1200 years of history all in a day at Koya-san.
Today’s adventure took us to Koya-san (Mount Koya). Some 66 kms south of Osaka, this tiny mountain-top village is home to 6,000 Buddhist monks and nuns, no fewer than 30 temples, countless shrines and the oldest and most revered cemetery in Japan: Okinoin. Koya-san stands at 880 m above sea level and is a lone mountain peak, nestled in the middle of a natural formation said to resemble the petals of a lotus flower. There are 7 mountains arranged in a circle, surrounding another smaller circle of 7 mountains, in the middle of which stands Koya-san. Due to its unique geographical position, the mountain is believed to be particularly holy and is a popular place for monks and nuns from all over the Buddhist world to come and study. Many “regular people” also visit Koya-san as many of the temples offer retreats for lay people who wish to get away from the trials and tribulations of the modern world for a week or more.
We had to navigate the subways to reach the distant Osaka-Namba station, to then catch the Nankai Private Train to Koya-san. Easy right? Hmmm…., well, kind of. Turns out Japan is fool-proof, but not idiot-proof. We DID make it, but only thanks to the very kind assistance of the ever-helpful, generous and obliging Japanese people. Being a tourist really renders you vulnerable – we can barely read (Note: Thank goodness Shane reads SOME Japanese though!), we understand none of the local customs or nuances of behaviour and must look like frightened rabbits stuck in head-lights half the time! Luckily breakfast today worked out better (please don’t judge us): we ended up at a Starbucks for coffee and a toasted egg and bacon muffin (ahhhh…. the relief of the familiar!).
Once on the train, we sat back and enjoyed the scenery. Unsurprisingly, urban Japan is very built-up and rather ugly (as only cities can be), but rural and wild Japan are beautiful. Photos below give you a bit of a glimpse of the scenery.
The train trip takes about 90 mins from Osaka, and gradually climbs from sea level to 550m, with the last 250m being by funicular railway. The funicular train basically chungs up a cliff to take you to the top of the mountain at an incline of about 70 degrees (ie: very steep). It was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies, what with my “I don’t love heights” thing.
Man was it worth the two hour trip in total though – Koya-san is simply breath-taking. Shrouded in mountain mist in the morning, nestled in a tiny valley at the top of Mount Koya, with the sound of chanting monks drifting through the air, it felt like another planet compared to the chaos of Osaka. The cedar tress in the area are thousands of years old and many of the temples, shrines and mausoleums are more than 1000 years old. There is a stillness and a majesty about this tiny village that words simply cannot describe. It was one of those experiences that makes you understand why human beings believe in God, or at least in something greater than themselves. AA significant proportion of Japanese society are practicing Buddhists, and they combine Buddhism with their even older, traditional nature-spirit worship practices. Nowhere is this more evident than at Koya-san, where Buddhist iconography sits beside shrines for Tree Spirits and Water Spirits.
The first temple at Koya-san was established in 816 AD by the revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi; his mausoleum was the first to be built in 835 AD, around which grew the Okunoin Cemetery. To be buried in this cemetery is a great honour for the Japanese, and wandering through this extensive cemetery is a lesson in Japanese history, with graves for warlords standing beside those of great artists, emperors, religious dignitaries, and (in the more modern section of the cemetery), the founders of some of the greta Japanese industrial companies (eg: Toyota, Panasonic). The graves are interspersed amongst giant cedar tress and moss has grown thick over some of the oldest stones. It certainly put my own small life in perspective, standing in amongst all that history and natural majesty. The serenity and silence only heightened this feeling. Koya-san is not a common destination for many tourists, so we only had to share the space with a handful of older Japanese devotees, here to pay their respects to their deceased loved ones, or visit Kobo Daishi’s grave – a place of great spiritual significance to Buddhists everywhere. Photos could never capture the feelings Koya-san evokes, but these may at least help you an insight into why this tiny village, high up in the mountains of Japan, struck us so deeply.