Day 5 – Osaka to Koyasan – 23 June 2019 – the wondrous trip into the mountains and wandering the spooky Okunoin Cemetery

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Highlights

  • Breakfast around Osaka Station
  • Train ride up the mountains to Koyasan Station
  • Staying at a Shingon Buddhist temple lodging
  • Visiting the Danjo-Garan and Daimon Gate, the traditional entrance of Koyasan
  • Walking through the Okunoin Cemetery in the late afternoon
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Breakfast at Yoshinoya

We got up early expecting to have a long journey ahead of us to Koyasan. Before checking out of our hotel, Hotel Monterey Osaka, we decided to walk the streets for a quick breakfast.

We came across a Yoshinoya, which is a Japanese fast food chain, and the second-largest chain of gyūdon restaurants in Japan. The restaurant’s motto is “Tasty, low-priced, and quick”. The meals were cheap, but delicious. If in Japan, you need to do this for breakfast because its the only way to get even close to a typical Japanese breakfast without staying in a Japanese homestay.

We’re causally waiting for our meal to come at Yoshinoya
We were greeted with this colorful menu. Some of the sets looked like great value.

I made sure to order their specialty sukiyaki beef and salmon. I was also served a bowl of rice, pickles, miso soup. We was hearty for a morning. The beef was stringy and melted quite nicely in the mouth and the salmon was slightly crispy and pan fried. (Admittedly I tend to avoid breakfast when I’m at home, but this was a nice change and didn’t make me fill bloated afterwards.)

Here was my meal at Yoshinoya

Taking the train to Koyasan

Train travel is by far the most reliable and cost efficient way of traveling in Japan. Koyasan (or Mount Koya) is south of Osaka. If you look at a map, it is quite the distance.

Here is the map showing getting from our hotel to our next hotel at Koyasan

It would take us at least close to three hours to get to our lodging at Koyasan at Saizenin, a Buddhist temple and lodging, by traveling on various trains. We had a JR Pass so we tried to utilize as much as possible by not having to pay too much for our journey.

There is no direct way to Koyasan Station, because Koyasan Station is the end of a cable car track. You need to get to a station called Gokurakubashi Station and take the cable car up. Plus, trains generally leave Namba Station every hour so its best to consult Google Maps so that you arrive at the right time.

If you don’t have the JR Pass, you can shave time by taking the Nankai-Koya Line Rapid-Express Gokurakubashi line.

JR Pass to Koyasan: It’s possible to travel as far as Hashimoto Station using the JR Pass and then switch onto the private Nankai Line to continue the journey to Gokurakubashi station. This, together with the required cable car up the mountainside to Koyasan, will cost ¥730 each way together with the mandatory Koyasan bus fare at an additional cost. Just remember that as you move further away from the metropolitan area, you need to have cash on hand as there will be no ticket gate to tap on or off except at the key stations like Gokurakubashi and Koyasan Station.

When you reach Gokurakubashi, you need to take the cablecar that takes you all the way up to Koyasan. From there, you still need to take the bus to go the town. There is no option to walk as the road to town is mountainous and there is no way you want to be going by foot when even buses struggle.

By the way, when you are at Namba Station, you will see a green machine that might make you think you need to pay extra for your trip to Koyasan. You don’t need to pay anything extra if you have a JR Pass. You only need to use these green machine if you propose to reserve a seat on the train, which we didn’t need.

I think the trip to Koyasan is simple and straight forward. I’ve seen people overthink it and they just end up wasting time. There are plenty of signs around and enough people taking this route everyday to watch and follow.

Here is a train signage telling us the departure times when we arrive at Hashimoto Station

The train journey, while its three hours, is beautiful. You will slowly see more of the Japanese countryside as you get closer to Gokurakubashi Station, because you will be going upwards into the mountains and passing through heaps of rice paddy fields. I recommend looking outside the window and capturing some of the sights.

Inside the train at Hashimoto Station. You can adjust the chairs to face any direction.
A view from our train window.

When you arrive at Gokurakubashi hopefully you are greeted to a cable car waiting to take you up to Koyasan. You will need to buy a ticket for the cable car before hopping on.

Cable car waiting for passengers at Gokurakubashi Station.
Gokurakubashi Station.

There are cable cars moving in both directions. You will notice that the track is mostly single track and duplicates on certain sections.

View from the cable car going up from Gokurakubashi Station to Koyasan Station.

When we arrived, we had the bus drivers at the station asking passengers where they were going. We just pointed on a map and the bus driver, who also happened to drive our bus, tell us we needed to get off at the stop he pointed on his map.

You could take a walking path, but its a walking trail and its not exactly ideal if you have luggage with you. If you want to take the walking trail, there are signs near Koyasan Station to help you on your journey.

Koyasan is home to adherents of the Shingon Buddhist sect and of course many Buddhist are vegetarians. If you are wanting to stay like a Buddhist, you should try some of the fantastic and delicious vegetarian restaurants in the town. Of course there are restaurants that serve meat dishes if you want.

There are limited convenience stores in Koyasan. There is a lone Family Mart in the western part of the town between the Danjo-Garan and the Daimon Gate if you are need of supplies.

Temple lodging at Saizenin

We got off at our designated bus stop and then walked to our temple lodging. Already we could feel the air being different to that in Osaka and you would immediately tell that this place was very harmonious, quiet-like and peaceful. The rush of Tokyo and Osaka was not present here.

Our temple lodging was across the road from the Danjo-Garan.

When we arrived at the temple footsteps, we were told to take off our shoes and wear sandals. We were checked into our room, which happened to be upstairs overlooking the temple garden.

