Mount Koya – or Koyasan – is a beautiful and remote temple town, home to Buddhist monks and monasteries, ambient forests and World Heritage wonders. The slow but scenic journey from Osaka or Kyoto will be just as enjoyable as the final destination, as you switch between mountain railways, a steep funicular cable-car, and winding, bending alpine roads.
There are more than 50 monasteries in the area that allow overnight stays for pilgrims and worshippers, as well as the curious tourists looking to experience a slower pace of life than found in the cities of modern Japan. Try the vegetarian Buddhist cuisine shojin-ryori and sleep in the spartan rooms of a shukubo temple retreat for an unforgettable experience. Witness the morning prayers of the resident monks and gain a clearer understanding of Japan’s oft-forgotten spiritual past.
The town of Koyasan itself also offers some unrivalled gems, from the stunning head temple of Shingon Buddhism – Kongobuji – to its most revered site – Okuno-in – where the mausoleum of the religion’s founder, Kobo Daishi, is to be found. The spiritual significance of this temple is apparent in the vast cemetery that lays outside of the inner grounds, where over 200,000 memorial towers and tombstones stretch over the approaching paths for two kilometres. Especially atmospheric in the early morning, as the light breaks through the surrounding trees and monuments, it’s hard not to be moved by this most-holy of pilgrimage spots.