Mount Koya, or Koyasan, is the home of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism and one of the three sacred sites in this area recognized by UNESCO in 2004.
Over 1200 years ago, the Japanese monk, scholar, engineer, poet and calligrapher Kukai (Kobo-Daishi), founder of the Shingon or “True Word” school of Buddhism, established a monastery in a high valley amid the eight peaks of Koyasan, for the study and practice of esoteric Buddhism. The original monastery grew into the town of Koya, with over 100 temples and for centuries a popular place of pilgrimage for many Japanese people.
One of the main attractions of Koyasan is Okunoin, the largest Buddhist cemetery in Japan, where the followers of Kobo Daishi believe he is resting in eternal meditation. Stone lanterns and centuries-old cedar trees line the path through the cemetery to his mausoleum.
Weather permitting, we take an atmospheric night walk along the lantern lit path to the mausoleum, with a local monk as our guide.
Until 1872, women who made a pilgrimage to Koyasan were not allowed into the holiest parts of the temple precinct itself. Seven halls (or nyonindo) joined by a path around the perimeter of the complex marked the boundaries of the area off limits to women. Women pilgrims prayed at these halls and from the path could catch glimpses of the sacred sites. From the last remaining hall we will follow part of the women’s walk and enter Koyasan through the large Daimon Gate, again weather permitting.
Koyasan has many highlights, and the sights we will take in include the main temple complex of Danjo Garan, with its vermillion pagoda, and Kongobu-ji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism and site of the largest rock garden in Japan.