When people think 'Japan', many images and words are conjured up. You can see them yourself now, and one commonly occurring adjective is this. Mysterious.
Having travelled extensively in the country when I think - mysterious - I think of one place.
Mount Kōya or Kōya-San.
A group of mountains located in Wakayama prefecture, South of Osaka.
My name for this area is 'the enchanted woods', and the whole area offers a great deal for the adventure seeking traveller, but one particular spot at one of its peaks is extremely special. Okunoin Cemetery.
Japan's largest cemetery (between 200,000 and 400,000 graves and monuments) nestles among a thousand year old wood of giant, often hollow Cedars it is haunting, tranquil and significant. It is believed that(the founder of esoteric Buddhism in Japan) Kukai's remains are here.
To meander through is to enter another world, a small city to the dead. An almost who's who to Japan's past, it is not only a photographers wonderland but also a historian's.
During your journey through you will often come across the gravestones of famous or historical people often with explanations written in English. In fact it is probably the place to be buried. Not only for the good company you would be keeping but also because it might just ensure a cozy time in the next world. This is because of its proximity to Kūkai who is believed to be resting here in an eternal state of meditation.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan via China and the Korean Peninsula and one pivotal figure responsible for that was Kōbō-Daishi or more commonly, or even fondly known, as Kūkai. He was a monk, civil servant, scholar, poet and artist. His top two achievements are probably being responsible for the modern Japanese writing system (kana) and founding esoteric Buddhism in the country. Not bad going at all. He was born into an aristocratic family on the island of Shikoku. Because of this he was able to study Chinese classics from the age of 15. He became well versed and knowledgeable in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. During a period of private Buddhist reflection he had a vision where a man came to him. The man informed him he could find the doctrine he was seeking in a scripture called the Mahavairocana Sutra. Unfortunately when he found it, it was mostly in Sanskrit and the parts he could understand were somewhat cryptic. He decided to go to China to study it. In 804 he was able to make the trip and in 805 met the dying master Hui-kuu who was able to transmit the Dharma of esoteric Buddhism to Kūkai in a remarkably short time. He apparently described teaching Kūkai as like "pouring water from one vase to another".
Back in Japan Kūkai chose Kōya- San for his retreat and centre of the Esoteric Buddhism he had learnt in China, or Shingon Buddhism. He chose this area as this group of mountains represented the petals of a lotus and at its centre would lie Kongōbu-ji or the Diamond Peak Temple. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is everything you would imagine and is complete with Japan's largest rock garden.Kūkais vision for this whole site began in 821.
This haven of peace and calm can be achieved in a day trip from Osaka or there are plenty of lodgings located near by, which although worth it, can be pricey. Or why not lodge at one of a host of temples located here and get the full experience? There are many to chose from and make for a great vegetarian option. Something all too hard to find in Japan.
Entry to Okunoin is free and open both day and night, every day all year round. At night the path is lit by lanterns transforming it into another unique experience altogether.
It is not all ancient, for people who had a connection to rocket science.There are a couple of routes that wind through the trees, gravestones the moss and the spirits but they both lead to the Gobyonohashi Bridge. Beyond this lies Torodo Hall, Kūkai's mausoleum. No photography, food or drink is not permitted past this point.
Winter is perhaps not the best time to visit however due to its fairly extreme location and altitude.
It can get pretty chilly.From Shin-Ōsaka station (3km from the old Ōsaka station and terminus of the Tōkaido and Sanyō Bullet Train / Shinkansen lines) take the subway to Namba Station (towards Tennoji or Nakamozu). Then to change at Namba to the Nankai Kōya Line to Kōyasan.
Gobyonohashi Bridge. No photography, food or drink past this point.
Time to descend back to the real world, it must be stunning in Autumn.
This line provides a wonderful climb up into the mountains and you will want your camera handy! Finally you will reach the Kōyasan Cable line and a beautiful old red train will take you up up to your final destination - Tranquility.
As I hope has come across, I cannot recommend this area enough. Whenever I am asked where have I enjoyed visiting the most, these enchanted woods come straight to mind. They are however often overlooked. Shadowed by Kyoto and Nara but could so easily be fitted in with any such trip. I believe that for many, Kōya-San offers as much or more than any of Japan's other great sights.