Tucked away in Kansai mountainside lies Mount Koya —a centuries— old spiritual retreat. As one of the holiest and most beautiful places in Japan, Mount Koya is on the must-visit list for many, yet its remote location can be quite challenging to access. So what is the best way we can get to Mount Koya and make the most out of our visit?
Exploring Mount Koya
The most sacred site on Mount Koya is Okunoin as the final resting place of Kukai, who was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. According to lore, however, Kukai never truly died and he instead remains in an eternal meditation in waiting of the return of the Buddha of the Future, Maihreya.
Following the path through the Okunoin cemetery surrounded by ancient trees, moss-covered stones and statues you arrive at Torodo Hall. The hall is home to over 10,000 lanterns. Okunoin and its grounds are free to enter with the Gokusho Offering Hall opening at 8:30 and closing at 17:00, while the Torodo is open between 6:00 and 17:30.
The head temple of Shingon Buddhism, Kongobuji, is located a bit further and holds two great treasures. The first are its beautifully painted sliding doors featuring cranes, blossoms and Kukai’s journey to China and the subsequent founding of his sect. The second treasure is Japan’s largest rock garden. Brought over from Shikoku, the rocks in Kongobuji’s Banryutei Garden represent dragons emerging from the clouds. To enter Kongobuji, which is open to the public between 8:30 to 17:00, there is a minor admission fee of 500 yen.
The Danjo Garan grounds are the final major sacred site in Koya housing two dozen buildings for the performance of ceremonies. The main building within its grounds is the Golden Hall, Kondo. The true eye-catcher in Garan is its 49-meter-tall Konpon Daito Pagoda with its large statue of the Buddha Mahavairocana.
A common misconception is that you can visit Mount Koya as a leisurely day trip. Do not be fooled! It takes about 2 hours one-way to get from central Osaka to the temple town—and you will want to keep up a quick pace during your visit to see everything in time. Then there is the weather to concern yourself with since the town is 800 meters above sea level, deep into the mountains—the weather is quite different (read: cooler) than that in Osaka.
If you decide to stay over in Koya, there are plenty of temple lodgings available to make your stay a truly unique experience. Remember though, be prepared, a temple stay in Koya is very popular and rooms tend to be booked well in advance. Unfortunately it must be noted that these shukubo, as they are called in Japanese, are not very budget friendly.
Access and discounts
The cheapest and most convenient way to get to Mount Koya is to take an express or rapid train operated by Nankai Electric Railway from Osaka Namba Station. The journey takes about 100 minutes with a quick transfer at Hashimoto Station halfway through. The train ride costs 870 yen, but you will also need to take a cable car from Gokurakubashi Station and a bus from there to the temple town itself. The cable car costs 390 yen and the bus another 290 yen.
Getting to Koya will set you back about 1,550 yen one-way from Namba to the town. To save a bit of money, Nankai Railway also offers the “Koyasan World Heritage Ticket”. The ticket costs 2,860 yen for a round trip on the same route, but also includes unlimited usage of the buses around Mount Koya. On top of that it also includes discounts on the admission fees on most of the attractions in Koya. In the end, experiencing the tranquility and sacredness of Mount Koya as a proper day trip ends up costing only around 4,000 yen.