70 km south of central Ōsaka, Kōya-san is one of Japan's holiest mountain range. It is also one of the country's top pilgrimage destination, attracting millions of visitors every year, often in conjunction with Shikoku's 88-temple circuit.
Kōya-san is not a mountain but a mountainous plateau ranging from 700 to 1000 metres in altitude. It shelters an enormous monastic complex, which in its heydays boasted 1,500 temples and monasteries (of which 120 survive today) and 90,000 monks. Among them is the Kongōbu-ji, the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
Kōbō Daishi & Kōya-san
Shingon is the Japanese school of Esoteric Buddhism (Vajrayana), and one of the closest surviving relative of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded twelve centuries ago by the monk Kūkai (774-835), also known under his posthumous name, Kōbō Daishi.
A nobleman from Zentsūji in Shikoku, Kūkai received instruction in the Chinese Classics, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Dedicating himself exclusively to Buddhist studies from the age of 22, Kūkai spent many years as a wandering ascetic, frequently seeking out isolated mountain regions to chant mantras.
In 804, he took part to a government-sponsored expedition to China to further his knowledge of Buddhism. Saichō, who was to found the Tendai sect, was part of the same expedition. After spending two years in Chang'an, the Tang Dynasty capital, he returned to Japan as an initiated master of esoteric teachings. He founded his first temple in Hakata before moving to Kyōto. In 810, Kūkai rose to public prominence when was appointed administrative head of Tōdai-ji in Nara.
Kūkai obtained permission to found the Shingon school, which preached that enlightenment could be attained during one's lifetime. It was in fact Emperor Junna (ruled 823-33), one of his supporters, who named it Shingon-shū ("Mantra school") when he appointed Kūkai as head priest of Kyōto's Tō-ji.
In the meantime Kūkai had wanted to establish a mountain retreat to meditate, which he did at Kōya-san in 816. He had a vision of Kōya-san as a representation of the two mandalas that form the basis of Shingon Buddhism: the central plateau as the Womb Realm mandala, and its surrounding peaks as petals of a lotus. However, owing to recurrent financial difficulties, the project was not completed until after the great monk's death in 835. In the two preceding decades, Kōbō Daishi had spread Shingon Buddhism extensively, founding hundreds of temples, including 88 on his native island of Shikoku.
Besides founding Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi was an accomplished calligrapher, poet, sculptor and philosopher. He is credited, among others, for opening Japan's first public school, compiling the first Japanese dictionary (the Tenrei Banshō Meigi, now in Kyōto's Kōzan-ji) and standardizing the Hiragana script.
The faithful believe that Kōbō Daishi did not pass away in 835 but entered eternal meditation and expected him to return as the Miroku Bosatsu (Future Buddha) and lead his followers to eternal salvation. This has been the principal reason why so many Japanese would wish to have their ashes buried alongside the great priest at the Oku-no-in cemetery (see below).
Staying at Kōya-san
A visit to Mount Kōya can prove quite a unique spiritual experience. The best time to wander around is after dark when lanterns light the hundreds of temples, or early morning during the religious service (from 6:00 am). For this reason a day trip from Kyōto or Ōsaka will not prove satisfactory. One has to stay at Kōya-sa, to fully appreciate it.
Accommodation is part of fun. Over 50 temples offer shukubō (宿坊), i.e. temple lodgings run by monks. The guest rooms are all in traditional japanese style, with tatami mats, painted sliding doors (fusuma), hanging scrolls and often a view on a Japanese garden. Some even have tea-ceremony rooms. As shukubō aim to recreate the lifestyle of Buddhist monks, sinks and toilets are typically communal, although some of the higher rate lodgings provide private facilities. Some have recently added TV's and Internet connections.
Kōya-san is the most popular place in Japan for such temple lodging. The local tourist association has a website in English listing all the shukubō. They typically charge bewteen ￥10,000 and ￥18,000 per person for a night with dinner and breakfast. Dinner is usually served at 6:00 pm and consists of shōjin ryōri (精進料理 ; Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), which is mostly tofu-based, with rice and seasonal vegatables. Guests are expected to rise at 6:00 am for the morning prayers (about half an hour). Breakfast is served at 7:00 am and is also vegetarian.
Danjō-garan complex 壇上伽藍
The Danjō-garan is the sacred core of the Kōya-san. In old times pilgrims penetrated through the Daimon (大門 ; Great Gate) at the base of Mount Benten-dake (984.5 m) at the western end of the compound. The advent of the cable car in the 1930's brought visitors to the eastern edge. passing by the Tōtō (東塔 ; East Tower) to the east and head for the Konpon Daitō (根本大塔 ; "great tower at the source"), a 45m-tall vermillion pagoda which is said to represent the central point of the mandala, covering not only Kōya-san but all Japan. It was obviously part of Kūkai's original design in 816, although what you see today is a recent reconstruction from 1947.
