lines of devoted pilgrims, throngs of school children, even the occasional tourist
many types of travellers climb the mountain and overnight in Koyasan; you should too!
This post tells you about:
ancient Koyasan and why you should drive up the winding roads to reach it
how it is possible to overnight in your camper in this sacred and somewhat restricted area
combining Koyasan: the Skyline route, Wakayama Kumano, the Kii Peninsular and beautifying hot springs
What is Koyasan?
Of the numerous religious places of interest in Japan, Koyasan scores high marks for ‘atmospheric.’ There is a lot to see in a rather small area, the balance of ‘temple and nature’ feels good and it has sort of a spiritual sauce over it. Lets be honest, most of us love learning more about Japanese culture, and temples and shrines are a large part of what we can see. But at some point sooner or later, you will get ‘templed out’ and need additional reasons to go see another shrine. Well, especially when you decide to overnight in Koyasan you have such a reason.
It is the headquarters of the Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism, a faith with a wide following throughout Japan. Situated on a small plain at the top of Mount Koya is the sacred area known as the Danjo Garan, a complex of temples, halls, pagodas and Buddhist statuary that welcome visitors to this serene and hallowed place.
Surrounded by a thick forest of massive cedars, the area known as Okuno-in, or the Inner Sanctuary, is the setting for a vast cemetery that features the mausolea of numerous famous Japanese, including that of the samurai ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (or Taiko Hideyoshi) as well as memorials to the spirits of soldiers killed in the Pacific War. (source: Welcome to Koyasan)
And UNESCO includes Koyasan as part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” in its World Heritage List.
What to see
There are 112 tempels and shrines so there is no reason to feel bored! Bring plenty small coins for your offerings too. What stood out for me were the groups of worshippers that we encountered, each one following its leading flag, walking purposefully from one shrine to the next. They are friendly groups of mostly older people but their energy coming towards you will make you move quickly out of the way, to the side of the path.
Main attractions include: Daimon, Danjo Garan, Konpon Daito, Kongo Buji temple, Torodo and the ‘cemetery forest’ of Oku-no-in. All these spots are included in all guidebooks and maps. Kids will like the dark ‘cave’ under the pagode next to Jofukuin, you will pass it on your walk.
There are many Ryokan, Japanese style inns. Staying there is considered an important part of the Koyasan experience because you can enjoy the special meals, Buddist vegetarian cuisine. And learn about Japanese religious rituals still going strong today. For us blessed with our camping cars, we cannot. But feel free to walk into some of these architectural gems and have a peak. A friendly smile is all you need to bring. And for the special meals, you can experience them for lunch. Ask at any ryokan, if they do not offer it, they will direct you somewhere.
How to see it
The most logical way to explore this ‘not too big but still quite big area’ is by starting at the entrance, the Daimon. This is the main gate with its imposing guarding statues and this is also where all pilgrims entered Koyasan. And the still do, if they arrive on foot as they are supposed to. You can get there from anywhere including our suggested overnight spot (more later) by public bus. These do not run very frequently so check the schedule at the stops and plan ahead. Tickets (maybe a tad expensive considering the short distances) you buy in the bus. From the Daimon it is a mostly a walk down, and you can perfectly get all the way to the Oku-no-in on foot. Or bus a bit in between if you like. Best part for me is walking into Oku-no-in at Ichi-no-hashi and following the path upto the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. From there, it is short to reach the main road at the bus stop Oku-no-in mae (where you may well have started your explorations).
Where to park your camper for the night
There seem not many spots to park and sleep in this well-organised place where carparks are usually small and traffic attendants abundant. So my suggestion is not one of great scenic beauty, nor is there a hot spring. It is however quiet, 20 meters from a good public toilet building, under some ancient trees and close to a little river. Best of all, it is right in front of Okunoin, so at night you can wander around on the dark cemetery by yourself. Without any tourists and just the spirits for company. The few lanterns make it quite an experience. Find the exact spot in the Ride Summary below. (and sign up for free, to always receive the weekly Members-only version in your inbox, including GPS locations and more useful details).
Shopping and groceries: real shops there are not, so bring what you need. You will come across a convenience store on your walk. If you continue on south through the mountains, you will only find the first supermarkets again on the coast.
Combine an overnight in Koyasan with..
Should you go here especially for Koyasan itself? It a bit out of the way, not so much in distance but the steep and winding roads simply take a while to navigate. Best advice is to make this a stop on your way to the southern sights in Wakayama. You could make your way there from places like Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and drive straight through the green mountainous heart of the Kii Peninsular. After Koyasan, drive the high road or Skyline Route with views as far as Shikoku, the next main island across the channel. Soak in Ryujin Onsen, famous among women. Ryujin is one of the 3 hot springs with ‘the most beautifying water in all of Japan.’ Next reach the coast with more spectacular onsen, wild cliffs and the heritage walking trails of Kumano Kodo. Head back north via the east and Ise shrine, possibly the most important Shinto shrine in Japan.
If you could, allow at least a week for this whole circle. More if you like to explore more of the hiking trails. ‘Shinpoishinaide’, don’t worry, we will help you and share all route details with you in due course!
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Other useful information
more sightseeing info, and local map for your overview
- how to prepare for a trip by camping car in Japan
- all kinds of info on Wakayama and the Kumano region from their Tourism Board in Tanabe city
Ride Summary: your details about this trip
** our Members have access to Ride Summaries with even more information. For example GPS locations and phone numbers to make navigation a breeze. And more.
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