Japan is a country that is on many many people’s bucket lists. With good reason, the place is so freaking cool! The usual places people think about going are Tokyo and Kyoto. If you are more of a history buff you might think of visiting more historical places like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2015, I finally got to knock Japan off my list of places to visit. This was a country I have been dreaming of visiting since my childhood. (Thanks to watching lots of anime). As I grew older, my fascination with the country grew as well. During my time at university I took Japanese language courses, as well as courses on the region’s political history. Also my religious background is Buddhist, and I find the different sects of Japanese Buddhism to be very interesting. I was already a big fan of Japanese cuisine as well, so to put it shortly I was insanely excited to be visiting! My visit was pretty short unfortunately, my place of employment only gave me about ten days off during the winter. It didn’t matter to me, I was very determined to see as much of the country as possible, in the short time I had allotted to me. During my trip planning stages, I had narrowed down the places I wanted to visit within the country. I would fly into Osaka, then move onto Kyoto. From Kyoto I would make my way to Hiroshima. Since I was short on time, I planned on taking an overnight sleeper bus. This way I was still travelling during the time I was asleep! After my time in Hiroshima, my plan was to head to Tokyo, again on an overnight sleeper bus, to not waste time. As I was busy planning out my trip I got to the part of making my itinerary for Hiroshima. I noticed something… My visit was during Christmas/New Years. What I failed to realize is that many different places are closed in Japan during that time of the year. Including many of the monuments I was planning to visit in Hiroshima! I couldn’t believe it, I had to switch around my plans fast! It made no sense to go to a city where everything would be closed! I started doing some research, there was Nagoya that I considered. Only because the city had a place that served dragon ball hot pot. Though it seemed insanely silly to go to a city just for that… Another option came up, a place called Koyasan. It was a mountain relatively near to Osaka/Kyoto littered with UNESCO world heritage sites. I absolutely adore visiting world heritage sites, and the fact that it was close to Osaka and Kyoto definitely made it easier for me to get to. That was that, I decided I am going to go to Koyasan instead. I quickly managed to cancel my bookings for Hiroshima, and start looking into options for Koyasan. Koyasan is known as the headquarters for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. On this mountain there are a complex of temples, halls and pagodas. It is essentially a temple town. One of the parts that I was SUPER excited about was, this is one of the best places in Japan to experience shukbo. This is having an overnight stay within the temple, and experiencing the day in the life of a buddhist monk, eating Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, attending morning prayers and taking part in meditation. As someone with a keen interest in Buddhism I was absolutely ECSTATIC to get to experience all of this. Now the tricky part came when I needed to actually find a temple to stay in. Every temple I was contacting were completely booked up. I was starting to lose all hope, when finally I found a temple that could take my reservation. A lot of the temples apparently had hot springs in it, which seemed pretty exciting. When I completed my reservation, I wasn’t made aware of the temple having a hot spring or not. It didn’t matter! I was getting to stay in a temple! Upon booking my temple I was given a map of the Koyasan area. It seemed like all the UNESCO world heritage sites and the temples where you could stay were all connected via a looped bus route.
Getting to Koyasan
I chose to go to Koyasan from Osaka, it seemed like the easiest way to do it. There was a train that pretty much took you the entire way there. Until you had to switch onto a cable car, to ride up the mountain and reach the top. Once I reached the top, there was a bus waiting at the station. To my surprise, the temple I was staying at was the 2nd stop from the station, so it was a very quick bus ride for me! The temple grounds were beautiful, there was a gravel zen garden right at the entrance. It was not a very big temple, but it was quaint and serene. After I arrived at the temple, I completed my check in, and was taken to my room.
Arrival at Koyasan
The room was something out of my fantasy! It had the traditional Japanese sliding doors, I was given robes to change into after my bath. The inside had the traditional bedding, with a heated kotatsu table. I went to Japan in the winter, and now I was on top of a mountain, it was very cold! I even had wifi access! I was told what time the evening meditation session was taking place, and when dinner would be served. I took note of this and headed off to my 1st destination.
