There are two big religious traditions in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto is Japan’s traditional religion. Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century from Korea. A majority of the Japanese doesn’t belong to any of the organised versions of these religions. But over 80% do partake in religious traditions and ceremonies. Travelling to Koyasan provides a better understanding to the organised side of religion in Japan. Walking the Kumano Kodo is a more individual experience.
Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Daishi introduced this Buddhist sect in 805. In 826, Kobo Daishi started to build his temple headquarters in Koyasan. Since then the mountain has been filled with temples. This makes Koyasan the ideal place to sleep in a temple and experience the morning rituals of the monks.
While travelling from Osaka to Koyasan, the landscape slowly transforms around us. From the urban and suburban sprawls of Osaka, to the surrounding country side with its rice fields. In turn the flat landscape is almost instantly replaced, this time by the rising hills and mountains. The train crosses rivers and gorges and starts to climb more and more until we arrive at Gokuraku-bashi. Koyasan is now a dramatic climb by cable car away. The climb provides ever wider vistas of the surrounding area. Then the trees start closing us in and we have arrived at the mountain.
A bus brings us to the temples in the town. The temples lay scattered along the main road through the village. Staying the night in one of them is a great way to explore the religious side of Japan. The young Buddhist monks in training will tend to our needs. They are quite well versed in English and willing to converse about their training and Buddhism in general. As we settle into our room, the young monk serves our tea. We enjoy it with open screen doors looking out over the inner garden.
Our temple is at the edge of the town and a short walk away from Okunoin cemetery. As we walk along the path the sun rays shine through the forest roof lighting singular tombstones. Moss covers most tombstones which enhances the ancient feeling of the place. Silently we make our way to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.
It’s said that Kobo Daishi is in eternal meditation in this place. He will return as Miroku, the Future Buddha at which time he will lead the faithful to salvation. This is the reason why this is the biggest cemetery in Japan. As we make our way back to our temple, we marvel at all the different tombstones. Some are for people others are for entire companies. Those tombstones are in the shape of the logo or product of the company, for example a big rocket.
Back in the temple, we’re served a great vegan meal, tofu has never tasted this good before. It’s a good opportunity to taste some completely different flavours since the meal is also prepared without garlic. After dinner, we head back to Okunoin cemetery to experience it in the darkness. Lanterns light the path and the tombstones closest to it. The eerie silence combined with the darkness makes the place far spookier than during the day. You can go on a guided tour, which gives more information about the different tombstones and myths surrounding the cemetery. But it takes away from the solemn feeling when exploring on your own.
At six a.m., we join the monks in their morning ceremony together with the other guests. The head monk leads us in prayer. A younger monk plays the drum and cymbals to guide the prayer and help us reach a trance-like state. At the end, the head monk asks us to light some incense and ring a bell to honour our ancestors. After the ceremony, he guides us to another part of the temple for a fire ceremony. This purification ritual is more spectacular and explains why many temples have burned down. Our stay in the temple ends with a vegan breakfast and we head to the centre of town to visit the main temple complexes. We head up to the top of the mountain to get some spectacular views. We see the sea in the distance and say our goodbyes to this special place.
A good starting base for the Kumano Kodo is Tanabe at the coast. This sleepy provincial town has affordable accommodation and plenty of good food options. Buses leave from the JR station to different stages of the walking route.
If you are pressed for time and have only a day to walk, Yunomine Onsen is a great place to start your walk from. It has the only UNESCO World Heritage onsen. Get a ticket at the nearby shop if you want to take a unique soak in this natural hot spring.
Our walk started across the road and immediately devolved into a steep climb. We were there when the front of a tropical storm was passing the peninsula, so the paths turned into rivers and the views were misty and moody. The forest was alive with amphibious lifeforms. Hundreds of tiny land crabs were crawling on the ground and frogs were jumping around. Soon we were completely soaked, our shoes splashing with every step. Suddenly a giant toad blocked our path. It’s these kinds of meetings that gives understanding to the origins of fairy tales and fables.
We continued climbing the hills through the dark forest and felt the silence and emptiness around us. It’s at these moments that you can easily imagine a world without men. Which in turn gives a certain perspective to man’s place in the universe. As we came upon the main route, the path became wider and the forest receded and made place for some open spaces. The cloudy misty views over the hilltops and the valleys made us appreciate skies which aren’t clear blue all the time. After a good day’s walk, we reached Kumano Hongu Taisha. This is one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines and the end of our little pilgrimage.
Cliches like “it’s the route, not the destination” come to mind when talking about travel. Kumano Hongu Taisha isn’t an impressive complex. But getting there with all the other pilgrims still provided us with a human connection and a sense of achievement. So, in the end there certainly is value in the destination.