Home > Around Japan > Rainy Season 2010: Places You Must Visit Top 5 – No.1

Rainy Season 2010: Places You Must Visit Top 5 – No.1

This article was written by me for BiOS Blog on May 27, 2010.

Today we will introduce the no.1 in the Top 5 list of places to visit during the rainy season in Japan.

Koyasan (Mount Koya)

History:
The original Mt. Koya monastery was founded in 816 by Kobo-Daishi, the great sage and exponent of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism. Kobo-Daishi traveled in China until 805 and reportedly spent 30 years in meditation at the present site of Okunoin. Many of the Japanese pilgrims that visit Mt. Koya each year believe Kobo-Daishi, also known as Kukai, is just resting in his tomb here and waiting to be reborn.

Koyasan is located in an alpine basin that is 800 meter high and measures six kilometers from east to west and three kilometers north to south. One Koysan-based monk told the Daily Yomiuri, “Kobo Daishi selected Koyasan as the [ultimate] ashram for his mediation because it was a place where he could feel the connection between the sky and the earth…The basin is surrounded by two circles of mountains, and the inner and outer circles have eight peaks each. The area resembles a lotus flower”—an important Buddhist symbol.

At the height of its power in the 15th century, Mt. Koya contained 1,500 monasteries and thousands of monks. In the 16th century, shoguns, who felt threatened by the monks, ordered the slaughter of large numbers of monks. In the 17th century, the economic power of the monasteries was broken. Many temples were destroyed and religious leaders were banished. In the Edo period much of the land belonging to the monasteries was confiscated.

Women were prohibited from entering Mt. Koya until 1872. But not long after that monks were allowed to wed. In 2004, Koya was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where is it?
Mt. Koya-san is located in the northeastern part of Wakayama and is in Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park.

Where to visit:
Okunoin Temple is where the body of Kobo Daishi is enshrined. Around the temple are thousands of tombs filled with ashes of the dead (or their hair) ready to be brought back to life when Kobo Daishi is reborn.

The Lantern Hall is the main hall. It contains thousands of burning lamps, including two lamps that are said to have been burning for 900 years. Behind the hall is the closed mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, where it said the sage achieved enlightenment. Nearby at the Mimyo-no-hashi bridge you can see people ladling water over the Jizo statues as an offering to the dead.

Cemetery Around Okunoin Temple is one of Mt. Koya’s greatest attractions. It embraces beautiful shrines and temples and 300,000 tombs are found. Some of the tombs are quite grand and impressive-looking. belonging to important samurai, noblemen, shogun, poets and religious leaders. Some date back to the 12th and 13th century. The historical figures Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) are buried here.

A two kilometer path winds through the cemetery which is shaded by massive, old cedars and umbrella pines and lit at night by stone lanterns. Near the large parking lot there is a space-ship-shipped tomb dedicated to the employees of a an aerospace company. According to Lonely Plant. there is also a monument dedicated to a white ant produced by a pesticide company to assuage its guilt for killing millions of insects.

Reiho-kan Museum houses old implements, paintings, scrolls, mandalas and statues. Particularly noteworthy are the scroll Reclining Image of Sakyamuni Buddha on His Last day and The Eight Guardian Deities and the wonderfully expressive wooden sculptures by Unkei and Kaikei, both of whom worked in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Kongobuji Temple is the head temple for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It contains one room with lovely screen paintings of willows and another room where Toyotomi Hideoyishi committed seppeku (ritual suicide). The temple owns the oldest colored mandala in Japan: an 850-year-old mandala known as the Chi Mandala, which is comprised of two works. The Realm of Kongokai and The Realm of Taizokoai. Each is made of seven pieces of silk and measures 4.27 by 3.94 meters. The mandalas are very fragile and rarely shown. They were recently recreated using high computers, fluorescent X-ray imaging and ultraviolet beams and other high tech methods.

Where to stay overnight:
Koyasan is also one of the best places to experience an overnight stay at a temple lodging (shukubo) where you can get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle, eating vegetarian monk’s cuisine (shojin ryori) and attending the morning prayers. Around fifty temples offer this service to both pilgrims and visitors, known as shukubō in Japanese.

Prices vary between ¥9,000 and ¥15,000 per night and include two meals. You will be offered the opportunity to join in the morning prayer session, a hypnotic experience involving sutra chanting, incense and gongs. Note that not all temples are set up to handle visitors who don’t speak Japanese.

• Jimyoin
Located in the center of Mt. Koya and convenient for sightseening. Quiet temple lodging surrounded by large garden. Enjoy the bath with heated natural water carried from the crystral stream in the mountain behind the temple.

• Daienin
A fairly typical temple, centrally located (walking distance to both ends of town) and run by a friendly bunch of monks.

• Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in
The natural hot springs of Koya-san are available only at this hotel and are open 24 hours a day. Only vegetarian dishes are served here, and the meals, which feature seasonal ingredients, are painstakingly planned and prepared by the head chef with a different course every month. from ¥22.000.

While the monks don’t drink, alcohol is available to guests at dinner, and perhaps even from a vending machine. Temples have set hours at which the front gate is opened and closed, and the time the bath is available. This curfew can be as early as 9 PM, so don’t expect to head out after dinner — although you’ll want to go to bed early anyway if you want to attend the morning prayers around 5 AM!

How to access:
The mountain is accessible primarily by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station at the base of the mountain.
A cable car from Gokurakubashi then whisks visitors to the top in 5 minutes. The entire trip takes about 1.5 hours on an express train or 2 hours by non-express. Traffic by vehicle can be terrible on weekends until well into the evening. On weekdays, the mountain offers a pleasant drive followed by the excitement upon reaching the monasteries lining the summit.

For more information visit www.shukubo.jp/eng

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Alex Kawano.
Official HE Blog Author

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