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Visit Mount Koya, Japan's Most Sacred Mountain

Kondo Hall in the 'Danjo Garan' (Central Temple Complex) of Mount Koya, Wakayama Prefecture

Of all the mountains in Wakayama prefecture, Mount Koya has stood proudly as one of Japan’s most sacred sites ever since it was chosen by Japanese monk, Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai) to build his Esoteric Buddhist dojo on over 1200 years ago. This great heritage can be experienced and appreciated in a wealth of activities where one can gain a better understanding of Japanese Buddhism…

Known in Japanese as ‘Koya-san’, this one peak in the Kii mountain range was favoured by one of Japan’s most significant religious figures for its lush nature and far-distance from bustling city life. Kobo Daishi was motivated by and subsequently known for the desire to educate people who would work for the happiness of others and pray for the eternal peace and security for the country and society.


The Konpon Daito Pagoda, also in the Garan of Mt. Koya
Even today, Mt. Koya remains one of Japan's premier training centres for Esoteric Buddhism with dozens of temples, gardens, and old growth trees. Kobo Daishi is believed to still be alive, sitting in eternal meditation in an elaborate mausoleum. On Mt. Koya you can immerse yourself in the mystical world of Japanese Buddhism while staying in one of dozens of temples.
 'Okunoin', Japan's largest cementary and the site of Kobo Daishi's mausoleum

1. Spend the Night like a Monk

The living area of one of the many temple lodgings on offer at Mt. Koya

Temple lodging or 'shukubo', as they are known, are a great way to experience a quieter, simpler, more spiritual life. A stay includes vegetarian food, an early rise, and participation in morning Buddhist services. Mt. Koya is the most famous place in Japan for shukubo where about 50 temples offer lodgings. Average costs are around 10,000 yen (£56) per night, including breakfast and dinner. More information about shukubo on Mt. Koya can be found here.


One can have a taste of a Japanese monk's lifestyle through the cuisine (shojin ryori)

2. Go Pilgrimage Trekking.

The forest path through Okunoin

The area around Mt. Koya is known as the Kumano region and is packed with sacred places. A network of UNESCO World Heritage-listed pilgrimage routes called the Kumano Kodo lead to these isolated spiritual hot spots. Along the trail are quaint accommodations and soothing hot springs, including the Kawayu Onsen in Hongu, where hot mineral waters bubbles to the surface of the river. More information on Kumano Kodo pilgrimage travel hikes can be found here and trips can be book through tour operators like Walk Japan or Oku Japan

3. Zone out through Ajikan Meditation

Kongobu-ji Temple

At Kongobu-ji Temple on Mt. Koya, you can practice ajikan meditation in Japan’s largest rock garden, which is ordinarily closed to the public. Ajikan is a form of breathing exercise and meditation practiced in Shingon Buddhism. Meditate in tranquility amidst the pure aura of Mt. Koya, still the mind, and leave your busy life. Monks are on hand to guide beginners, so this is an excellent addition to a visit to Mt. Koya. 

4. When in Koya, do Shakyo Sutra 

A Buddhist monk in the middle of a ceremony

Studying the Heart Sutra intently is said to lead to enlightenment. At Kongobu-ji Temple you can join a shakyo session to copy this sutra one character at a time, paying close attention to the meaning contained in every word. If you focus your entire action on this task, you will forget idle thoughts and still your mind. The activity is recommended as a way to develop a tranquil, bountiful state of mind. 

5. Take a Leaf in Flower Arrangement

One of many red-bibbed jizo statues on Mt. Koya

Kobo Daishi teaches us that, ‘We are but one part of the universe, and all plants, animals, and sentient beings have the same life. We must live together in harmony with that around us.” Bringing out the life force and vitality of flowers and understanding their true nature is at the essence of Koyasan Flower Arrangement. Classes are available on Mt. Koya, but also in Osaka and Tokyo. 

6. Soak in some Forest Therapy

A monk taking a moment to appreciate the nature of Mt Koya

Forest therapy is a program that lets you regain your energies amidst the natural beauty, scents, sounds, and textures of the forest. Witness nature with your five senses as you unwind. In addition to being designated a World Heritage Site for the sacred areas and temple roads along the Kii Mountains, Mt. Koya was also been designated a forest therapy site in 2007. 

How to Get There

Mt. Koya is less than two hours from Osaka. It is most conveniently accessed by Nankai Railways from Osaka’s Namba or Shin-Imamiya Stations. Take the Nankai Koya Line from either station to the Gokurakubashi station (80 minutes, 1,650 yen (£9.30), five trains per day). At Gokurakubashi, transfer to the cablecar which travels up the mountain to Mt. Koya. The ride takes about five minutes and costs 390 yen (£2.20). To save money consider using a Koyasan World Heritage Ticket or Kansai Thru Pass.


Want to know more about that Buddhist life? Check out our interview with monk, make-up artist and LGBTQ+ activist, Kodo Nishimura on what Buddhism means to him here.

Or to find out how Wakayama prefecture earned their place as the Best in Sustainability in 2021, click here

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