Mount Koya, Japan

i blogged about my trip to Hokkaido in the recent week, including one about Mount Asahidake. being in Mount Asahidake reminded me of my visit to Mount Koya, which took place in 2014.

Mount Koya is definitely worth a blog post as it’s one of my favourite places in Japan so far. i actually wrote about my visit there on my personal blog back then, and i dug it up just now so that i could review what i wrote. i used the term ‘spirited away’ quite frequently in that blog post. i guess that was how i really felt at that time. the whole place felt incredibly spiritual and full of calm and peace.

getting there was not easy though.

i couchsurfed at a nice lady’s house the night before and woke up super early to make my journey there. it took me about 3 hours to get there. i took a train to Gokurakubashi and then transferred onto the cable car. from the top of the cable car station, you can take a bus into town, or to any of the interesting spots on the mountain actually. the journey in itself, was scenic and interesting despite the 3 hours. there was a lot of countryside scenery to admire. i think i might have gotten the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket as well, to help ease transportation around the area and it covered all my train, cable car and bus rides.

as hinted by the name of the ticket, Mount Koya is a UNESCO world heritage site. it is an important center for Shingon Buddhism, introduced by Kobo Daishi in 805. it hosts many temples, mausoleums as well as the largest graveyard in Japan. Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum can also be found here. in his mausoleum, it is described that he is ‘still alive’ and resides in ‘eternal meditation’.

my first destination was the Okunoin graveyard, located at the opposite end of the cable car station. the graveyard had a very ethereal feel to it. i guess that was probably one of the reasons why i used the phrase ‘spirited away’ a lot. i felt like i was in a different world as i explored the largest graveyard in Japan. there were plenty of tomb stones, shrines, Buddhist statues etc. there weren’t many tourists there, though it wasn’t entirely quiet either. you could hear the birds chirping and insects making music as you walked. it was colder up there than in town. you could also see many locals visiting the deceased and praying at the shrines.

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besides the traditional moss-covered tomb stones, i also saw some pretty odd modern-looking ones – one of a dog (maybe for a beloved pet dog?) and one of a rocket. there’s bound to be more quirky ones but i didn’t have much time to inspect each and every tomb stone.

at the end of the graveyard was Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. there was a heap of tombstones next to his, apparently tombstones of priests who wanted to be as close to him as possible. no photographs were allowed, so i only marveled at the sight.

there were many locals praying at Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. there was also a little building with plenty of lit lamps inside. the whole room was filled with just that – lamps, with some words inscribed on the gold frames. it felt really surreal. there were statues of deities near the graveyard and people splashed water onto them asking for them to care for their loved ones in the afterlife.

as i was walking around Okunoin temple, i came across a peculiar sight: two patches of fluffy white stuff on either side of the temple entrance. i didn’t know what they were at first, until i saw a few kids making snowballs out of them and throwing them at one another. it was snow. i was dumbstruck, simply because i had never seen real snow in my life, until then. i put my hand on top of the patch of snow and it felt awesome.

feeling hungry after spending a vast amount of time at the graveyard, i rode a bus to town, had some lunch, and began to explore the temples. i visited the Kongobuji Temple, an important temple for Shingon Buddhism. it’s famous for its beautiful sliding doors – gold in colour with beautiful drawings of cranes. after wandering around within the premise, i had some green tea in the tea room.

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i then visited the Tokugawa Mausoleum. it was built by the third Tokugawa shogun so that the family could have a mausoleum close to Kobo Daishi’s. i learnt that there were many Tokugawa mausoleums all over Japan. another one i’ve been to is the Toshogu shrine in Nikko.

the museum nearby was closed, so i ended up walking to Daimon, the main gate. it was an enormous red gate with two imposing guardian statues on either side, watching you intently as you make your entrance into Koyasan. it was both a little bit frightening (i was alone) and awe-inducing at the same time. i passed by a number of curious abandoned old buildings on my way to the gate.

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Daimon
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some old building i came across along the way
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peek inside?

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this was another ‘spirited away’ moment for me as i half expected to be greeted by spirits while i was walking there. i could only imagine the abandoned old buildings transforming into a busy marketplace for spirits at night, for example, and for the two fierce guardian statues to come to life as they stood watch over the mountain while the spirits played.

from Daimon, i took the bus back to the cable car. i did not manage to explore everything the mountain had to offer but that was alright. some people opt to stay overnight at a temple, but i couldn’t afford to do that. so, i left as the sky was getting dark and feeling exhausted, i slept through the entire train journey back to Osaka.

upon my arrival to Osaka, i returned to the city life, with all its bright lights and nightlife. my couchsurfing host and her friend took me to a DIY takoyaki place and it was all good fun as they tried to teach me how to make a perfectly round takoyaki without spilling all the squishy paste. we had quite a time fanning our burned tongues and washing all the takoyaki down with some cold beer.

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as i went to sleep, i couldn’t help wondering if the old abandoned buildings at Koyasan had come to life and if the spirits too, were having takoyaki and beer as they gossiped about the new batch of tourists who had come to visit that day. spirited away, indeed.

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