CHAPTER 34: Return to Mount Kōya

September 28, 2018 – Mt. Yoryu (#31)

This supplement tracks the events in Chapter 34 of CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan, and includes “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.

I made the choice to return to Kōyasan for Mountain #31 of the 100 Summits quest as much for practical reasons as personal ones: I had the chance to write an article about the sacred mountain (which is one of my favorite places in Japan) and decided to kill three birds with one stone.

In addition to the mountain and the article, a return to Kōya meant the chance to eat another lunch at Kadohama, a restaurant on the sacred plateau that makes the best gomadofu (tofu made entirely from sesame seeds instead of soybeans) on the planet–as well as one of the most beautiful lunch sets anywhere:

Kadohama’s autumn lunch set:
gomadofu, freeze-dried tofu (another specialty of Kōyasan), pickles, soup, and rice

After lunch, I did some research for the article, which included a visit to the Daimon, or Great Gate, which marks the entrance to the precincts of Danjo Garan, Kōyasan’s central temple complex.

The Daimon (Great Gate) on Kōyasan

I also hiked a portion of the Nyonin-michi–literally, “women’s trail,” which circumambulates the rim of Kōyasan’s mountaintop plateau. Before the Meiji Era, this was as close to the sacred holy sites as women were allowed to come. The Nyonin-michi runs up and over the mountaintops that ring the holy plateau like the petals of a lotus flower. In reality, the paths were used by people of all genders, because they were the shortest, and best-maintained, routes between the villages on all sides of the holy mountains.

The nyonin-michi in fog, looking much as it’s looked for more than 1,000 years.

I began my ascent at Ipponsugi, the Single Cedar, which was planted more than 550 years ago to serve as a marker, because cedars grow much taller than the native Koyamaki (Kōya pines).


The trail wound upward through the forest. Fallen limbs, and even fallen trees, were everywhere. A massive typhoon passed through a few weeks before, and the wreckage had not been cleared. The trees on Kōyasan grow tall, but the mountain’s bedrock sits just 2-3 meters below the surface of the soil, meaning that even the massive trees have relatively shallow roots. When the wind blows with typhoon force, and heavy rain saturates the soil enough, the trees go down.

The trailhead

Mount Yoryu is one of the Kōya Sanzan–a trio of holy peaks that rise behind the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi (the founder of Kōyasan, and the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China). A Shintō shrine (pictured below, in my summit photo) also stands on the summit–evidence of the syncretic nature of Shintō and Buddhist worship in Japan. (If you’re interested in this aspect of Japanese culture, I talk a lot about it in CLIMB, as well as elsewhere on this blog.)

On the Summit of Yoryusan

Instead of descending the way I went up, I continued along the nyonin-michi down the far side of Yoryusan, toward the next of the Sanzan peaks. This is one of the few areas in Japan where you can see trees and bushes from northern and southern Honshu (Japan’s main, and largest, island) growing side by side.

The descent from Mt. Yoryu

Due to typhoon damage on the trail, I decided not to attempt the other two Koya Sanzan peaks that day; instead, I hiked only as far as Kuroko Pass, where a famous status of Jizo sits at the crossroad between the Nyonin-michi and two other paths. One leads down the far side of the mountain to the villages below; the other, which I took, descends to the sacred mountaintop plateau at Okunoin, the massive cemetery that’s home to the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi and more than 250,000 other tombs.

The Jizo statue at Kuroko Pass

For part of the descent, the trail paralleled an old set of train tracks, once used to transport trees from the mountains into the valley for use in construction and repair of the many temples on Kōyasan.

Old train tracks, running through a rain-swollen stream.

I’d only added one mountain to my tally instead of three, which put me behind schedule, so after a brief interlude that included my first post-cancer checkup (thankfully, clear!) and writing the article on Kōyasan (delivered on time!), I packed my bags and boarded an overnight “Pirate Bus” for the ten-hour, 788-kilometer trip to my next hiking destination..

If you’d like to know where that was, and see more photos, please click through and join me for Chapter 35: Chicken and Towels (Link will go live on September 11, 2023)

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).