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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