Deep within the majestic mountains of the Wakayama Prefecture, not too far from Osaka or Kyoto, lies Mount Koya (known as ‘Kōya-san’ in Japan). While this town is tiny in size, it is huge in spirit as it holds great Buddhist significance and radiates a palpable atmosphere.
This sacred beauty spot is revered by many as a renowned Japanese monk (named Kobo Daishi) created a Shingon Buddhist temple complex in this secluded alpine basin in 805 AD.
A spiritual, almost mystical, atmosphere envelopes you as soon as you wind your way up along the picturesque roads to the mountaintop – especially if you take the charming funicular from the local train station – as you are met by complete tranquillity, save for the odd ringing of a temple’s bell as the pilgrims come to pay their respects. Surrounded by nothing but pristine scenery, pure fresh air and sharp sunlight, you genuinely feel far removed from the hustle and bustle of built-up city life here.
As Mount Koya is home to a handful of special cultural sites, it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004. Without a doubt, our favourite of these is the evocative Okunoin Cemetery, which we recommend visiting at both day and night: the mossy gravestones and memorial pagodas glow in the crisp sun yet retain their magic in the shadow of the night, creating an ethereal atmosphere. As you walk down the central 2km pathway surrounded by towering cedar trees, you cross a stone bridge to the acclaimed Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. This is a mesmerising place, home to beautiful details and more than 10,000 perennially lit lanterns.
The holy temple complex (Danjo Garan) is also well-worth a visit: from the ancient wooden Kongobuji Temple with its gilded painted screens and perfectly raked rock garden, to the quintessential bright orange Konpon Daito pagoda. Delve into the region’s rich history with the help of our expert local guide and learn about particular cultural practices before heading to your temple lodging for the night. Staying within a Buddhist monastery is truly unmissable here as it brings the beauty of Japan to life: monks forge connections with you despite not speaking much - if any - English, the perfectly presented vegetarian food is surprisingly rich in flavours and colours and the manicured gardens with their bonsai trees create a calming Zen atmosphere. The real highlight of a visit here is attending a morning prayer ceremony – a meditative experience that's bound to form long-lasting memories.
Mount Koya is one of our absolute favourite hidden gems in Japan and guarantees an authentic cultural experience, making it a great addition to a tailor-made tour for those interested in getting under the skin of this wonderful country.
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