I’m back with something more about my summer trip to Japan. There is still so much to tell about the two weeks I spent there in July, a truly amazing experience. Today I want to tell you about our overnight trip to Koyasan, a sacred site in the Wakayama prefecture, not too far away from Osaka. It was the highlight of my Japan trip, and it’s not difficult to see why… The trip to Koyasan was part of a tour we took with G Adventures. It was actually the first stop-over in our tour, and the one I liked best. Koyasan is located high up in the mountains and it is the centre of Shingon Buddhism. You can read all about its interesting history here or here. It took us about two hours to get there from Osaka, but as soon as we arrived in the small town I understood that we had arrived in a special place. As you walk along the streets you see one temple after the other, one more beautiful and interesting than the one before, torii gates and pagodas everywhere, monasteries and a lot of young monks wandering right next to you. We didn’t have time to explore everything, but after a quick udon lunch our guide took us to the Danjo Garan complex, one of the holiest places in Koyasan. It was a lovely place, very peaceful and there were only few tourists. Konpon Daito (the great pagoda) was very impressive. The inside even more so, with beautiful mandala-like paintings on the pillars. There is so much to see in this area alone, if you visit it make sure to go with a guide that can explain it all, or read about it in a book or else you will miss the most interesting things. I had my 5 minutes of fame when I was the first person of our group to find a three needle-shaped leaf fallen from the sacred pine tree near the pagoda. It’s supposed to bring a whole lot of luck when you put it in your wallet. It’s staying in my wallet forever now, just to be on the safe side ;) Later we went to visit Kongobuji, the official headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. A must-see are the painted walls of the rooms (no pictures allowed) and the beautiful dry gardens. We were also offered tea and Japanese sweets at the end of the tour. Then we took the bus to the other end of town to access Okunoin cemetery. We entered the cemetery on the more modern side and walked towards the mausoleum. The cemetery is made up of about 300’000 tombstones between hundreds-of-years-old cedar trees. As you walk towards the mausoleum, the tombstones get older and more interesting. We visited the mausoleum and the Torodo lantern hall, illuminated by about 20’000 lanterns in different sizes. We then took another path, we walked for about 2 km, we crossed bridges over water streams, walked up and down hills and finally reached the town, and all along we were surrounded by wood, stone lanterns and tombstones. It was just wow, this was the most impressive thing I’ve seen during my Japan trip, I will never forget how truly special, quiet, peaceful and spiritual Okunoin is. We actually visited the cemetery once more at night just to see how it was in the dark, and of course it was equally impressive and even a bit spooky. At night there were even less people walking the grounds, I think we met only one or two monks.
When in Koyasan make sure to spend the night there too. There are a lot of monasteries and you can spend the night in one of them. We slept at a monastery called Ekoin, the monks living there were very nice and some even spoke a few words English. We got to eat a typical Buddhist vegetarian meal for dinner and breakfast. The food was quite special, I liked some of it while other things just tasted too strange; let’s just say that I was happy that our guide advised us to bring along some snacks. We slept in a traditional Japanese room on a futon, got to wear a yukata and took a bath in the onsen. In the morning we were allowed to watch the service in the main temple and after that we participated in the fire ceremony. I loved it, it was something really unique that I had never seen before and maybe will never experience again. So yes, now you know, my favourite place in Japan was actually a cemetery, as weird as that sounds :) But there is so much else to do in Koyasan, so make sure to include a visit to this sacred place when you’re planning your trip to Japan. I’m sure you won’t regret it!