The heart of Shingon Buddhism at Mt. Koya.
Boasting the largest rock garden in Japan, this temple simply has to be included on any Mount Koya itinerary. Kongobu-ji Temple is the head temple of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism, and one of the most important sites in the sacred temple town of Koyasan. Also known as Mount Koya, the entire area is recognized as part of a wider UNESCO world heritage site with numerous sacred sites and pilgrimage routes in the Kii mountain range.
The original temple was constructed in 1593 by samurai and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi in memory of his mother. It was then rebuilt in 1863, and later merged with a neighboring temple in 1869. At this time it was renamed Kongobu-ji, which stands for “Temple of the Diamond Mountain Peak” and became the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. Besides Kongobu-ji, the Shingon Sect has around 4,000 other temples in Japan and more than 10 million followers around the world.
Today, it’s possible for visitors to take a self-guided tour around the three main buildings of the temple. After removing your shoes at the entrance, you can leisurely view the different rooms and halls inside. Some, such as the beautiful Ohiroma room, are still used to hold important rituals and religious ceremonies. Elegant historical artwork depicting a range of different seasons, flowers and wildlife are painted directly on their sliding doors.
Another part of the temple with historical significance is the Willow Room (also known as Yanaginoma), where Toyotomi Hidetsugu (Hideyoshi’s nephew) committed ritualistic suicide. A daimyo (feudal lord), he was ordered to commit suicide after being accused of plotting a coup against his family. Because of his act, this tatami room is also called the “Hidetsugu suicide room.”
Follow the designated route down a long corridor, and you’ll find yourself in a newer annex of the temple, known as Shin Betsuden. Here you’re invited to take a rest in the large tatami hall and enjoy complimentary tea and a small snack.
Once refreshed, check out the series of rooms in the adjacent Betsuden building to learn more about Kobo-Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. The artwork on the sliding doors depicts his sojourn to Tang Dynasty China (where he studied Buddhism) and his subsequent founding of Koyasan.
Last but not least of the attractions at Kongobu-ji Temple is the beautiful Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest Zen garden in Japan at nearly 2,350 square meters (or about half an acre). The abstract design is meant to represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds to protect the temple. This rock garden is mainly a place where you meditate and contemplate. Other recreational activities, like strolling around or having a snack, are prohibited since they violate the true purpose of it, which is absorbing the substance of nature and admiring its simplicity.
Other attractions at Kongobu-ji
Other features include a golden audience room known as Shoin Jodan no Ma that was designed for use by visiting dignitaries, and an enormous kitchen. Between July and November, it is also possible to participate in Ajikan meditation at Kongobu-ji, where participants meditate by focusing on the Sanskrit letter “A.”
A visit to Kongobu-ji Temple will take you back to the times of Kobo-Daishi.