seeking to spread shingon buddhism in japan, kukai (空海) was in search of a holy mountain like he had seen in china during his stay there. according to legend, he encountered a local god and goddess in the mountains of the ki province of japan. guided by their messengers, a black and white dog, he found a high plateau surrounded by eight peaks. the same as the number of petals on a lotus flower. this place was called koya-san and currently serves as the headquarters of shingon buddhism in japan.
if you are staying in the osaka area, taking a day to visit koya-san is highly recommended. from osaka, it will take about 2 hours by train to arrive at the top of the mountain. you can get there as early as 8:10am. from osaka get to the namba (難波駅) or shin-imamiya station (新今宮駅). from these stations board the nankai koya line (南海高野線) and board the express train. make sure to purchase the ticket package from the station attendants. they will sell you round trip train, cable car, and unlimited bus tickets for 2 days (you can use them all in one day) plus 20% off admission tickets for a very good discount. from namba station the package costs 3,310 yen per person.
after arriving at the top of the mountain by cable car, take one of the buses to get into town. which bus you get on depends on your destination, so ask the clerks at the small bus station. plus here you can pick up a very handy english map. i suggest riding the bus to daimon (大門), which is on the west end of the koya-san area. from there, walk eastwardly through the many sights until you reach kukai mausoleum (空海の墓) and oku-no-in (奥の院). if you don’t want to make the roughly 3.8 kilometer (2.4 mile) walk, then you can take a bus from kongobu-ji (金剛峯寺) to okuno-in-mae (奥の院前) bus stop. no photos are allowed so i cannot show you the inside of okuno-in or toro-do, but these buildings are truly inspiring. toro-do has over 1,000 lamps all light into a small room. it is amazing, so make sure to check it out.
koya-san is a large and beautiful place set in the mountains with great vistas all around. as such i recommend that you stay at a temple for one night. they are called shukubo (宿坊) and there are many to stay at. though not obligatory, you might be asked to participate in prayer and/or some minor work. it is part of the experience for religious pilgrims. there is also a youth hostel on the mountain, and the cheapest option.
the ride up the mountain side on the train has some very nice views. make sure to sit on the right side of the train. ;)
after which you will be greeted to a very steep cable car ride for a few minutes.
from daimon, the first major area that you will come across is danjo garan (壇上伽藍). there are several sacred temples in this complex. this is konpon daito (根本大塔). not only is the exterior impressive, but the interior is just amazing. very reminiscent of indian temples.
two other buildings of great importance in this area are miedo (御影堂) and kondo (金堂). miedo is used for housing buddhist images and chanting sutras. it’s gently sloping roof design is different from all other buildings in the area. in this photo, it’s the building in the middle.
this is kondo.
some of the detail of sannoin, another building in this area.
at certain times of the day you will run into some chanting monks. you can take photos, but please keep some distance. ;) check out the video at the end of this post to listen to them chant the sutras.
detailed wood work on another building. i like the appearance of these buildings with natural wood better.
making my way east from danjo goran, heading to kongobu-ji (金剛峰寺).
a sleeping monk child. so cute.
before kongobu-ji, stop by daishi-kyokai (大師教会). you are allowed to take photos inside and they have chanting that you can observe a few times a day. for an even better english map than the one you picked up at the bus station and further information stop by the building next door. daishi-kyokai on a sunny day.
the interior of daishi-kyokai.
the walk along the street is very nice.
entrance to kongobu-ji.
the roof of kongobu-ji. if there is a fire, they run up a ladder and pull on the chains to spill the water in the bucket. there’s a few of them.
this hall has awesome wall paintings. the tree in particular is impressive.
pick up your free cup of tea and sweet while you take a breather. you can also read the sutras on the wall. ;)
as you head further east, you will come up to a path through a cemetery that veers to the left over a pedestrian bridge. make sure you head in that direction.
some sites through the path heading towards okuno-in.
these shapes repeated frequently throughout the area.
this little statue is prepared for the cold winter months.
some more little statues.
this guy had the most elaborate outfit.
a pyramid of smaller statues in the background is for the sake of children.
as an offering for the dead, worshipers pour water on these statues.
i went again during the winter to take more photos and stay at a temple. the meals are vegetarian and very delicious. you will also have the opportunity to get up early in the morning and join in prayer/meditation and other activities. if you want to stay in a temple, you must make a reservation at least one day prior.
a map showing an overview of the area:
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