My second trip to Koya-san came in 2018, a mere fourteen years and a few months after my first. And this time, everything was different. I wasn’t with anyone named Amos. I had a smartphone instead of a disposable Fuji-film camera. I would not be camping, illegally or otherwise. And instead of hiking part of the way I’d be taking the train all the way to the top.
When did life become so boring?
This wasn’t a trip, exactly. It was a last-minute reconnaissance mission. And I had only so much time to get up the mountain, get acquainted with Koya-san (the part I missed my first time here), and get back down the mountain and out to Kansai International Airport south of Osaka where I’d meet up with a group of thirteen Slovenian women.
Like most sacred and serene places that have turned into tourist circuses, Koya-san has been made extremely easy to reach and then navigate. I could have skipped this recon mission and blindly led my group around Koya-san’s East Side, including the sprawling crown jewel of Oku-no-in, without looking stupid. I like to avoid looking stupid whenever I can though, so back up into the Wakayama mountains I went.
All the ins and outs of getting to Koya-san can easily be found online so I won’t bother - though I will offer a couple of tips I haven’t seen anywhere else. One, transfer to the Nankai Line at Namba Station. It may look like you can save a bit of time catching the Hashimoto-bound train with a transfer at Shin-Imamiya but ‘Shin-Imamiya’ is actually a code word in the passenger train industry. It means ‘hell’.
If none of this makes sense to you, that’s fine.
But if you ever find yourself trying to get to Koya-san you’ll need to know that Namba is good and Shin-Imamiya is bad. Try to remember.
The other secret I picked up on my time-sensitive recon mission is this: If you’re traveling with a big heavy suitcase on wheels, either store it at Namba Station’s second-floor luggage service center or ship it from Namba (or your last hotel) to wherever you’re going after Koya-san. Navigating your way to and around Koya-san isn’t too difficult. But dragging your crap up and onto the cable car that sits at a forty-five degree angle…then dragging it up the narrow steps inside the cable car as you search for an empty seat (negotiating all the other big bulky suitcases in your way)… then off the cable car and up more stairs to the top cable car station… through and around to your bus platform… and, finally, onto a bus that was designed for Japanese locals and minimalist monks, not big white people (or any other invading color) with big huge suitcases; the endeavor is, in a word, amassiveannoyanceforyouandeveryonearoundyou. Avoid it. Trust me, your trip to Koya-san will be so much nicer.
Just ask my thirteen Slovenian ladies.
One more thing…
…and then I’m done giving travel advice (because quite frankly I hate giving unsolicited travel advice). Spend a night in Koya-san. Yes, you can do a day trip from Osaka or even Nara, but it will end up feeling more like a recon mission – and probably without the part where you meet thirteen Slovenian women afterward.
Not only is there more to see in Koya-san than you can reasonably fit into one day, the best times to see the best parts are early morning and in the evening when the crowds of big Westerners with their big wheeled suitcases as well as the loud-mouth, self-absorbed Chinese tourists have made themselves blessedly scarce. This goes for just about anywhere, but considering Koya-san’s relative isolation an overnight stay is virtually imperative – unless you’re the kind who prefers recon missions. Plus staying the night offers the chance to sleep and eat in a temple, giving you a feel for the life of a monk, albeit a fleeting and superficial one.
However! (All right, I lied. One more bit of advice.) If you can – and this goes for traveling to Japan in general – come in the Spring or the Fall. The crowds are lighter (except during Golden Week) and the temps are significantly more agreeable. And while the cherry blossoms are much more spectacular down in Yoshino, the pockets of fall colors splashed around Koya-san make the unique experience of Oku-no-in even better.
Now, this last morsel of wisdom is not advice. It’s a warning. Don’t come to Koya-san to experience the temples. They’re nice, don’t get me wrong. But they alone do not justify making the trek up here. Oku-no-in is what makes this place special. That said, making a day trip out of Koya-san is certainly possible; a few hours exploring Koya-san is sufficient. You’ll just have to share it with the hordes.
So what’s so special about Oku-no-in?
|Konishiki against one of his less formidable foes.|
Yes, Oku-no-in is Japan’s largest cemetery, with over 200,000 grave markers and counting. (Yes, after more than a thousand years they are still adding graves.) But just because something is the biggest doesn't mean it’s the best. Consider sumo wrestler Konishiki, who never achieved the top rank of Yokozuna.
