When planning our trip to Japan we wanted to have a few days away from the main cities and get out into the countryside. I can’t remember if it was our Lonely Planet guide or some Instagram inspiration that led us to choose Koyasan but I’m glad that we made the decision to spend two nights in this magical Buddhist settlement. If you want to get away from the hectic cities, Koyasan is the ideal place to slow down and get your zen on.
Koyasan lies almost directly south of Kyoto and to get there we first took a train to Nara – which is a common day trip for tourists from either Kyoto or Osaka. Nara is famous for its temples and shrines, the most well-known houses the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha at 15 metres high, but we were also intrigued by the bowing deer. Yes, BOWING deer!
Most of Nara’s sites are located in and around Nara-kōen, a park that is also home to around 1,200 free roaming deer. Deer crackers are sold from vendors throughout the park and the deer have learnt to bow to visitors in order to receive a cracker. Some of the deer can become a bit aggressive and intimidating if you don’t have any treats for them and will often ‘hunt’ down small children who end up getting freaked out and dropping their entire stack of crackers which is hilarious! These deer are cunning but pretty darn cute.
After our deer cuteness fill it was time to check out Tōdai-ji temple where Nara’s star attraction Dai-butsu (Great Buddha) sits. The impressive temple’s origin dates back to 728 and is still the largest wooden building in the world. We only had a few hours in Nara and could’ve easily spent more time wandering around the park, feeding the deer and checking out more temples but we had to get to Koyasan before 5pm so started to make our way South again.
From Nara we had to take a train and then a bus through the countryside and up the windy mountainous roads to Koyasan. I was gutted to find out that the usual mode of the last leg – a funicular – was out of action due to the tracks being damaged by a recent typhoon. Nevertheless, we arrived in Koyasan with ease (the Japanese transport system is slick!) and took one last bus into the settlement to our first temple stay at Zofukuin.
Koyasan is the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism, founded by Kobo Daishi in the year 885. Here there are more than 50 buddhist temples which offer lodgings for guests and serve shojin ryori (monks vegetarian cuisine). Guests are also invited to join a short morning prayer and ceremony early in the morning prior to breakfast – which was a great experience.
During the following day we set out to explore this sleepy town and its numerous temples. We started at the Danjo Garan Sacred Temple Complex which was opened by monk Kukai as a place for secret training. The most impressive building is the red and white Great Stupa, inspired by the lotus flower.
Koyasan is a very walkable destination. You can walk from the entrance of the town at the sacred Daimon Gate to the Okunoin Cemetery in less than an hour taking in numerous sights along the way. Lonely Planet describes Okunoin as one of Japan’s most intensely spiritual places and a popular pilgrimage spot. This was one of the sights I was looking forward to seeing the most. I admit I have a slightly strange obsession with cemeteries, I just find them quite beautiful and peaceful.
Okunoin was no exception, here over 200,000 tombstones line the 2km walk to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. We spent a good few hours exploring the old and newer parts of the cemetery as well as Torodo Hall where 10,000 lanterns are kept eternally lit and 50,000 tiny Buddha statues are housed in the basement.
In the afternoon we checked into our second temple accommodation at Kongō Sanmai-in which is actually a historic temple complex. The pagoda on this site was built in the 1200s and though they have now turned the main building into a hotel the decorations are still authentic. Our room at Kongō Sanmai-in was in the larger modern building, but still we enjoyed a traditional tatami room. The food here was unbelievably good and was served sitting in the tatami dining rooms in a large circle of guests.
Even though we had already spent hours exploring the Okunoin Cemetery during the day I also wanted to see it at night. It was beautifully eerie and quiet. We spent some time trying to play with the settings on my camera to capture the lanterns which didn’t turn out that great – I really want to invest in a new camera!
That about sums up our time in Japan! Our last day was an epic travel journey from Koyasan to Tokyo Haneda where we stayed close to the airport for our morning flight the next day. We spent just 11 nights in total in Japan taking in the sights of Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Nara and lastly Koyasan. Andrew and I have both fallen in love with Japan and have vowed to come back again soon. There is just so much to see and feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface.