Japan · Random

Koyasan: Introduction and Okunoin

Koyasan, or Mount Koya in English, is a small town that sits almost 900m above sea level in the Wakayama Prefecture. It is the centre of Shingon Buddhism and this year is celebrating its 1200th anniversary of the founding of the Buddhist sect.

Map of where Koyasan is

As someone who has a keen interest in Buddhism, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel to the most sacred and holiest of Buddhist sites in Japan. So last week I used my owed 3 ‘summer Obon’ days and headed on a 335km, 4 hour journey, to Koyasan.

Making our way into the mountains on the train
You have to take the last bit up to Koyasan in a cable car for about 5 minutes

Koyasan is a small town, with really only one main street. It is the home to a number of UNESCO Sacred Heritage Sites, with many of the temples being given the UNESCO status. I could go into the history of Koyasan and every single thing that makes the place amazing, but that could turn this post into a book. So, I’ll direct you to this website, the official Koyasan website, if you would like more detailed information about the place.

Koyasan is very easy to get around, especially as there is really only one main road. Everywhere you go there are large maps to direct you to the various temples and sights. The areas marked in yellow on this map indicate the UNESCO Sacred Heritage Sites

In the meantime, I want to highlight some of the experiences I had there (though not all in this post or else it would become a very long). In this post I want to tell you about the famous Okunoin cemetery.


One of the highlights of my time in Koyasan was visiting the famous centuries-old cemetery. Situated in an ancient cedar forest, Okunoin is one of the UNESCO Sacred Heritage Sites. It is here that you will find the mausoleum of the Kobo Daishi, the man who founded Koyasan and bought Shingon Buddhism to Japan in the year 805. Here you will find over 200,000 gravestones, memorials and monuments!

The entrance to Okunoin
Instead of placing flowers at gravestones or memorials, people place bunches of pine needles

I decided to visit Okunoin during the morning, and I found it almost deserted with hardly no one else around. Only by midday, on my way out of the cemetery, did I pass a few large tour groups and it was starting to feel a bit crowded.

Allll by myself 🙂
Oh wait, no… there’s one other person in the distance…
The cedar trees are centuries old and massive! I have never come across such big trees before. It was so cool!

Okunoin stretches for 2km and is relatively flat most of the way, with the occasional stairs and bridges. There is a main path that you can follow to get to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, or you can, like me, take every little path off the beaten track that then leads you further into the forests and away from the crowds.

I was going to take my time here, and I made sure to explore every nook and cranny. Every path I took led me to more graves and memorials. Practically 99% of the time I was all by myself, well, expect for the mosquitoes who thought I needed the company.

This place is a paradise for photographers. I, myself, took so many pictures and I wish I could share all of them with you. However, I will share just a handful of what I took while ‘getting lost’ in the cemetery.

Almost everything was covered in moss, especially the statues that had clearly been around for a couple of hundred years
So green!
The object on the left is called a Gorintō. It is a five-tiered pagoda that represents the elements. I have copied an extract from Wikipedia to explain what they mean: ”The gorinto includes five rings, each having one of the five shapes symbolic of the Five Elements, (Godai in Japanese): the earth ring (cube), the water ring (sphere), the fire ring (pyramid), the air ring (crescent), and the ether ring, (or energy, or void). The rings express the idea that after death our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental form.”
This guy seems to be rocking his moss hat like a boss!
This stone memorial is one of the oldest I could find. It was in memory of a nun and was dated 1375

After spending about an hour off the main path, I eventually decided to head back onto it and make my way to the mausoleum. I eventually made it to the mausoleum, which was pretty amazing, albeit a bit busy with crowds. I didn’t stay there too long as part of me was more keen on exploring old, forgotten graves in the depths of the forest than walking through a temple.

The mausoleum. No pictures were allowed beyond the top of the stairs.

By the time I made my way out I was passing more and more people heading their way into the cemetery. I was glad that I had decided to go there in the early morning as going in the afternoon would probably have been a bit noisier and not as peaceful as I had experienced.

I was off to good start after my first day in Koyasan. And having said that, look out for more upcoming posts about my time there. It is certainly a place I would highly recommend to anyone who finds themselves in Japan with time to spare. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Koyasan: Introduction and Okunoin

  1. Thank you for this story. I agree with your approach to early morning exploration. I am planning to do the Kumano Kodo form Koyosan to Hongu Taisha in October 2018. So I will be keeping your story. The 2017 trip is already mapped out for elsewhere!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow! That’s going to be one amazing walk, especially during autumn. Doing the Kumano Kodo, or at least part of it is one of my goals for whenever I find myself back in Japan. Happy travels for 2017, and I’m sure you’ll love Koyasan! 🙂


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