The temple describes itself as follows: In Saizen-in there are three gardens planted by the artist Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich Koyasan of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

Entrance to Saizen-in
Our room on the top floor at Saizen-in

Our room was three rooms long and divided by sliding doors. There was a real temple feel about the room since walking on the tatami mats made little creaking sounds.

The room did have a small television, but there were only limited channels to scroll through. We ended up watching Netflix and seeing what the Japanese Netflix had that we didn’t have in Australia. They had things like One Punch Man, One Piece, etc.

Our futons in another room at Saizen-in
Some housekeeping at the temple

Before we left the temple, our host gave us some suggested places to eat. He recommended we go to a place down the road called Hanabishi 花菱. We decided we would go west before heading east for our late lunch and walking through Okunoin.

Danjo-Garan

The great thing thing was having a historical site like Danjo-Garan across the road from our temple. There are plenty of interesting buildings in this area and lots of opportunities to take some photos.

Danjo-Garan itself.
Some historical building around the Danjo-Garan area.

After we had taken in the surroundings, we decided we needed to pay a visit to the traditional entrance of Koyasan further east at Daimon Gate.

Daimon Gate, the historical entrance to Koyasan

The Daimon Gate was only 11 mins walk from the Danjo-Garan. The Daimon Gate served as the traditional entrance to Koyasan. Originally visitors to Mount Koya were greeted with the grand Daimon entrance gate marking the home of Kobo Daishi. This huge gate has stood in this location since the 12th century and its two Guardian Deities stand guard inside the gate to greet the many pilgrims to the holy mountain over the centuries.

You can only take a walking trail here back to Koyasan Station, which from memory was estimated to be an 1 hour and half walking journey.

Looking back at the town from The Daimon Gate in Koyasan

We headed east afterwards towards Okunoin.

Lunch

Along the main street, we found the place our temple host recommended. There were plenty of bentos boxes to choose from and you could get a glimpse from the window display.

The entrance to a recommended restaurant Hanabishi 花菱

While many buddhists are vegetarians and there are certainly lots of vegetarian cuisine, e.g. Shojin Cuisine available. We opted for a choose bentos with a variety of different dishes for around ¥2-3,000.

Before we were served our meals, we were given some plum sweets as an appetizer. The sweetness and sourness was pleasant, but unremarkable.

Hibi-koujitsu Bento (A lunchbox-style meal named “Every day is a good day”) for ¥2,000 plus tax and Hanamido Bento (A lunchbox-style meal named “Buddha’s flower room”) for ¥2,800 plus tax.

We were presented our bentos with their lids on. Our hosts placed the bentos in front of us and then carefully sorted the bentos on the table, removing the lids and laying it out as you see in the photos. The bentos were both delicious. Each bento contained a nice variety of delicacies and unique flavor. I was particularly interested in the tempura prawns and the tamago (egg) roll. Each set was served with a selection of fruits, miso soup and a savory dessert.

A beautiful estate along the way to Okunoin.

After our late lunch, we continued east towards Okunoin. There was no real need to consult the map since it was just as simple as following the main road.

Okunoin

An estate near the entrance to Okunoin.

You will see lots of signage as you get closer to Okunoin. You can’t miss it. If walking is too much, you can take the buses that travel down the main road frequently.

Map of Okunoin.

A bit of history, Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery located on Mount Koya. The graveyard contains over 200,000 unique gravestones and monuments which dominate the forest and those resting there want to be close to Kobo Dashi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, in death.  Many of the memorials are draped with red hats or gowns and these red clothed Mizuko Jizos figures represent the babies and children who have passed by and are placed by parents to protect their children en route to the afterlife.

Entrance to Okunoin.

The beliefs of Shingon Buddhism are fascinating: there are no dead in Okunoin, only waiting spirits. It’s founder, Kobo Daishi, is believed to rest here in eternal meditation as he awaits the Buddha of the Future. When Kobo Dashi rises up to meet the Buddha of the Future so too will all those resting in the cemetery.

When you reach the end of the main path in Okunoin, cross the Gobyo no Hashi bridge to the most sacred part of Okunoin and the Mausoleum of Kobo Dashi where visitors bow in respect to Kobo Dashi resting in eternal meditation. A wooden box, on the left of the path, contains the Miroku stone which is said to weigh ones sins. It is customary to try to raise the stone to the highest shelf in the cabin and it is believed that the stone will feel lighter to good people. The magical Torodo Hall is one of the most incredible things we’ve ever seen on our travels. 10,000 lanterns fill the building from floor to ceiling, illuminating the darkness. They are said to have been illuminated for over 900 years and will continue for eternity.

The walk through Okunoin was long. It took us 40 mins from the entrance to the Mausoleum of Kobo Dashi. The whole area was quiet, serene and beautiful. I was a little sadden that we wouldn’t be around when the place was fully dark or see the mist form around the trees. Nevertheless there were some fantastic vistas to take in. There were few visitors during our walk.

When we paid a visit to the Mausoleum of Kobo Dashi we saw signs asking that no cameras were permitted past the bridge. Just before the Mausoleum of Kobo Dashi are toilets and a resting area.

Around the restricted area of the Mausoleum of Kobo Dashi there were many lanterns and monks sitting down chanting and meditating. You could tell that they were at peace and were just taking in their surroundings.

The Danjo-Garan in the early evening

Unfortunately the gates to our temple lodging would close at 8:00 PM, so we had to get back before it got dark. Our temple lodging only had hot water baths available from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM.

Next time Day 6 – Koyasan to Fukuoka: off to Kyushu, Pokemon Center Fukuoka and Canal City – 24 June 2019. We get up for a traditional ritual and some hearty vegetarian breakfast.

Our Buddhist temple lodge at night time. It looks beautifully curated.

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