Every once in a while you have the good fortune to visit a place you never knew existed, never thought to visit and, once you’ve been there, will never forget. For us, that place is Koyasan, located a few hours from Osaka in Japan. As part of a visit to Japan‘s Kansai Region, we found ourselves in the mountains marvelling at the sheer beauty and wonder of Koyasan. If, like us, you haven’t heard of it before and are seeking a unique adventure or just after some insider tips, this post is for you. Here are 9 of the best reasons to visit Koyasan and some essential travel tips to help you plan your best adventure.
But first, watch this…
1. It has a fascinating history
Shingon Buddhism was founded in 816AD by a monk named Kobo Daishi (or Kukai). He also established the monastery complex known as Koyasan and the area is now home to an incredibly rich cultural history. For over 1,200 years Koyasan has continued to operate as the heart of one of Japan’s most sacred religious sites and, for that reason, it holds a wealth of experiences just waiting to be unearthed by avid adventurers keen to discover something truly unique, away from the well-worn travel path.
2. It’s home to stunning temples
We loved exploring the temples of Koyasan, all of which have a unique story and history as told by our knowledgable local guide (details at the end of this post). At the Kongobu-Ji Head Temple, we marvelled at beautifully painted sliding doors and tatami mats where Emperors once sat. At Mie-do we watched locals dressed in all-white recite chants in unison before wandering over to the vibrant red Konpon Daito. The 117 remaining buildings are traces of more than 2,000 that existed during the Edo era.
3. The Okunoin Cemetery is unbelievable
An unexpected highlight of our trip, Okunoin Cemetery offered the unexpected. Rather than being eery or uncomfortable, the vibe was peaceful, ethereal and offered a sense of spiritual welcome. The holiest location in Koyasan, the cemetery is home to a 2km path leading to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Along the way, you’ll pass hundreds of thousands of tombstones and monuments from the likes of shoguns and Samurai warriors and those just wishing to be close to Kukai. The walk is a must-do experience and one that can also be done at night, lights guiding the way.
4. It’s also home to Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum
Once you’ve completed the 2km walk through Okunoin, you’ll reach Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. It is believed he now lays in an eternal state of meditation, so local monks still tend to his needs, bringing food twice a day. Before entering the temple, you’ll need to cross the Gobyobashi Bridge. It’s important to note there’s no photography, filming, food or drink from this point on. The temple itself has a distinctly peaceful, welcoming aura as monks undertake their tasks and candles and incense burn all around. Explore the Hall of Lamps and be sure to get close to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum where you can buy and light candles or incense. We were lucky enough to hear a monk chanting, a truly beautiful experience.
5. You can stay overnight in a temple
There are some 52 temples offering accommodation in Koyasan and I highly recommend staying at one. We loved exploring the temple, figuring out how to take our very first ‘public bath,’ and enjoying the unique details of traditional Japanese accommodation. It’s not every day you get to stay in a temple and we just loved the authentic, uniquely Japanese experience and how much we learned about the culture in the process. Best of all, you can rise early and take part in a traditional ceremony or be guided through important practices like meditation and calligraphy. You can find temple accommodation in Koyasan here and find details of our temple at the end of this guide.
6. The food is amazing
We enjoyed the most amazing food in Koyasan, from the incredible traditional meals we ate in town during the day to the vegetarian feasts at our temple accommodation. We were served incredible vegetarian Buddhist meals, known as shojin-ryori, comprising a range of seasonal dishes made from tofu, vegetables, fruit, noodles and pickles. I’ve never eaten a meal quite like it and loved being able to experience the local culture in such a hands-on way.
7. The scenery is just beautiful
Nature lovers will adore Koyasan. We visited in winter, crunching our way through the snow as we marvelled at the huge cedar pine trees all around us. In spring and autumn, the area is a photographer and nature-lovers dream as it comes alive with vibrant colours. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll love strolling through the friendly town, stopping to take in the fresh mountain air and the beautiful scenery all around.
8. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site
The “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, owing to their unique and remarkable universal value. Many pilgrims died making the journey to Koyasan and now, we as modern travellers have the honour of being able to visit this beautiful region in ease and comfort. It’s a privilege and a blessing.
9. It’s close to Osaka and easy to visit
As you travel more, you start to seek out those off-the-beaten-track experiences in addition to ticking off the well-known travel bucket list spots. If you find yourself travelling to Osaka, a visit to Koyasan is easy and doesn’t require a lot of time. You can easily catch the train from Osaka to Koyasan and, really, could spend one night in town checking out all the sites. Given the size of the town, getting around on foot is easy too! A visit to Koyasan is a great addition to any visit to Osaka as it brings a sense of adventure, authentic and unique cultural experiences and memories of a destination you won’t soon forget, away from the crowds. Train information below.
Where we stayed
We stayed at Jokiin, a local temple accommodation provider in Koyasan. On arrival, we were met by lovely staff who took our bags for us and helped us check-in easily. Our room, for two people, was a fantastic size with plenty of room and comfortable futon bedding on the tatami mat floor. We had a fantastic stay and would highly recommend this spot for other travellers. You can find Jokiin temple accommodation in Koyasan here.
While exploring Koyasan, we escorted by two guides from WAK-Guide. Our guides had an in-depth knowledge of the local area and, as we don’t speak Japanese, were able to communicate with us easily in English. If you’re after a truly meaningful visit to Koyasan, I recommend getting a guide as they’re able to share with you the meaning behind each site. This means you have a more fulfilling visit! Our guides advised they’re able to meet visitors at the train or bus stations upon their arrival. You can find and contact WAK-Guide here.
How to get there
As we were on an organised media trip, our transport was arranged for us via private bus. I asked our local guide the best way for travellers to visit and they said the train was best. Travellers can take the Nankai Koya Line to Gokurakubashi terminal station then transfer to the cable car up the mountain of Koyasan. You can find more detailed information on how to get between Koyasan and Osaka here.
Useful travel resources for your trip to Japan
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Agoda – one of our go-to sites for booking hotels
Skyscanner – our go-to for booking flights
RentalCars.com – a great search engine for renting a car
Booking.com – another of our go-to sites for booking hotels
TourRadar – a great search engine for booking tours
Uber – our go-to ground transport option