Encounter spiritual Japan at one of its holiest destinations.
Solemn prayers resound deep in the mountains of Wakayama. At the top of Mount Koya, an isolated Buddhist retreat has been in quiet operation since it was established in the 9th century by Kobo-Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and an important religious figure in Japan.
Shielded by ancient cedar forests and literally elevated above the trivialities of modern society, Koyasan remains a Buddhist sanctuary devoted to serious study and contemplation – while also inviting complete novices to experience an overnight stay and morning prayer at one of its elegant temples.
Danjo Garan was the original temple complex built by Kobo-Daishi when he returned from studying esoteric Buddhism in China. It’s comprised of multiple halls and pagodas, through which assemblies of robed monks diligently weave. In nearby Kongobuji, one can view the largest rock garden in Japan from the veranda. Squint and you might make out the dragons tasked with guarding the temple.
Head east, bow before crossing the Ichinohashi Bridge, and you’ll enter sacred Okunoin cemetery. Kobo-Daishi’s mausoleum is located deep in the forest, and to reach it you’ll have to cross two kilometers of the 300,000 tombstones of people who wished to receive salvation from the spiritual leader in death. The cool mountain forest is often engulfed by mist, lending a strange and mystical atmosphere to the gravestones, Jizo statues, and stone lanterns lining the path, all of it overgrown with moss.
It’s believed that Kobo-Daishi is not dead, but resting in his mausoleum in a state of eternal meditation, awaiting the arrival of the Buddha of the Future. The Torodo (Hall of Lamps) in front of it is a breathtakingly worshipful place, filled with lanterns that are kept eternally lit. The surrounding area is hushed and peaceful, and contains many curious delights, such as a stone that will judge the virtue of its bearer.
Temples have proliferated in this holy town, and over 50 of them offer overnight accommodation to visitors. Cozy and private, the rooms are closer in style to a minimalist ryokan than the austerity one might expect from a monk’s life. They’re a great opportunity to try shojin ryori—vegetarian temple cuisine—as well as a meditative early morning prayer session led by the monks.