Mount Koya is a time machine. While it is true that it is located on a fixed point on the map just two hours from the crowd and bright lights of Osaka, time has warped around the mountain in such a way that a visitor is transported to one of the last places where it is possible to steal a glimpse of an old Japan that is rapidly vanishing from other more tourist oriented locations. The heart of Shingon Buddhism, the mountain is dotted with many temples, the start point of a famous pilgrimage, home to a massive cemetery that holds the bones of some of the greatest figures of Japanese history, and is one of the three holy Buddhist mountains of Japan. The mountain is without a doubt one of the best weekend trips that any visitor or resident of Japan can make.
Mount Koya’s history begins with the great Buddhist teacher Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi was a prodigy who traveled to China in the 9th century CE to study, and he brought back a deep understanding of esoteric Buddhism. Upon his return to Japan, he wandered the country and performed many great deeds of engineering, teaching, and artistry before gaining permission in 816 CE to establish a mountain top retreat as the center of the style of Buddhism he brought back from China, which was given the name Shingon. After Kobo Daishi founded his first temple on the mountain, he drew up plans for a great stupa, known as the Konpon Daito, to be built on the mountain at a location he believed to be the center of a mandala that covered all of Japan. Practitioners of Shingon believe that the tower and the mandala it is at the heart of offer protection for the whole nation.
It would be Kobo Daishi’s successors that actually built the pagoda, however. The great teacher, feeling the end of his life approaching, chose to adopt a strict diet that slowly mummified his living body. In this condition, he entered into a deep meditation from which he never emerged. Rather, it appeared to his followers said that he had chosen to enter into a state of eternal meditation to pray for the deliverance of his followers rather than rise to enlightenment, and his perfectly preserved body gave credence to this view. As news of this spread, it gave rise to Mount Koya’s most distinctive feature.
The rich and powerful, thinking Kobo Daishi would aid them in their journey to the afterlife, sought to be buried on the mountain as close to him as possible. Over the decades and then centuries, this gave rise to a sprawling cemetery that has become the largest in Japan. The cemetery is an eclectic mix of stone monuments and statues. Some of the greatest families from Japanese history have graves there, and their large stone monuments and cedar mausoleums stand out amidst the smaller markers of neighborhood associations, companies, temples, and lesser individuals. A heavy mist tends to hang over the cemetery, and this has resulted in a thick blanket of moss that covers many of the graves and much of the ground. Towering above this scene are massive cedar trees that feel so ancient that it is not hard to imagine that they were there when Kobo Daishi made his last walk through the area over a thousand years ago. The long centuries have given rise to various tales and legends from within the cemetery as well: a rock through which people can hear cries from hell; a well that people can look into, though failing to see a reflection means the viewer will die within three years; and a rock in a wooden cage that people can attempt to pick up, but those with impure hearts will find it heavy and fail.
At the very end of all of this is one of most holy places in Japan. A mausoleum was built around Kobo Daishi after he entered into eternal mediation, and this spot, more so than the Konpon Daito, is the heart of the mountain. There is no food or drink allowed here, and photography is strictly forbidden. While there are no signs telling people not to talk, a silence hangs over the location before the mausoleum. Not all silence is equal, and this is a reverential silence that can be felt. The low sound of pilgrims chanting sutras before the mausoleum serves to enhance rather than break the silence. It is a spot and atmosphere that remains with a visitor long after they have descended the mountain.
While the cemetery has remained largely unchanged outside of the addition of more monuments, the rest of the mountain has made a few grudging nods towards modernity. In 1581, a new main temple named Kongobuji was built, and it houses the largest rock garden in Japan. For the first thousand years, women were not allowed on the mountain, and female pilgrims could only go as far as the Nyoindo (Women’s temple). That changed in 1872 when the Japanese government forced the priests to allow women into the town. In the 20th century, a cablecar up the mountain was built, and buses now run from the station to Okunoin and Daimon (which literally means Large Gate and is at the beginning of the town). The 21st century has so far seen a modern convenience store opened and the reconstruction of a large wooden gate that was lost to fire centuries ago.
Visitors to the mountain tend to arrange stays at temples, which tend to have English speaking staff to make the process easy. A special type of food, called shojin-ryori, which is a vegetarian cuisine eaten by monks, is served for both dinner and breakfast. It consists of rice, tofu, pickled vegetables, and things of that nature. While it may sound bland, it has been perfected over a millenium and is surprisingly flavorful and filling. Guests are also required to attend an early morning service that begins at 6 am. Several monks gather in the main hall of their respective temples and proceed to recite chants that have been said at the same time and in the same manner on the mountain for 1,200 years.
While it is not the most famous spot in Japan, Mount Koya offers any visitor a chance for a brush with a past that has largely been lost in the country at large. Its temple buildings are second to none, and the giant Konpon Daito is awe inspiring, while the rock garden at Kongobuji must be seen to be appreciated. The path through the cemetery at Okunoin is a veritable history lesson as the graves and deeds of many of the most influential people from Japanese history are on display. The most memorable spot, however, is before Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, where the respectful silence remains unchanged in defiance of time.