Tucked in Wakayama Prefecture to the south of Osaka, Koyasan is an enormous temple settlement, housing numerous sacred sites, the most noteworthy of which is the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect. Being such a holy stretch of land, Koyasan draws a large crowd of worshippers from all over Japan. However, the Japanese are not the only people who visit the sacred land; travelers from all parts of the world make their way to Wakayama Prefecture to pay homage to the religious gurus resting in Mount Koyosan. Aside from being a spiritually stirring destination, Koyasan is a serene locality amid enchanting landscapes. This means it’s a bucket-list travel spot for not only devout believers but also enthusiastic nature lovers.
If you are either of the two, the chances are strong that you will love hiking along the time-honored pilgrimage trails in Koyasan.
Dedicated worshippers have treaded along these holy tracks for years to pay homage to highly revered religious leaders and experience the ascetic lifestyle widely associated with Buddhism. Although the pilgrimage trails in Koyasan still exist for people to walk on, the town now also has cable cars, and other modern means of transportation for more convenient travels.
For anyone looking to get away from the hubbub of daily life and go to a peaceful retreat, Koyasan is the place to go. And if you are one such person, then here is a detailed guide on hiking in Koyasan to help you plan your next adventure in Japan.
The most convenient way to get to Koyasan is from Osaka via the Nanka Koya line. Travelers aboard the train from the Kamuro station to Gokurakubashistation to begin their journey on the Fudozaka trail, which is the less historic walkway to Koyasan. The more historically significant pilgrimage track is the Koyasan Choishi Michi trail that starts at the Kudoyama station and runs for approximately 24 kilometers.
People who wish to live through a more authentic monastic experience take on the 24km-long-walkway on foot to get to Mount Koyasan. But it's not incumbent on every pilgrim to walk for hours on end when they would prefer to ride a vehicle. Besides, if someone gets drained while on their hike and decides to cover the remaining route in a car, they can exit the winding trail and reach the nearest train station to board a Shinkansen to Gokurakubashi station. Once at Gokurakubashi, they can hop in a cable car for the rest of the way to Mount Koya or resume their hike afresh on the Fudozaka trail.
Whether you choose to walk your way to the holy destinations in Koyasan or decide to avail more modern transportation services, you will have to begin your trip from Osaka.
Travelers who start their excursion to Koyasan from Kyoto have to first get to Osaka to take the Nankai Koya Line, which transports them to the temple town in Wakayama Prefecture.
The itinerary to Koyasan should look somewhat, if not exactly, like this.
Beginning the trip to Koyasan from Osaka:
Either by taking the Nankai Koya Line from Kamuro Station all the way to Gokurakubashi Station to begin the hike on Fudozaka Trail.
Or by exiting the Nankai Koya Line at Kudoyama Station to start the trek to Mount Koya earlier in the trip, on the Koyasan Choishi Michi Trail.
And if you don't want to hike for all of the 24 kilometers, you can continue on the Nankai Koya Line and not get off at Kudoyama station. Instead, you exist the railway at Kami-Kosawa or Kii-Hosokawa Stations.
The walk from Kami Kosawa and Kii Hosokawa to the main Choishi Michi trail is 3 kilometers and 3.5 kilometers long, respectively. Typically, crossing 3 or 3.5 kilometers on foot takes about 50 to 60 minutes.
Both courses ultimately lead to the Daimon Gate, an enormous crimson-colored metal gate that marks the official entrance to the town of Koyasan.
While both routes eventually end at the massive crimson gate, but they wind differently. Hence, exploring the two separately is essential so that you know which way you need to take.
The sacred pilgrimage trail of Choishi Michi is cradled within dense forests, allowing hikers to spend some one-on-one time with nature for a few long, uninterrupted hours. Typically, treading the time-honored route takes anywhere between six to seven hours; rarely anyone ever walks for more than seven hours to get to the Daimon Gate.
Choishi Michi starts as a paved route but soon turns rugged and gains elevation. A little while into the hike, all marks of urban life and modern civilization disappear entirely, replaced by Mother Nature. Once you leave the paved path behind, your only company will be nature, especially if you are trekking solo. And if that’s the case, you must keep in mind that being in the wilderness means encounters with creatures from the animal kingdom. In other words, walking along the Choishi Michi Trail will bring you face to face with both flora and fauna. So, if you are afraid of animals, especially large spiders and brown bears, then you might want to bring a friend along or take the other route entailing extended cable-car rides.
Although Choishi Michi is better suited for the brave-hearted, it is not a challenging route meant only for seasoned hikers. Beginner-level climbers can easily follow the 24-km-long trail, thanks to the stone-posts lining the track to Koyasan.
The Choishi Michi trail is marked with numerous stone signposts or choishi to guide travelers hiking through the ancient pilgrimage route. Erected to represent the five Buddhist elements of fire, water, air, earth, and void, these markings are numbered (in descending order) throughout the trail, with Koyasan marked as number one. This means you need to be on the lookout for the signpost displaying '1' as that will indicate you have reached the entrance to Koyasan, aka the Daimon Gate. That said, the choishis on Koyasan Michi Trail do not end there and continue to the first sacred house in town, the Garan (which we will discuss later in the article).
