Our last trip to Japan was so fulfilling that I have decided to split it into several posts in order to highlight each of our fascinating discoveries. I will never be thankful enough to my friend Virginia who recommended us to travel to Kōya-san. It was a unique experience of the Buddhist monastic life and an invitation to meditative walks in the spectacular natural setting of this highland valley covered with thick forests and surrounded by eight low peaks. Don’t miss this meaningful and rewarding retreat!
Experience the Buddhist monastic life
Kōya-san is a center of Buddhist study and practice founded twelve centuries ago by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi Kukai. It is believed that the venerable monk has not passed away and has entered an eternal meditation for the liberation of all beings. This holy belief has been drawing pilgrims to Kōya-san for over a millennium. There are fifty-two temples providing lodgings for pilgrims.
We stayed at the Fukuchi-in temple, it has a central location, still very quiet as it is off the main road. We received a warm greeting from the monks and enjoyed their hospitality. Our Japanese style room had windows overlooking the gorgeous garden. Comfort is basic with shared-lavatories but the service is faultless. The experience of the outdoor and indoor onsens was particularly enjoyable with the children. They loved shuffling around in their slippers and kimonos, whispering in order not to disturb the peace and quiet of the monastery.
Breakfast and dinner are served in the room. These vegetarian meals are a succession of surprising dishes presented in the most attractive ways. We stayed for two nights and I have to admit that on the second breakfast our children surrendered and begged for bred and jam (always good to have backup food with you). But overall I was impressed by their flexibility and curiosity to try all these new flavors.
Guests are invited to participate in the early morning prayer of the monks, a unique experience of chanting meditation. The monks also propose other activities such as calligraphy-classes.
Join the pilgrims in one of Japan’s most spiritual sites
All pilgrims in Kōya-san visit the memorial hall to Kobo Daishi, the Oku-no-in. We took the long way (loop from the North side of town) to get there, it was a good opportunity to explore the surroundings and progressively enter the sacred forest. The tall cedar trees hide the sky and filter the sunlight, inviting visitors to enter a mysterious and sacred land.
The site is bustling with worshippers performing all kinds of rituals: making offerings, pouring water to statues, consulting the monks, lighting candles, etc. It is extremely lively though it remains quiet as if the forest was absorbing all the loud voices.
The minute we stepped out of the main sanctuaries we found ourselves on a cobblestoned path circling through the thousands of stupas, which, over the years, have spread around the Memorial hall. There is an extremely vibrant atmosphere in this ever so green cemetery brighten up by the colorful bibs and hats dressing the statues. The bibs are placed on the statues by those who have lost children, with the prayer that the bodhisattva Ojizo-san will watch over them as a surrogate parent, and also for the long life of living children.
All the other main sites are worth visiting (Kongobu-ji, Garan, Tokugawa, etc), it is easy to go around the little town on foot or alternatively you can rent bicycles. We also enjoyed stopping in different Shukubo (lodging temples) to admire their architecture, gardens or enjoy a cup of tea.
Set off for meditative walks
Kōya-san is a highland valley (900 m high) surrounded by eight low peaks, its topography is reminiscent of a center of a lotus flower surrounded by eight petals. In just five minutes walking you are out of the city and can escape on narrow paths crossing the magnificent forests and climbing up the hills.
We particularly enjoyed our walk from Nyonindo up to Mount Benten Dake and down to Daimon (Choishi-michi route). We were alone on the path the whole way, sinking in the thick woods, mounting the steep trail, inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of pine trees, admiring the soft afternoon sunlight making its way through the dense foliage.
Up on Mount Benten Dake, we were rewarded with a charming little temple and a spectacular view over the valley. It was an easy way down and a solemn entrance into Kōya-san through the massive red Daimon gate.
How to get there? We rent a car from Nippon Rent-a-Car in Nara, visited the splendid Horyju-ji temple on our way south to Kōya-san. It was an easy two-hour drive with the help of the GPS. We then drove the car back to Osaka airport, which was another two-hour drive.
Where to eat? Bononsha on the main road was the ideal alternative to Japanese food: cosy atmosphere, warm welcoming and tasty food (quiche, salads, cheese cake, homemade cakes, etc).