Recognized as the world headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, Koyasan is located just south of Osaka, close enough that you could definitely make a day trip out of it. Based on our research, it seemed like the biggest reason to stay any longer than a day was to try out a temple stay. But as many of the places seemed to get mixed reviews, we decided to forgo the monastic experience this time, especially since we had just come off of an epic temple walk through Tennoji.
Transferring between subways, trains, cable cars, and buses, the way to Koyasan certainly isn't the most straightforward but it is one of the more exciting and certainly one of the most scenic. As we rolled into Gokurakubashi station, slumbering mountains rose among wisps of mist under a gently falling rain... landscapes I only thought possible in old Asian paintings and period Kung Fu movies. The climb up Koyasan was both fascinating and nerve-racking as our cable car (attached to single cable as far as I could tell) climbed a slope that literally seemed like it was only a few degrees shy of vertical. It was a wonder how or why anyone could or would ever want to settle in such a seemingly inaccessible place, especially on foot ... almost 1200 years ago.
The bus ride to town was just as surreal, taking practically hairpin turns on a narrow road mountain through the mist, I kept waiting for us to all fall to our deaths. But amazingly we made it and before I knew it, found myself standing among restaurants and shops in the sprawling town of Koya. We headed west and soon thereafter ducked into Kongobuji Temple, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism though it was originally built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commemorate the death of his mother in 1593.
Kongobuji is also home to the largest rock garden in Japan. True to form, it was nothing short of immaculate. Across an area of 2,340 sq meters, 140 granite stones from Shikoku are arranged to represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds to protect the sacred temple.
Another feature of note are the beautifully painted sliding screen doors of the rooms in Kongobuji. Perhaps the most extravagant among these are the gilded doors of the Ohiroma room. As one might expect from appearances, this room was used for important rituals and religious ceremonies. Equal to the beauty of these rooms are the dramas that transpired within their walls through centuries of time. In the room just neighboring the Ohiroma room, it is said that Toyotomi Hidetsugu committed ritual suicide by the order of his uncle Hideyoshi.
As food lovers, we were also excited to poke around through the enormous grand kitchen. Most impressive were the rows of ginormous stoves which I later learned were big enough to feed up to 2000 people!!
One of my favorite places at Koyasan was the Okunoin graveyard. As it includes over 200,000 tombstones, it is the largest cemetery in Japan. Anybody who was anybody in Japanese history seems to be buried here. It is the mausoleum site of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and as such, prominent monks to feudal lords have erected their tombstones here for centuries in hopes of earning salvation.
From the Ichinohashi Bridge to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, the cemetery stretches across an eerie 2 km distance through a lush and damp cypress forest. Literally everywhere you look the forest floor is littered with headstones eroded by time and overgrown with moss, some collapsed and overturned by the roots of the cypress trees towering above.
Stone stairways and pathways would siphon off the main path and disappear into the woods, leading to who knows where. Totally mysterious and magical was this place. It often reminded me of Miyasaki's films, particularly 'Totoro' and 'Castle in the Sky.' I had often wondered how anyone could think up such fantastic worlds... ones that were both chillingly creepy and beautifully wonderful. Coming to Koyasan and especially Okunoin, I suddenly felt like I could understand how such worlds could ever be conceived.