Opposite the pagoda stands the Kondō (金堂 ; Main Hall), dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha of Healing). First erected in 819 it had to be rebuilt seven times, lastly in 1932. Kūkai is said to have lived in the next-door the Mieidō (御影堂 ; Founder's Hall), but once again the current building (1847) postdates the monk's death by over a thousand years.
In the southern part of the Garan is the Reihōkan Museum (open 8:30 am to 4:30 pm ; ￥600), which stores the thousands of treasures of Kōya-san, including many National Treasures and Important Cultural Assets. The various mandala paintings, scrolls and esoteric sculptures are rotated five times a year.
The two oldest building in the Garan area are the Daikandō (大会堂 ; Great Assembly Hall), dating from 1175, and the Fudōdō (不動堂 ; Acala Hall), from 1197. Also of interest are the Saitō (西塔 ; West Tower), the Junteidō (准胝堂 ; Cundi Hall) and the Kujakudō (孔雀堂 ; Peacock Hall).
Kongōbu-ji Temple 金剛峯寺
Kongōbu-ji is the head temple of the Shingon school of Buddhism, presiding over 4,000 temples and 12 million followers nationwide. It is not merely a temple but a small complex in itself, comprising various temple builldings as well as a Buddhist university.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi established the temple in honour to his mother in 1593. Originally called Seigan-ji Temple, it was rebuilt in 1861 (and recently restored) and acquired its present name in 1869 when it became the head temple of the Shingon school.
The main point of interest are the sliding screen doors painted by the great Edo-era painters Kanō Tanyū (1602-1674). They can be seen in the Ōhiroma (大広間 ; main room). The beautiful Willows in Four Seasons were painted by his pupil, Kanō Tansai. It is in this so-called Willow Room that Toyotomi Hidetsugu, Hideyoshi's nephew and adopted son, committed ritual suicide in 1595 after being accused of plotting a coup. The gloomy truth is that Hideyoshi had fathered an heir of his own in 1593 and Hidetsugu had become a hindrance to his succession.
The temple's name, Kongōbu, means "Peak of the Vajra" - vajra being a Buddhist term referring to the "indestructible truth".
The temple's rock garden, Banryūtei (蟠龍庭), is the largest in Japan (2,340 m2), sporting 140 stones brouhgt over from Shikoku, Kōbō Daishi's birthplace. The arrangement is meant to represent a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds. The garden was laid in 1984 to commemorate Kōbō Daishi's 1150th death anniversary.
Kongōbu-ji is open from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm (until 4:30 pm from November to April). Admission is ￥500.
Oku-no-in Cemetery 奥の院
The Oku-no-in is Kōya-san's top attraction. Its enormous cemetery contains 200,000 graves, including the tombstones of most of the major Buddhist figures Japan has known, as well as quite a few feudal lords, artists and other prominent personalities. Among them is of course Kūkai's mausoleum, the Gobyō.
Among the thousands of moss-covered lanterns and Jizō statues in red bibs, you will certainly come across great names of Japanese history. Oku-no-in is simply Japan's most famous and most sacred necropolis. Over 60% of the Daimyō from the Warring States period were laid to rest here, including the unifier of Japan, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). The mystic attraction of Oku-no-in goes far beyond Shingon Buddhism. One's affiliations do not matter here, as attested by the tombstones of Hōnen, founder of the Jōdō school of Buddhism, Shinran, founder of the Jōdō-shin school, and Nichiren, who gave his name to the Nichiren school. You will also find war memorials to the soldiers fallen in WWII.
At the end of the pathway is the Gobyō-no-hashi Bridge, leading to Kōbō Daishi's mausoleum. Note that photography, food and drinks are prohibited from this point. Monks come here twice a day to bring offerings to their spiritual leader, believed to be alive in a state of eternal meditation. They solicit his favours by making sure he is comfortable providing him with heating in winter and fans in summer. Worshippers come here to pray and part with generous donations. No one knows whether these constant processions and prayers might in fact disturb the ascetic master's meditation.
