Koyasan’s Danjo Garan temple lights up the night. // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): Okunoin Cemetery has more than 200,000 tombs and memorials. // © 2015 iStock
In the early ninth century, Japanese monk Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo-Daishi, established a monastery for the study of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. Located in Wakayama Prefecture, Mount Koya — or “Koyasan” — has since been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By visiting its temples, shrines and pagodas, travelers can embark on an educational journey through traditional Buddhist sites. Koyasan is about two hours by train from both Kyoto and Osaka and is an attractive overnight stay or day trip for those visiting the Kansai region of central Japan.
Shojin ryori, which originated in China and was adapted by Japanese monks, is Koyasan’s traditional vegan cuisine. Delicious recipes have been passed down for centuries.
Typical fare includes grilled, deep-fried and pickled food, all carefully prepared without the use of meat, fish or dairy. The result is a meal with very delicate flavors, and tasty dishes include miso soup, koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu), goma-dofu (sesame tofu), wild potatoes and sweet-and-sour seaweed in vinegar sauce.
Dinner and breakfast are usually included with a stay at a shukubo. For omnivores, Hanabishi is an elegant eatery that offers non-vegetarian meals.
Koyasan is home to more than 100 temples, and many offer overnight stays. In addition to meals, a shukubo (temple lodging) provides a deep sense of tranquility in accordance with the region’s Buddhist teachings.
One lodging option, Henjoko-in, was once the imperial chamber for 11th-century emperor Shirakawa, and the temple of Ichijoin is conveniently located in the center of Mount Koya. For an authentic shukubo with added R&R, however, there’s Fukuchi-in. Not only is it the largest shukubo in Koyasan — with its own natural hot spring — Fukuchi-inalso features the area’s only spa. Visitors can soothe their spirits with a Shingon Buddhism morning service, and listen to sutra chants, the recitation of traditional Buddhist sermons.
Although the sacred temple complex of Danjo Garan was one of the first buildings constructed on Koyasan, Fudodo monument, a designated national treasure dating back to the 12th century, is the oldest.
Other notable sites in Koyasan include Okunoin, Japan’s biggest cemetery, with more than 200,000 tombs and memorials, located under a thick canopy of cedar, pine and cypress trees. The bucolic surroundings are home to departed Japanese emperors, shoguns, poets and religious leaders, beginning with Kobo-Daishi.
Bordering the Tamagawa River, Kobo-Daishi Gobyo Mausoleum is the most sacred site in Okunoin, capping a mile-long route through the cemetery. It’s here where believers of Shingon Buddhism maintain that Kobo-Daishi is not actually dead but in a state of deep meditation.