Kōya-san [高野山]

by Paul Goodchild

Any visitor to Japan, or to any other South-East Asian country, will be familiar with the sights of a Buddhist Temple or two, or four, or ten…  Possibly, you’ve gone to a few Temple sites, taken them in and been ready to jump off the next Pagoda that dares to greet you.  There is sometimes too much of a good thing.

That said however, if you’re a visitor to Japan and the thought of visiting more Temples isn’t too traumatic for you, then the next thing left to do is to stay in one.  The place to do this, is Kōya-san.

What is there to do

Kōya-san, as of 1994, is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and is found in Wakayama Prefecture, south of Osaka.  It is a small town nestled within a valley surrounded by 8 mountainous peaks, 800 metres above sea level.  More than 120 temples may be found in the area, many of which offer lodgings for pilgrims and tourists alike.  There are a couple of prime sites to visit within the town, all of which can be accessed with a short walk and alternatively by bicycle and bus.  These include:

  • Okunoin [奥の院] – the mausoleum for the founder of Shingon Buddhism, surrounded by Japan’s largest graveyard
  • Kongōbu-ji Temple [金剛峰寺] – the headquarters for Shingon; also containing a large rock garden (Banryutei)
  • Garan [伽藍] – a temple complex containing various structures, including Konpondaito Pagoda [根本大塔], a 48.5m high Pagoda

Of note, is the Okunoin graveyard.  There is something strangely tranquil about this area through which you can walk.  It has it own unique atmosphere that is enhanced in the dusk and early evening when the lanterns that line the main path are lit.

How to get there

The journey to the town of Kōya-san is part of the whole experience.  It involves a local train that travels upwards through the mountain providing beautiful scenic views for about an hour, followed by a 5 minute, particularly steep, cable car ride.  This is then followed by a 10~15 minute bus journey into town.  The only way into town from this cable car station is by bus since cars and pedestrians are forbidden from traveling along the first section of road.

Taking, for example, a journey from Osaka, this is what you would do:

  • From Osaka/Umeda [大阪・梅田] take Midousuji Subway Line [営御堂筋線] to
  • Namba [なんば]; change to Nankai Koya-san Express Line [南海高野線急行] to
  • Hashimoto [橋本]; cross the platform for Nankai Koya-san Local Line [南海高野線] to
  • Gokurakubashi [極楽橋], then take Nankai Koya-san Cable Car [南海高野山ケーブル]
  • From the top, you then select your bus, either 1, 2 or 3 to take you into town.

Where to stay

The point is really to stay in one of the temple lodgings in town (Shukubo [宿坊]).  Recently the main temples formed together to fix prices in the town to approximately 10,000-yen per person, per night.  This includes dinner and breakfast and it should be noted that meals are generally vegetarian with no meat or fish.  Acclimatised palettes will probably enjoy this sort of meal, but otherwise you may find it quite challenging.

Also, as part of the experience you may be asked, though it’s not compulsory, to partake in some work in the morning or more likely to be present at the morning ceremoney.  This will involve getting up to the morning bell at around 6am~6:30am and making your way promptly to the designated area.  Breakfast will usually follow.

Please check our Accommodation (on the way) section for more information.

Alternatively, you can stay at Koyasan Youth Hostel.

Points of note

The following are a few salient points to keep in mind:

  • You will want to be arriving in Koya-san early in the day and a typical journey from Osaka can take up to 2.5hrs.  To find a timetable that suits you and to lay out the route you will take, please use the English tool Hyperdia and enter the start and destination (‘koyasan’) points.
  • The train taken from Namba [なんば] station can either be the standard express train which (at the time of writing) will cost you 1230-yen and take you all the way to the buses at the top, or you may board a Special Express [快速急行] line that doesn’t require you to change platforms at Hashimoto.  You will however have to pay an extra fare for the priviledge.
  • When you board any bus, you do so from the back door [入口] and exit the front [出口], paying on the way out.  There’ll be a machine providing a numbered ticket as you board.  Make sure and pick it up so that when the bus arrives at your destination, you and the driver can easily guage the cost of the fare as detailed on the electronic board at the front of the bus beside the bus driver.  Without the ticket, the fare will be the highest (left-most) number on the board.  Note that when boarding at a terminal, for example at Koyasan train station, there will be no tickets issued – you simply pay the fare detailed left-most on the board at the time when you disembark.

More Info / References

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