Choishi Michi Trail
As mentioned earlier, the Fudozaka trail begins at Gokurakubashi Station and runs for approximately 2.5 kilometers before ending at the Fudozaka-guchi Nyonindo temple hall. It generally takes a hiker about an hour to mount the Fudozaka trail from start to finish.
The Fudozaka-guchi Nyonindo, is one and the only remaining of the seven Nyonindos, or “women halls” in Koyasan. These Nyonindos existed in the nineteenth century for women to stay in, away from temples as they were banned from entering holy sites back then. Over the centuries, all of these halls were ruined except for just one; the Fudozaka-guchi Nyonindo.
Travelers who take the Fudozaka Trail can stop at the only remaining Nyonindo and then make their way towards the sacred houses. But if someone wishes to enter Koyasan from the Daimon Gate, they can hop on the Women's Pilgrimage Course from the Fudozaka Nyonindo and walk an additional 2 kilometers to reach the official entrance to the town.
The Women's Pilgrimage Course doesn't end at the Daimon Gate; instead runs on over the perimeter of Koyasan, going around most of the holy places in the area before ending at Okunoin, the resting site of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Koyasan. It is 7 kilometers long, starting from the Fudozaka Nyonindo.
The Fudozaka Trail
If someone doesn’t wish to hike their way to Koyasan, they can choose the Koyasan Cable Car route from Gokurakubashi Station. The cable car service ends at Koyasan Station, where you can get on a bus to get to the Fudozaka-guchi Nyonindo, the alternative entrance to Koyasan.
Koyasan Cable Car
Koyasan is a holy piece of land, housing more than a hundred temples for more than 1200 years. Being such an ancient location, it naturally holds an abundance of riveting history within its boundaries. But while all the structures in Koyasan have many stories to tell and worth visiting, Mount Koya is particularly known for two monumental complexes; the Garan and Okunoin.
Everyone who visits Koyasan visits these two awe-inspiring constructions to get a glimpse of Shingon history. If you are interested in the impressive Buddhist past of Koyasan, you need to check out the Garan and Okunoin.
The Garan is the first of the religious complexes Kobo Daishi built in Koyasan after returning from China. Kobo Daishi, a Buddhist leader, was looking for a place to make the headquarters of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism in 864. Legend has it that he threw his sankosho, a Buddhist ceremonial tool, towards the Land of the Rising Sun from China, which got stuck in a pine tree on Mount Koya. Consequently, it became the construction site for a massive facility where the Shingon school of thought would be taught.
Garan is a magnificent structure whose foundation was laid by Kobo Daishi. It is a massive construction, housing two notable buildings where the Shingon teachings are preached; Kondo Hall and the huge Konpon Daito Pagoda.
The Kondo Hall is an impressive wooden temple hall where people gather to celebrate different occasions. In other words, it’s a congregation spot for holding religious ceremonies.
The Kondo Hall has had an eventful past, as it was burned down multiple times over the years. The structure standing today is relatively recent, going back to the twentieth century. As per the reports, it was last rebuilt in 1932.
The stunning gathering hall is a beautifully designed structure with a rustic aesthetic. However, the construction is like most other characteristically old Japanese houses that rest on wooden beams and carry sliding doors.
The Kondo Hall
The Konpon Daito Pagoda makes the other half of the grand Garan. The two-tier 45 meters tall quintessentially Japanese structure is a tahota style pagoda where the Shingon beliefs and values are taught.
The exterior of the magnificent building is a vermillion-colored wooden structure exhibiting the typical intricate designs of traditional Japanese architecture. Similarly, the Pagoda's interior honors the Japanese style of construction as it houses hallowed wooden halls adorned with captivating paintings.
A remarkable monument of Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha) stands at the center of the Konpon Pagoda, serving as the facility's focal point with all other paintings and statues placed around it.
If you want to feel the tranquility and spiritual vibe wafting from the walls of the Konpon Daito Pagoda, take your shoes off and explore the place completely unfettered.
The Konpon Daito Pagoda
Okunoin is the largest cemetery in Japan, holding more than 200,000 tombstones, one of which is the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.
In the Shingon school of thought, Kobo Daishi is believed to be resting in eternal meditation, waiting for Miroku Nyorai (Maihreya), the Buddha of the Future. And while he awaits the arrival of Miroku Nyorai, he helps those in distress by granting them salvation.
Enveloped in verdant trees and moss, the unbelievably peaceful cemetery has an uncharacteristically welcoming appeal, unlike any other burial ground in the world.
Visiting a graveyard on holiday may seem too bleak, but once a hiker sets foot on the ground of Okunoin, they are completely taken by the mystical aura of the place.
An alluring aspect of visiting Koyasan is getting the chance to live like an ascetic monk, without many modern facilities. Most temples in the area have lodgings or shukubo where travelers can stay overnight and practice asceticism. That said, you will not be deprived of any essential amenities, but facilities will be simple and close to nature.
For instance, the monk-style cuisine, or Shojin Ryori, served at the Shukubo is vegetarian, prepared with five flavors (bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami). Travelers staying at the temple lodgings get to enjoy hearty flavorsome meals but without ceremony.
Hiking in Koyasan entails an unforgettable experience that revitalizes the body and soul. If you want to enjoy the best of both worlds, the material and spiritual, you should head to Koyasan on your next vacation and appreciate the simplicity of life found hiking around the temples.