In our Places We Love series we feature some of our favorite places in Japan, including towns & cities, shops & restaurants, hotels & ryokans, hot springs and more.
The small mountaintop Buddhist community of Mount Koya is one of Japan’s most magical destinations, and the perfect place to spend a night at a Buddhist temple in shukubo temple lodgings.
Located in a peaceful wooded area of Wakayama Prefecture, south of Kyoto and Osaka, Koya-san (as it is called in Japanese) is the headquarters of the Shingon school of Buddhism, and home to more than 100 temples and monasteries.
Mount Koya was originally established in the year 819 by the famous monk Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi). To this day it remains a spiritual retreat and one of the holiest places in Japan.
Despite being a little bit off the beaten path (and missed by most visitors to Japan), Koya-san is fairly easy to access from Osaka and Kyoto, and is an essential destination for travelers interested in Buddhism, history, traditional culture and nature.
What to See in Mount Koya
Aside from the chance to stay in a shukubo (more about temple lodgings below), Koya-san’s most famous landmark is the otherworldly Okunoin Cemetery.
Okunoin is one of Japan’s most sacred sites, and the location of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. If you follow the lovely walking paths through this beautiful wooded cemetery, you’ll end up at Torodo Hall, which houses more than 10,000 eternally-lit lanterns.
Most visitors come during the day, but for the more adventurous we recommend a visit at night.
Okunoin Cemetery is a about a 10-minute bus ride from the center of town, where most of the temples – including the famous Kongobuji Temple – are located.
Kongobuji is the headquarters of the Shingon sect. Inside, you’ll find exquisitely-painted gilded sliding doors adorned with cranes, plum blossoms, and the story of Kobo Daishi’s journey to China and subsequent founding of Koya-san.
Also located within the Kongobuji temple complex is Japan’s largest rock garden, Banryutei Rock Garden. The beautiful Banryutei depicts a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.
Just a short stroll from Kongobuji you’ll come upon another of Koya-san’s most sacred sites, Danjo Garan. This is a complex of about twenty structures, including the impressive 45-meter tall Konpon Daito Pagoda and Kondo Hall, where important ceremonies are performed.
Hiking Around Mount Koya
The Kii Peninsula is one of Japan’s premier hiking areas and there are some fantastic hiking options around Mount Koya.
For a challenging multi-day trekking experience, the Kohechi route – which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route – is a beautiful and steep 70 kilometer (43.5 mile) hike through the mountains, which ends at Mount Koya.
For more on the Kohechi and other Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, we highly recommend the maps and resources provided by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau.
If a day hike is more your speed, then consider the Koyasan Choishi Michi trail, which can be enjoyed as the full 23.5 kilometer (14.6 mile) hike or modified all the way down to about a 9.5 kilometer (5.9 mile) hike, depending on your starting point of origin.
Visiting Mount Koya
While it’s possible to visit Koya-san as a day trip from Osaka (or even Kyoto), we highly recommend spending a night or two here.
Getting to Mount Koya
The most common jumping off point for reaching Mount Koya is the city of Osaka, located just 30 miles from Kyoto.
From Osaka’s Namba Station it’s about a 2-hour journey. The first leg involves taking the Nankai Express train all the way to the end of the line at Gokurakubashi Station, where you’ll transfer to the Koya Cable Car, which takes you to the top of the plateau.
We typically recommend and include the Kansai Thru Pass for our clients, which enables you to make this entire journey (the journey is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass).
This pass gives you unlimited travel on trains, subways and buses in Kyoto, Osaka and the surrounding areas (with the exception of JR trains).
Another pass for independent travelers to consider, which also covers the journey, is the Koya-san World Heritage Ticket. This pass also gives you discounted entrance fees at some of Koya-san’s attractions.
When to Visit Mount Koya
There’s no bad time to visit Mount Koya, but it’s wise to know what to expect.
If you like warmer weather, consider visiting in late spring, summer or early fall. In late autumn it begins to get quite chilly, and winters are cold and often snowy (making this beautiful destination even more gorgeous).
For more on weather and seasons in Japan, check out our article When Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit Japan?
Getting Around Koya-san
A great way to explore Mount Koya is on foot, since the majority of Koya-san’s main sights are within walking distance of one another.
There are also local bus lines connecting you to the rest of the surrounding areas, including Okunoin and Daimon Gate.
Most of the temples and surrounding sites do charge small entrance fees. However, the town’s tourist information center sells an almost all-inclusive pass, called the combination ticket, which gives you access to most of Koya-san’s main sites.
Best Accommodations on Mount Koya
One of the highlights of visiting Mount Koya is a stay at a shukubo (temple lodging).
While a stay at a Buddhist temple lacks many of the conveniences you would find at a modern hotel, it is the experience of a temple stay on this spiritual mountain that makes it worthwhile.
You’ll have the chance to interact with resident monks (at some temples there are English-speaking monks), and enjoy shojin ryori meals of traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.
Sleeping arrangements are also traditional, and indeed staying at a shukubo has many similarities to staying in a ryokan, though it’s important to note that shukubo tend to be on the spartan and rustic side.
Mount Koya’s Best Shukubo
Below is a sampling of our favorite shukubo on Koya-san.
- Souji-in is one of Koya-san’s highest-end shukubo, and also offers wonderful shojin ryori cuisine.
- Ichijo-in is another high-quality temple, also renowned for its cuisine.
- Hongaku-in is a good shukubo with relatively standard rooms, but is also noteworthy thanks to its excellent cuisine.
- Rengejo-in is a good standard shukubo with friendly hospitality.
- Eko-in is another standard but good shukubo with an especially convenient location to the Okuno-in Cemetery, to which they also offer a night tour!