Beyond Kyoto: Overnight at a Temple in Koyasan

As much as I love Kyoto, my favorite place in Japan just might be Koyasan. High in the mountains of Wakayama, this Buddhist city is not easily accessible, so it's often ignored by foreign visitors. What a shame, because they're missing out on something really special.

The beauty and peacefulness of Koyasan is hard to capture in pictures. I've been there a handful of times now, and it's always an amazing experience. The vast majority of the town is made up of temples, and the whole place exudes a strange calm that is also charged with a certain undefinable element. Spirituality? Maybe. it's hard to come to Koysan and not feel something in the air and deep within your soul.

My favorite place in Koyasan is the massive cemetery leading up the main hall at Okunoin. The cemetery is has been in use for more than a millennia, and every nook and cranny in the forest has been filled with graves and memorial stones. Small paths wind off into the gorges of the mountains leading to other smaller areas of graves covered in deep layers of moss. It's absolutely breathtaking.

At the end of the long cemetery road is Okunoin, the memorial hall of Kobo Daishi, the great monk who founded Koyasan and the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism in the 9th century. Kobo Daishi was equally a spiritual master, civil leader, inventor, and artist all rolled into one monumental Japanese historical figure. Imagine Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and the Pope combined as one being straddling the line between mortal and god, and that's Kobo Daishi.

Kobo Daishi is still sitting inside Okunoin in eternal meditation. Well, his mummified body is sitting there at least. It's said that when Japan needs him most, he will reawaken to life and spread his teachings once more for the salvation of mankind.

There are no normal hotels in Koyasan, so the only way to stay overnight is at a temple that accepts lodging. Luckily, there are dozens of these temples, and some of them offer hotel-quality rooms and amenities. We stayed at Fukuchiin, often rated as one of the best temple lodgings on the mountain. Our room was huge, and the temple itself is full of odd galleries and winding passages to explore. Dinner was completely vegetarian, as guests are expected to eat the same food as the monks who live there. Buddhist monks keep a strict diet of mainly soybeans, tofu, and seasonal vegetables. Some of the dishes were really interesting, especially the tofu cut and pressed to look exactly like real sushi. Thankfully, monks are allowed to drink alcohol, so sake and umeshu plum liquor were on hand in plentiful amounts. What a feast!

The best part about Fukuchiin, though, is that it's the only temple lodging at Koyasan to feature a real hot spring onsen. This is an excellent way to relax after a day of sightseeing. You’ll want to get to bed early, as the morning prayer ceremony begins at 6:00am, and you won’t want to miss this fascinating disaply.

If you'd like to experience Koyasan for yourself, more details are available on our Journey to Koyasan Tour page.