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Iris van den Broek

Japan

The mystique of Koyasan

Misty mountains, historic temples and an ancient cemetery make Koyasan a mystical destination. iFly reporter Iris van den Broek spent two days living the temple life on Japan’s most sacred mountain.

Experience Koyasan
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Iris van den Broek

Brown leather slippers pack the wooden veranda of the temple. “Those are for inside. You can leave your shoes on the rack outside the temple,” explains Nobu, one of the monks at the Ekoin Temple where I am staying. I remove my shoes and don a pair of slippers. Ekoin is one of the 52 shukubos in Koyasan: temples that offer travellers accommodation and an opportunity to experience the life of Buddhist monks in Japan. 'Open up to the world' is the motto of this small temple village.

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The trip to the temple is an adventure in itself. From Osaka, it’s an hour and a half by train through the mountainous region. As you approach Koyasan, the train slows down and the forest grows dense. The last stretch is travelled by cable car, followed by a bus ride into the village. I am assigned a beautiful room in the temple with typical Japanese sliding doors and a bay window overlooking the courtyard garden. “At 5.30 pm we will serve you dinner in your room,” says Nobu. Until then I am free to explore the village.

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Monks on wooden sandals

Koyasan is home to 117 temples. On the way to Danjo Garan, the most important temple complex of the village, I walk through the main street packed with bakeries, shops and small restaurants. Not exactly what I had expected to find, but I can imagine it would be quite pleasant to live here! 

The soul of Kobo-Daishi is omnipresent in Koyasan. The monk was not only the father of Shingon Buddhism, he was also the founder of Koyasan, the epicentre of this school of Buddhism. According to legend, Danjo Garan is the place where it all began in 805 AD.

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The complex consists of 20 buildings. The most striking is the 45-metre-high bright red Daito Pagoda. I stroll across the temple terrain and encounter a large group of monks. I hear the clattering of their wooden sandals as they rush to one of the temples and break into a loud chant. They repeat this ceremony in front of almost every building in the complex. It is both beautiful and intriguing. Koyasan brims with this kind of mystique.

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“A group of monks break into a loud chant. It is both beautiful and intriguing. Koyasan brims with mystique”

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Misty and moss-clad: Okunoin cemetery

Although Garan is beautiful in its own right, Koyasan’s real attraction is the mysterious Okunoin cemetery. I stroll along a two-kilometre-long path that winds through the 200,000 moss-clad tombstones and towering cedar trees. Exuding an air of surrealism, Okunoin is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. It’s also riddled with symbolism, if you know where to look. Many of the tombstones are composed of various shapes that represent the five godai (elements): water, wind, fire, air and energy. The underlying idea is that upon death our bodies return to these original elementary forms.

The cemetery is also home to the Sugatami-no-ido, the Well of Reflection. Those who cannot see their reflection in the water are said to die within three years. Although I am not a superstitious person, I carefully peer into the depths to look for my own reflection… And for the first time I am pleased to see the evidence of my bad hair day staring back at me. 

Dining on tofu

I return to Ekoin Temple in time for dinner. As I settle down on the tatamis (mats) in my room, I hear a knock on the door and a monk enters my room carrying two trays laden with colourful dishes. The monks adhere to the shojin ryori dietary rules and serve their guests vegan cuisine. No meat or fish, but plenty of tofu, vegetables and vegan miso soup. Underneath each lid awaits a delightful surprise and everything tastes delicious. 

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Evening stroll in the cemetery

After dinner, Nobu invites me for an evening stroll in the cemetery. This is a regular evening activity at the temple, weather permitting. I am no hero in the dark and a walk through a cemetery after sunset hardly sounds appealing, but Okunoin is anything but creepy at night. “We don’t bury the dead here as the bodies are cremated,” explains Nobu while we walk along the stone path that meanders among the graves. 

After a half hour walk, we reach the Gobyonohashi Bridge that leads to the Torodo Hall, beyond which lies the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi. “Out of respect you will not be allowed to take pictures once you walk across the bridge,” says Nobu. That is too bad, I would have loved to capture the magnificent sight of 10,000 lanterns. Twice a day, Kobo-Daishi is offered a meal, a ritual that takes place at 6 am and 10.30 am. The monk is said to be in a state of eternal meditation. Alas, I cannot confirm this as nobody is allowed to enter, except for the abbot who takes in the food.

Fire ritual

The next morning my alarm goes off early so I can attend the morning ritual that starts at 6.30 am. The morning air is cool as I walk to the main temple at Ekoin where the ritual takes place. I sit down among the other guests who are staying at the temple complex. Two monks bring offerings to Buddha, the sounds are hypnotic and almost put me into a trance. Next, there is a fire ceremony in the small temple by the entrance. A traditional Shingon Buddhist ceremony, the fire ritual is said to destroy negative energy and cleanse the body and soul.

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Iris van den Broek

"Koyasan is almost impossible to describe, you really have to experience it."

When I return to my room I find that my breakfast has been served. It takes a bit of time getting used to starting the day with tofu, rice and green beans but it’s quite tasty. I check my smartphone to see what time the bus leaves (yes, temple life comes with WiFi) and make my way through the lovely hallways to the entrance. There I swap my slippers for my own shoes and grab the bus to the cogwheel train that takes me back to where I came from. Back to my everyday life.