A Visit to Koyasan, part 1: Up the Mountain!

Kōyasan, or Kōya, is a natural basin atop a mountain in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. The shallow basin (called a kōya in Japanese) sits 800 meters above sea level, and is home to one of Japan’s most sacred temple complexes (also known as Kōyasan), as well as Japan’s largest cemetery, Okunoin.

In the weeks that come, I hope you’ll join me for a virtual tour of Kōya and its various sites of interest. Today, we’re taking the journey up the mountain by cable car.

When the famous priest, Kōbō Daishi (also known as Kūkai) founded Kōya during the 9th century, the only way up the mountain was on foot. In the centuries that followed, pilgrims established trails up the mountain – one of which, I’ll be climbing on July 3 of this year as part of my 100 Summits project (and to celebrate the release of my sixth Hiro Hattori mystery, Trial on Mount Kōya).

Now, visitors can make the journey in much less time by taking the Nankai Electric Railway from Osaka’s Namba Station to Gokurakubashi, a station near the base of Kōya’s peak. The stations become increasingly rural as you travel away from Osaka, with beautiful views of the mountains for which Wakayama Prefecture is known.

At Gokurakubashi, visitors climb a steep set of stairs and board a cable car for the final journey to Kōya.

Every time I’ve visited Kōya, the cable car has been crowded with visitors eager to experience the sacred peak. My advice: if you’re going to spend the time to get there (it takes about 2.5 hours from Osaka, or 3 hours from Kyoto) spend the night. Many of Kōya’s temples offer shukubo – temple lodgings – giving visitors a chance to experience an overnight stay in a working Buddhist temple, as well as much more time to explore and enjoy Kōya’s sights and temples. (There’s also a night time tour of Okunoin – but more on that in another post!)

The cable car takes about 5 minutes and costs around $4. Unless you’re up for a very long hike (about 8 hours), an extended bus ride over curving mountain roads (about 2 hours from the base of the mountain), or have a car, it’s also the only choice. That said, the Kōya cablecar ride is not only beautiful but fun – piped-in narration explains the history of Kōya in both Japanese and English, and every seat offers gorgeous views of the forests that cover the mountain’s slopes. If you’re nervous, I suggest sitting “high,” near the front of the car, so you’re not looking back down the steep, sloping track toward the bottom of the mountain.

When you reach the top, hop a bus to the center of Kōyasan – a ten-minute trip that passes over a dozen different Shingon temples:

. . . before arriving at Kōya’s “main street,” where most of the shops and restaurants are located.

(The coin lockers are here too, right next to the Koyasan tourist center, where you can buy discount passes to enter the museums, the Tokugawa mausoleum, and the few other fee-charging sites on Kōyasan.)

If you’re staying at one of the temples, you can usually also drop off your luggage at the temple when you arrive, even if check-in isn’t for several hours. The bus that picks visitors up at the cable car station also stops at a number of different places around Kōya, each of which is convenient to some of the temples offering overnight stays. (Check the map, or ask at the visitors’ center, to see which one is closest to your lodging.)

Now that we’ve arrived, I hope you’ll click here and join me on a virtual tour of Danjo Garan, the temple complex that sits at the heart of Kōyasan.

5 thoughts on “A Visit to Koyasan, part 1: Up the Mountain!

    • April 11, 2018 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks Claire! (I love helping people figure out how to see these things themselves, as well as showing photos for people who might not be able to get there in person.)

  • April 12, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    I’d love to visit Japan but I have to admit, I worry about things like navigating around on public transport when I don’t know the language. How easy would you say this sort of thing is to do if you just speak English and sign language?

    • April 12, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      Lesley, traveling around most of Japan is actually very easy for English speakers. All of the major cities have signage in English as well as Japanese, and most of the train and subway stations have employees that speak at least minimally functional English (and large stations always have an information desk with effectively English-fluent personnel to help). The ticket machines have an option for English – you push the button and all the instructions are in English, making it easy to travel. Many restaurants have English-language menus too (mainly in the larger cities – when I’m traveling in the countryside, it’s mostly Japanese, but even there it’s possible to get by with minimal difficulty). My mother, who speaks no Japanese, was able to get around fairly easily on her own, even when I wasn’t with her. Short answer: you won’t have any real trouble at all.

      • April 13, 2018 at 11:33 am

        That’s good to know! Thank you 🙂

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