I’ve always wanted to visit Koyasan as an off-the-beaten-path overnight trip and am so glad I finally had the chance to this February!
Koyasan is a UNESCO World Heritage registered mountainous area just outside of Kyoto and is a scared area and centre for Buddhist study and practice. It was establish many yeasrs ago by a famous Buddhist monk – Kobo Daishi Kukai – who wanted to create a space where fellow monks could practice away from other distractions.
These days, tourists often visit Koyasan as an overnight trip, staying in temple lodging (shubuko) and experiencing what it is like to live like a monk.
How to get to Koyasan
We travelled by car to Koyasan however there are a few public transport options as well, however tit does involve a few complex transits.
If you’re starting in Kyoto, the best thing to do is first get to JR Osaka Station, and then take the JR Loop Line (10 mins) to Shin-Imamiya Station. From here, you take the Nankai Koya Line (93 mins) to Gokurakubashi Station. Then, you take the Cable car (5 min) to Koyasan Station and then the Nankai Rinkan Bus (10 min) to Koya Town.
If you’re doing Koyasan as your first stop after arriving at Kansai International Airport, then you can take the Nankai Line (40 min) from Kansai-kuko station to Tengachaya Station. From there, take the Nankai Koya Line (90 mins) to Gokurakubashi Station. Then, you take the Cable car (5 min) to Koyasan Station and then the Nankai Rinkan Bus (10 min) to Koya Town.
Both routes take about 150 minutes, and driving also takes about the same amount of time.
Things to do
If you visit Koyasan as an overnight trip, here are a few things I recommend:
Stay overnight in temple lodging (Shubuko) – vegetarian meals + morning ceremony
There are 52 temple lodging options in Koyasan – most of which are scattered along the main street.
We stayed in temple lodging at Jimyo-in temple. Here, we had Buddhist vegetarian (Shojin Ryori) meals of dinner and breakfast served by the monks who lived in the temple. These meals were absolutely scrumptious (I love vegetarian food!) and filled with local produce with lots of mushrooms and tofu. There are two special tofu dishes in the area. The first is Koya-dofu ‘freeze-dried tofu’ – I am not a particular fan of it myself. The second is goma-dofu (sesame tofu) – a silky tofu dish I absolutely love.
Shojin Ryori is based on the concepts of five flavours, cooking methods and colors. each meal contains a grilled dish, deep-fried dish, pickled dish, tofu dish and soup dish and is so delicious and filling. The above images are of dinner, and the below of breakfast.
Our temple lodging rooms were similar to ryokan rooms – tatami mats on the ground with the kind monks coming in the evening and morning to transform and disassemble your futon beds.
In the mornings, all guests are invited to join the ‘otsutome’ (Buddhist Ceremony) held at the temple they are staying in. At Jimyo-in, this starts at 7AM and lasts around 30 minutes.
Do note however our temple lodging at Jimyo-in had shared public bathrooms, which meant that taking a shower was done in a communal room with multiple shower heads lined against the wall! A little bit of a culture shock for me, but luckily enough there weren’t many people staying here so my 50 second shower-and-dash was done without seeing anyone else!
Learn Ajikan Meditation at Ekoin Temple
Something that I loved doing was taking a meditation class at Ekoin temple which accepts visitors not staying at Ekoin to join as well. It was such an incredibly surreal experience practising meditation under the guidance of a Buddhist monk, in a temple in Koyasan, Japan!
Okunoin Cemetery is one of the most famous sights in Koyasan. Te entire route of Okunoin extends about 2km, starting at Ichinohashi bridge and ending at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. If you start at the beginning (Ichinohashi bridge), it takes about 40 minutes to walk to the end, one way. Alternatively, you can get dropped off at and start towards the midde near Koyasan Shubuko association Nakanohashi Office and do half of the walk instead.
Throughout the cemetery, the path is lined by old cedar trees and large lantern posts. There are more than 200,000 gravestones and memorials here for both important historical figures and everyday citizens. It’s an interesting sight, and a beautiful place for a morning walk.
Towards the end of the path, you’ll be met with Kobo Daishi Gobyo (Kobo Daishi Mausoleum). From here on, no photography is allowed. Here you can visit where Daishi remains in eternal meditation, lantern halls and a few other notable spots.
The main gate of Koyasan is Daimon and once you pass here, you have entered Koyasan. This 25m high gate is a pretty photo stop and has interesting statues on each side of the gate which are meant to watch over the town.
Danjo Garan Complex
There are quite a few temples and interesting sites in Koyasan that can be easily visited by foot. We visited Kongobuji and Danjo Garan Complex (Konpon Daito, Kondo, Fudodo and Miedo) which are easily reachable by foot from Jimyo-in.
These buildings form the historical beginnings of Koyasan as it was here where the monastic complex of Koyasan began its construction.
Nearby we also passed a beautiful red bridge and lake!
Kongobuji is the administrative head temple of Koyasan Shingon Buddhism and contains historical screen paintings and a stunning rock garden.
It costs 500Yen to enter and is open 8:30am – 5pm daily with last admission being 4:30pm.
Hope you enjoyed this guide to Koyasan, I definitely recommend it an overnight stay in the area for a unique off-the-beaten-path experience.