the entrance of each room tell the history of the temple.
The large scale rock garden out back is a great contrast to the green foliage and old wooden structures.
Down the street from the temple is the Dai Garan, the heart of this Buddha center. A large complex of various structures built and rebuilt over the centuries as they have succumbed to fire more than once.
The most imposing of the lot is the bright orange Konpon Daito that towers over the complex. The interior is also brightly painted with columns of flowery bodhisattvas that surround golden statues of Dainichi Nyorai and his four accompanying Buddhas. Entrance 200 yen. No photos are allowed inside.
Kondo, the main hall is nearly the exact opposite of the Konpon Daito. Although impressive in size, it is a much smaller elegant dark wood structure. The interior is sublime in dark woods with impressive ceiling beams, a tatami mat floor, gilded columns, soft orange fabric banners and bodhisattva paintings in each corner. One of the most elegant interiors I’ve seen. Entrance 200 yen. No photos allowed.
There are another dozen or so buildings around the complex. There is no entry fee and strolling around the complex offers a number of photo ops.
On the opposite side of the town center is the Okuno-in Memorial Hall to Kobo Daishi. A 2K forest walkway through the cemetery leads to the memorial hall. For me this is one of the most stunning sights in Japan, or the world for that matter.
The light was soft at about 3PM. The combination of towering Japanese cypress, moss covered stone stupas, statuary and so forth is a photographer’s dream. A spectacular walk in any case. There are hundreds of corners, nooks and narrow lanes with grave stones, statues and stupas of all sizes and ages waiting to be explored. On a different day with different light you could start all over again.
From a historical standpoint this places has an interesting story. Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect, died in Koyasan in 835. His followers believe he is not really dead. He’s just inside his tomb meditating while waiting for the coming of Miroku, the future Buddha.
According to legend only Kobo Daishi will be able to interpret Miroku’s message of salvation, thus the faithful want their remains to be buried here close to the source so they can be among the first to hear the message.
Once at the Okuno-in Memorial the interiors are exquisite, dimly lit by lanterns and decorated in black and gold.
Tokugawa Family Mausoleum is a quick sight next to bus stop #4. The twin wooden structures are a minor sight but easy to visit if you are in the area. Entrance is 200 yen.