The history of this place certainly sets it apart from Japan’s eight million other cemeteries. A monk by the name of Kukai established this remote, forested mountain plateau retreat back in 816 as a place to pursue and teach the esoteric wisdom that he picked up while in China on spring break. These teachings have come to define the Shingon sect of Buddhism, one of Japan’s largest.
Over time Kukai’s high-altitude hideaway grew into a bustling barefoot community of monks. In 834 Kukai pulled his last trick (for the time being) and entered into eternal meditation. That’s right, though Kobo Daishi (Kukai’s posthumous name) is entombed here he is not dead yet. He’s resting. Reminds me of a monty python skit.
According to the legend, Kobo Daishi is waiting for Miroku Nyorai, the Buddha of the future, to arrive and wake him up. Not one to waste time, he multi-tasks in his sleepy state, offering salvation to those who seek it. For this reason, this is THE place to spend eternity. Not everyone can end up here, though, so many will visit and leave an eyebrow hair or a fingernail. Better than nothing, I guess.
The traditional entrance to Oku-no-in is the rather understated Ichinohashi Bridge. This footbridge serves as the passageway into the sacred ground of the cemetery that lines the two-kilometer path leading gently through the impressive cedar forest and past those almost quarter-million tombstones. Many of them are centuries old. Many are covered in moss. Even for Japan, it is rare to feel like you are walking through the land as it was a millennium ago. Here, you do. Unless there are big people with big suitcases around.
And like I said earlier, the atmosphere is most serene, most striking in the early morning hours or in the hours before and after nightfall. Rainy, misty conditions take away from the experience not one bit, and may even enhance the enchantment only a cemetery can offer.
If you’re pressed for time, if you aren’t quite up for the extended stroll, or if you’re just plain lazy, you can take a town bus all the way to Oku-no-in-mae bus stop and cut your walk in half. Note though that you’ll be walking through a recently-added section of the cemetery, where all the graves are nice and new and nothing special. You’d still see Oku-no-in, but you’d be missing all the other good stuff. Which would be like, I don’t know, heading straight for the centerfold.
Along the walk from Ichinobashi, among the thousands of long-forgotten departed, are countless side paths and trails. Don’t hesitate. Go check out a few of them. Your chances of getting lost are nil. (If need be, just listen for the loud-mouth tourists.) Like these short diversions, the main path is not completely flat – you can count on a few slopes and short staircases. But these minor matters are more than fully offset by the scenery.
The Main Event
Right outside the boundaries of Oku-no-in proper sits the Gokusho Offering Hall and, just to the side, a row of Jizo, which are representations of the benevolent little deities believed to look after travelers and the souls of young and unborn children. These particular Jizo are called Mizumuke Jizo, which means you get to splash them with water while you pray for your deceased loved ones. Go ahead. It’s fun. Just remember to pretend to be serious.
The Gobyobashi Bridge takes you over into the uber-sacred grounds of Kobo Daishi’s final resting place (until he wakes up and gets back to business). This means crossing over from the land where eating, drinking and taking pictures is allowed into the land where it is not. Mind your manners. To your left (unless you are walking backwards in which case it’s on your right) you’ll have the chance to test both your strength and your fate with the Miroku Stone. This revered rock sits in a cage, surrounded by a crowd of hopefuls taking turns sticking their arms through the hole in the mesh and trying to lift it with one hand – a feat which, if accomplished, gets you lots of great existential prizes.
The Toro-do is the Lantern Hall where, predictably, there are lanterns. Ten thousand of them, actually, give or take. They are said to be eternally lit. Behind the Toro-do is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, Gobyo, where the man the legend is said to be meditating until those lanterns go out.
Ten thousand lanterns. Two hundred thousand gravestones. Eternity. All impressive numbers. Sadly, I wouldn’t have time to confirm any of them.
I had a date with thirteen Slovenian women – and their luggage.
Train or Trail? Depends on Who’s Going.
For me, Koya-san isn’t just a place. This 1,200-year-old ode to Buddhism is an experience – and a truly unique one at that. But like all unique experiences, as it is for travel itself, how you get there can make a huge difference in what you take away.
If I ever go back to Koya-san, I want to hike up again.
That, of course, will probably depend on the company I am with.
Nothing against my Slovenian girlfriends, but I think I’ll give Amos a call first.