Scrapbook of a Future Nobleman

Koyasan: The Holy Mountain Town

Koyasan, Japan

Yesterday, I wrote about visiting the cemetery at Okunoin. While that’s certainly the highlight of a visit to Koyasan, it’s hardly all there is to see. It’s a beautiful little mountain town, with lots of historic and beautiful places to visit. If you take the scenic route up the mountain, like we did, you ride on a private rail line through a handful of villages along a valley with an impressive river at the bottom, then get on a funicular railway to climb up to Mount Koya. The town of Koya is small and completely walkable, and if you’re smart you’ll do like we did and stay in one of the many guest temples when you get there.

For a few of the highlights of our visit to Koyasan, read on…

Koya-kun

This is Koya-kun, Koyasan’s mascot. He’s an anime (cartoon) monk who you’ll see welcoming you everywhere.

We stayed a very sprawling guest temple, Jimyo-in. We were welcomed with a tea ceremony, a sign of what was to come. Each of our rooms had a small screened porch front the large central garden, and it had one of the best onsen (baths) I got to see during my brief time in Japan, complete with wood lining and a waterfall. Each guest got a yukata (a sort of robe) to wander the temple in, and it was worth exploring – it seemed like you’d find a small garden or a new painting around every corner. When we were out for the day, we’d return to find tea, hot water, and a tea snack in our room. We were served a delicious zen dinner and breakfast, and someone set up our futons while we were eating.

In short, it was probably one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in.

But it was also a functioning temple. Every morning at 630, the monks wake up to chant a sutra in the hondo. We were invited to watch. Esoteric Buddhism is not at all like Zen Buddhism – it fits very nicely onto the “smells and bells” end of the spectrum. The hondos are set up in the round, with a buddha at the center. The rooms are very dark and filled with incense and all sorts of ornamentation. The monks chant in harmony, interrupted occasionally by a gong or bell, and a drumming keeps time. Worshippers sit on the edge of the room, and are invited to add some incense to the fire along with their own silent prayers. It was fascinating.

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

On a drizzly afternoon, we went visited Kongubu-ji, the temple founded by Kobo-daishi and the administrative center of Shingon Buddhism. Apart from the tea which is included in the admission, the highlights include some fantastic Kano screen paintings and a large kari san sui rock garden surrounding part of the temple which is supposed to represent two dragons dancing or fighting (dance-fighting?).

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Near Kongobu-ji is another area filled with several small temples, shrines, and pagodas.

Koyasan, Japan

Koyasan, Japan

Koyasan, Japan

Koyasan, Japan

Finally, one of the most interesting places historically – at least to me – is the small but beautiful Tokugawa Mausoleum. Built by the third Shogun, Iemitsu, in 1643, these two buildings hold the first two shoguns of Japan. To the right is Ieyasu, the first Shogun, and on the left is his successor, Hidetada. Ieyasu’s remains have been moved a few times and aren’t there anymore, but it looks like even the Tokugawa wanted to be close to Kobo-daishi at one point.

Tokugawa Mausoleum, Koyasan, Japan

Tokugawa Mausoleum, Koyasan, Japan