In front of the mausoleum is the Tōrōdō (灯篭堂 ; Hall of Lanterns), where ten thousands lanterns are permananetly kept alight. they were donated by worshipers and some are said to have been burning for centuries. The two oldest were allegedly dediated to Emperor Shirakawa and a poor woman in the 11th century. You can dedicate a lantern to someone, but this will cost you between ￥500,000 and ￥1,000,000. Going down the hall's basement you will find 50,000 miniature statues that were donated to Oku-no-in in 1984 to celebrate the 1150th anniversary of Kobo Daishi's ascent into perpetual meditation.
Anybody can be inhumed at Oku-no-in, providing the necessary funds. Funerals are a huge business in Japan, Buddhist priests requesting astronomical fees (many millions yen) for ceremonies. Needless to say that the priviledge of having one's soul resting in the nation's top cemetery is well beyond the means of anyone but the wealthiest. Nowadays those that can afford a tombstone at Oku-no-in are mostly companies, who buy memorials for distinguished past employees. Look out for the giant tomb shaped like a space rocket or UCC's coffee cup. Some corporate monuments have letter boxes for employees to "petition" for a deceased colleague.
The Oku-no-in cemetery starts about 1 km east of the Kongōbu-ji and Tourist Information Centre, and runs for over 2 km inside a mossy cedar forest. The Ichi-no-hashi Bridge marks the traditional entrance to Oku-no-in. There is a second entrance opposite the Okunoin-mae bus stop, and is used by all tour groups. This approach cuts the distance to Kōbō Daishi's mausoleum in half, but is far more crowded too. There are direct public buses to the Okunoin-mae bus stop from Senjuin-bashi (千手院橋) crossing (10min, ￥210), in the centre of town, or from the cable car station (20min, ￥400).
The spiritual influence of Kōbō Daishi's mausoleum in Oku-no-in has pervaded all classes of Japanese society in history. The Tokugawa clan, who ruled over Japan from 1600 to 1867 is no exception. In 1643, the third Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu, consecrated a family mausoleum in Kōya-san in addition to the the great Tōshōgū Shrine that he already commissioned at Nikkō. This explains the presence of the Tokugawa Mausoleum (徳川家霊台), located 500m from the Kongōbuji, towards the cable car station. The two identical buildings enshrine Iemitsu's grandfather Ieyasu and father Hidetada. The lavishly ornamented architecture, with its sloping copper roof and lacquered wood covered in gold leaf, is typical of the early Edo period.
There once was as many as 1500 monasteries in Kōya-san, divided between clergy (gakuryō), lay priests (gyōnin) and followers of the Jōdō sect of Buddhism (hijiri). The sacred compound used to have seven gates, beyond which women were not allowed. Special temples were built besides each gate for women to pray. The practised continued until 1906. Only one of these temples is still in existence. It is appropriately called the Nyonindō (女人堂 ; Women Hall) and is located halfway between the cable car station and the Kongōbu-ji.
There are many events in Kōya-san throughout the year. The biggest is the Miei-ku ritual, held on the 21st day of the third month of the lunar calendar (which often falls mid-April). Two grandiose ritual ceremonies are held in honour of Kōbō Daishi. The first one starts at 9:00 am at the Lantern Hall in Okuno-in. The main ceremony is at 1:00 pm at the Miei-dō (Founder's Hall) and involves a tea ceremony and offering of flowers and candles. Smaller ceremonies are also held on the 21st day of every month.
The Aoba Matsuri celebrating Kūkai's birthday is held on 15 June. It consists of a large parade in the streets of Kōya.
On 13 August is o-Bon, the festival in honour of the departed. For the occasion Kōya-san holds a Candle Festival (万燈供養会 ; Mandō Kuyoe) in which thousands of lanterns are paraded through the Okuno-in cemetery.
How to get there
The nearest station from Kōya-san is Gokurakubashi (極楽橋), the terminus of the private Nankai Kōya line (南海高野線) leaving from Ōsaka's Namba Station (1h45min, ￥850). If you are coming from Kyōto or Nara, transfer at Shin-Imamiya Station in Ōsaka. From Gokurakubashi you will need to ascend the mountain by cable car (departure every 30 minutes), then take a bus (10min, ￥280) to the town of Kōya itself. If you prefer to hike, you can follow the pilgrimage trail from Gokurakubashi Station (about 3km, 75min). The complete trail, known as Kōyasan Chōishi-michi (高野山町石道), leaves from Kudoyama Station (九度山), 6 stops before Gokurakubashi and some 24 km from the town of Kōya. It takes approximately 7 hours to walk, but you can also pick up the trail at Kii-Hosokawa Station (紀伊細川), 2 stops before Gokurakubashi, which shortens the journey to 3 hours.