Once I left the temple I was staying at, I started walking along the road taking pictures of the other temples down the road. My first stop was the Tokugawa Mausoleum, it was built in 1643 by a shogun to have his family’s mausoleum close to Kobo Daishi, who founded Shingon Buddhism. After the mausoleum I ended up in the town center and grabbed some lunch and explored some of the gift shops. From the town center, I hopped onto the bus again to go to Okunoin. This is considered one of the most sacred places in Japan and is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. It is also the largest graveyard in Japan, set within a massive forest. When I stepped inside, I was actually left in awe. The trees were so massive, it almost completely blocked the sunlight. You immediately felt an inner serenity as you walked through this beautiful cemetery. Funny enough, Koyasan is not a highly visited area within Japan. When I was visiting there were very few tourists to be seen anywhere. After Okunoin I made my way to the Daimon gate. It is two stories tall, and it marks the traditional entrance into Koyasan. It was MASSIVE and super cool to look at. From there I went onto to Garan which is a pagoda and large wooden hall. It was very cool to see these structures, it was unlike any other structures I have seen before. From Garan I made my way to Konbuji Temple, which was originally constructed in 1593. Inside I got to see these beautiful sliding doors that were hand painted. It was so ornate, yet simple it was a delight to see. My last stop was Kongosanmai-in, this was a gorgeous wooden pagoda and temple built in the 1200’s in the 1990’s it was proclaimed to be a national treasure.
Evening in the temple
I had to keep an eye on the time, to return to the temple to make it for the evening meditation session. Our session was within one of the main halls in the temple. What I was not aware of was that Shingon Buddhism is a type of esoteric Buddhism. What that means, is a lot of the traditions are rooted in doing rituals, much like tantric Buddhism practiced in Tibet and other parts of Asia. What this means, is the hall was incredibly ornate and beautifully decorated. Being keen to visiting as many Buddhist temples as possible, the decorative art work I saw in there was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The meditation session was supposed to be 45 minutes long. I have meditated in the past before, but never for that long of a period. If you have never meditated before give it a go, it is incredibly difficult to do! Trying to sit there and think about nothing, is way more challenging than it sounds believe me. The hall was also not heated, there were some space heaters present, but none that were close to me. Which made it incredibly cold, and even harder to meditate. I was incredibly thankful when the 45 minutes were finally done! Next up was dinner. This was very exciting, getting to experience Buddhist temple food. It was all vegetarian, everything was presented to us in neat bowls. Everything I had tasted delicious. It didn’t take me long to finish dinner. Then I went on to try and and get a shower in before retiring for the night. When I went into the single person bathroom, for whatever reason the water faucets weren’t working. So I decided to just go to the group bath, and found that it was a hot spring! It was delightful! What made it even better was, no one else was there! It was incredibly cold everywhere, so to have an entire indoor hot spring to myself felt like heaven! Next, I changed into my robes, which was actually a kimono! That was also incredibly exciting! I turned on my kotatsu table and snuggled up to get a good night’s rest. I needed it as I had to wake up at 4:30 am to pack and make it to the morning meditation.
Remaining time at Koyasan
Woke up bright and early, and finished my packing and made my way down to the meditation hall. The morning meditation was much like the one I did the evening prior. However, this time I was in a time crunch. I needed to leave to try and catch a flight for Tokyo from Osaka. Since it was the weekend the frequency of the cable car, and trains back to Osaka was reduced. I had to catch a very specific bus, to catch the right cable car, so on and so forth. It was a very very tight schedule, so I had to leave morning meditation early, to scarf down my breakfast and run to catch my bus. The good news? I managed to catch my flight! The bad news… I ended up completely with a fever as soon as I landed in Tokyo…. Guess I pushed myself a wee bit too hard.