Kōyasan: The Heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan

Yesterday, I returned to the summit of Kōyasan (Mount Kōya), one of Japan’s many sacred places (and the setting for my sixth Hiro Hattori Mystery, Trial on Mount Koya).

Kōyasan is actually a valley (Kōya) which lies in the saddle between the eight peaks of a mountain in Wakayama Prefecture (south of Osaka). The valley sits just over 800 meters above sea level, and is reached by means of the Nankai Electric Railway and the Nankai Kōya Cable Car, which takes riders up one of the steepest cable car tracks in Japan on a 5-minute ride to Koyasan Station, at the edge of the summit valley.

Koyasan Cable Car

From Koyasan Station, visitors take a bus into town or to one of the dozens of temples that line the slopes. My favorite is Ekoin, an 1100 year-old temple and shukubo (temple lodging) that accepts guests for overnight stays.

Ekoin Courtyard

Guests at Ekoin can participate in Zazen meditation (classes are offered daily), sutra copying, and a night-time guided tour of Okunoin, the massive cemetery atop the peak that surrounds the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi. (The tours are offered in English as well as Japanese – and although all the guides are excellent, Nobu is one of the all-time best and is great at answering questions.) 

Okunoin at Night (1)

Temple lodging at Ekoin includes both dinner and breakfast, both of which are served in the guest’s individual room. The food is shojin ryori (temple cuisine) and entirely vegetarian, though even ardent carnivores will find the meals delicious and filling. (The photo below shows Ekoin’s “main and second tray” dinner for two in the summer – the menu changes seasonally.)

Shojin Ryori Dinner for Two Ekoin (1)

It’s some of my favorite food in Japan.  

The spiritual heritage of Kōyasan goes back to the 9th century, when the monk Kūkai (posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi) established the mountaintop retreat as the spiritual heart of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism–a teaching he brought to Japan from China several decades earlier.

I’ll blog in more detail about Ekoin and Kōya in the months to come, especially as the release of Trial on Mount Kōya approaches. In the meantime, if you visit Japan, be sure to schedule time to visit Kōya!