If I was writing this before 1872, I wouldn’t be allowed into Koyasan. This small town cradled in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula in Japan shelters more than 100 temples, the country’s largest cemetery, and is the famed pilgrimage stop for renowned monk and founder of Shingon Buddhism: Kobo Daishi. But until 1872, women were only allowed to its gates, and thus a vast network of women’s pilgrims’ trails weave around the mountain plateau.
It’s been nearly 150 years, and not only am I allowed into this World Heritage Site, I have options. I can walk one of the pilgrim’s trails, or take the cable car up, like we do on our Hiker’s Journey to Shikoku and Temples, Treasures, and Teahouses journeys.
We set off on the Fudozaka Trail, one of the women’s pilgrims’ trails that climbs through cedar forests, entering Koyasan near Nyonindo Temple, the last remnant of one of Koyasan’s gates where women were allowed to practice Shingon Buddhism. From there, it feels like walking into another dimension of time. We saw monks sweeping sidewalks with thatched brooms, passed other travelers who weaved in and out of temples and shops, and every now and then, we would see a car roll past on the road that links them all together. Of the 100+ temples in Koyasan, nearly half of them allow overnight guests. It’s one of the ways travelers can experience an authentic and almost forgotten side of traditional Japanese culture.
Our shukubo (temple lodge), is set close to the cemetery, the main attraction of Koyasan. Like every temple here, it is entirely run by monks. Upon entering, we swapped our shoes with slippers and followed one of the monks as he gave us a tour of the temple, our guestroom, and where we were to meet for dinner that evening.
Our guestroom was as charming as it was traditional. Futon beds were already laid out for us and we had a lovely sitting area looking out over the temple’s koi ponds. From our room, you could see the fog ebb and flow between swells of cedar trees of the surrounding mountain range. Shojin Ryori, or Buddhist cuisine, was an event unto itself. Every meal (we are offered both dinner and breakfast at our shukubo) is entirely vegetarian, and served up by the monks. Tiny dishes of all shapes and colors hold different specialties, highlighting different textures and flavors that we didn’t even know existed. To this day, I couldn’t tell you half of what I ate, but it was absolutely delicious and easily one of the best meals of my life!
One of the great things about staying at a shukubo in Koyasan is being able to wander through Okunoin Cemetery without the crowds. After dinner—and again after breakfast—we walked among thousands of headstones and shrines, some dating back thousands of years.
Moss-covered memorials, torii gates, and tombstones topped with raindrops framed the walkway as giant cedar trees towered over us.
Next to the sound of rain on our umbrellas, the only other sound was people’s footsteps. Everything and everyone else was silent, taking in the majesty of the place and showing respect to Kobo Daishi (or Kukai) as we all made our way to the monk’s Gobyo (mausoleum).
Photographs are not allowed at the Gobyo, but as we were leaving, a group of pilgrims passed. Both men and women walked side by side as they made their way to the Gobyo to gain a blessing from the Kobo Daishi before they began their pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo—an ancient pilgrimage route that links together sacred areas on the Kii Peninsula. Each were on their own journey, yet each chose to embark on this journey together. It was a great reminder of why we travel together—to share these experiences that will stay with us long after we return home.
—Text and photos by WT writer, Kirstina Bolton. WT offers several adventures to Koyasan including Hiker’s Journey to Shikoku; Temples, Treasures, and Teahouses; and our Japan Private Journey.