Koya-san is a 900 meter tall mountain in the vicinity of Osaka. What special about Koya-san is that it is the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism which started there 1200 years ago. Which still is one of the most important buddhist sects in Japan. Today it is a secluded temple town, meaning that there is almost as much temples as as people. Well not really but 117 temples is still a lot. Since Koya-san became a UNESCO world heritage site it has seen quite an upswing in tourists outside of the normal pilgrims, but when I was last there it still felt rather peaceful. There are an average of about six thousand inhabitant in the village so even if it is secluded it still is a fairly large village.
The easiest and cheapest way to get to there is to purchase a Koya-san world heritage pass at Namba station in Osaka, read more here. From there you take the train to the end station below the mountainside and take a cablecar up to Koya-san. When you have arrived there is a shuttle bus that take you in to the centre or to your place of lodgings. Everything including a detailed map is included in the price.
Where to stay
While you can make Koya-san a day trip excursion I would urge you to stay at least one night. There is two reasons for this one is that there one thing you should go see at night and the other is that you would pass up one of the few opportunities to stay at a genuine buddhistic monastery. I stayed at one and am very happy that I did. There are various options regarding your stay, at some temples you can partake is some of the rituals and activities. In others it is merely a place to sleep. I opted for a middle way I chose a monastery were you partook in the morning meditation and were the monks prepared traditional buddhistic meals for supper and breakfast. But be prepared to book in advance since they can fill up rather quickly during certain times of the year.
There are plenty of things to se in Koya-san even if the sights is of a similar nature, being temples, museums and mausoleums. But my favourite is the path leading up to Okunoin temple which consists of a two kilometre long walk through the woods on a path lined with over 200,000 tombstones. Many Japanese of the past wanted to be buried next to the founder of Shingon Buddhism Kobo Daishi to receive salvation in death. Therefor the burial ground features both feudal lords and prominent leaders. Walking the path gives you a serene almost mystical felling due to the atmosphere. The graveyard at night gives of an entirely different vibe and I highly recommend both, but I warn you that it is sparsely lit at night. If you are there during Obon (a japanese festival for the dead) which occurs at the 13th of August the path is lit up with several thousand lanterns.
This roofed cage holds the Miroku stone which visitors are encouraged to lift by placing one hand in the cage. The weight of the stone supposedly changes with the weight of ones sins. I can’t tell you if it’s true, but it sure was heavy.
For me the stay at Koya-san was one of the highlights of Japan. I spent a few days in Osaka before taking the train there and the contrast between the two places is just astounding despite them being only a short train ride apart. Osaka being even brighter and noisier than Tokyo. Koya-san is a place of both serenity and beauty where you can get an insight into not only Buddhism but also the Japanese culture and people. If any of that sounds interesting to you I would highly recommend you to make the trip.