"Of all the myriad of amazing experiences to be had in Japan, perhaps one of the most moving and memorable is a stay in a temple lodging at Mt. Koya; the smell of the incense, the peaceful stillness of morning meditation and fantastic Buddhist vegetarian cuisine."
Simon King - Director
The history of Mt. Koya stretches back some 1200 years to the 9th Century when a monastic retreat was set up atop the mountain to serve members of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. This sect of Buddhism was founded by Kobo Daishi and his body is now enshrined in the Okunoin cemetery.
There are now 120 temples atop the mountain (there were over 1000 during its heyday) and many are nestled among the thick, black cedar trees which provide coverage and shade to many modern day pilgrims. The main reason many visitors seek out Mt Koya is to experience a stay in a Shukubo or temple lodging which have a long tradition providing shelter to weary pilgrims.
Accommodation at a Shukubo is in simple tatami mat rooms where there is little adornment or furniture other then a low table and perhaps some thin floor cushions. Meals are served in a communal dining room and the food is completely vegetarian. Beer however is permitted!
The real experience however comes early the next morning when guests are invited to join the resident monks in morning prayers. Prayers usually take place in an ornately decorated hall where you will find an altar decorated with flowers and fruit (used as an offering), gently smoking incense sticks and any number of elaborate bronze ornaments. All this is paraphernalia used in a ritual to honour the dead and the flowers, number of incense sticks to be burnt etc are all significant factors in this ritual.
There are a great many temples on Mt Koya and all are important in their own way. The most famous however is Kongosan-mai temple which was founded in 1223 by Hojo Masako the widow of Minamoto Yoritomo who was head of the Genji clan. The temple was built in memory of her husband and is decorated with beautiful depictions of elephants, lions and a flock of exotic birds.
The temple of Kongosan-mai is responsible for the occupants of the Okunoin necropolis, a huge cemetery with more than 200,000 stone stupas commemorating those buried. The best time to visit is in the early morning or late afternoon when the peace and quiet gives the area something of a spooky aura. Many of the graves have historically famous occupants including the General Oda Nobunaga, and the important Buddhist monks Nichiren, Honan and Shinran.
The Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi should be the next stop on your itinerary. The entrance is marked by the hall of lanterns where thousands of oil lamps donated by the faithful are kept constantly alight. The hall is ablaze with light which provides a stark contrast to the tomb itself which is simple and understated.
A stay on Mt Koya is an unforgettable experience and one that is sure to enrich both culturally and spiritually.