Koyasan: The Holy Mountain Town

Koyasan, Japan

In Summer of 2012, I was part of a landscape architecture study abroad program in Kyoto, Japan. We stayed in a temple guest house and went to gardens and temples learning to watercolor. Here are some photos of our trip to Koyasan.

In another post, I wrote about visiting the cemetery at Okunoin, the highlight of any visit to Koyasan. It’s a beautiful little mountain town. If you take the scenic route up the mountain, like we did, you ride on a private rail line through a handful of villages along a valley with an impressive river at the bottom, then get on a funicular railway to climb up to Mount Koya. The town is small and completely walkable, and if you’re smart you’ll do like we did and stay in one of the many guest temples when you get there. Ours was Jimyo-in. We were welcomed with a tea ceremony, a sign of what was to come. Each room had a small screened porch fronting the large central garden, and it had one of the best onsen (baths) I had the pleasure of using during my brief time in Japan, complete with wood lining and a waterfall. Each guest was given a yukata (a sort of robe) to wander the temple in, and it was worth exploring – it seemed like you’d find a small garden or a new painting around every corner. When we were out for the day, we’d return to find tea, hot water, and a snack waiting in our rooms. We were served delicious zen dinners and breakfasts, and someone would set up our futons while we were eating.

In short, it was probably one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in.

But it was also a functioning temple. Every morning at 630, the monks wake up to chant a sutra in the hondo. We were invited to watch. Esoteric Buddhism is not at all like Zen Buddhism – it fits very nicely onto the “smells and bells” end of the spectrum. The hondos are set up in the round, with a buddha at the center. The rooms are very dark and filled with incense and heavily ornamented. The monks chant in harmony, interrupted occasionally by a gong or bell, and a drummer keeps time. Worshippers sit on the edge of the room and are invited to add some incense to the fire along with their own silent prayers.

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Shoin rooms at Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

Buddha statues, Jimyo-in, Koyasan, Japan

On a drizzly afternoon, we visited Kongubu-ji, the temple founded by Kobo-daishi and the administrative center of Shingon Buddhism. Apart from the tea, included in the admission, the highlights were some fantastic Kano screen paintings and a large kari san sui rock garden surrounding part of the temple which is supposed to represent two dragons dancing or fighting (dance-fighting?).

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Kongobu-ji, Koyasan, Japan

Near Kongobu-ji is another area filled with several small temples, shrines, and pagodas.

Koyasan, Japan

Finally, one of the most historically interesting places – at least to me – was the small but beautiful Tokugawa Mausoleum. Built by the third Shogun, Iemitsu, in 1643, these two buildings hold the first two shoguns of Japan. To the right is Ieyasu, the first Shogun, and on the left is his successor, Hidetada. Ieyasu’s remains have been moved a few times and aren’t there anymore, but it looks like even the Tokugawa wanted to be close to Kobo-daishi at one point.

Tokugawa Mausoleum, Koyasan, Japan

This is an edited version of a post from my old website, iankphoto.com. The original was published on August 28, 2012.

Ian Korn

Aspiring architect. Photographer. Beer enthusiast. World traveler. Fitness fan. (Sometime) bike commuter. Committed christian.

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