Have you ever considered a visit to Mt. Koya, the holy mountain and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism in Japan? Have you even heard of it? This quiet yet ancient mountain retreat is a well-kept secret of Japanese tourism (perhaps because it’s hidden in the lofty heights of a huge mountain range), but it is well worth the trek. There is enough history and beauty on Koya-san (its Japanese name) for anyone, religious scholar to lowly backpacker, to enjoy.
Here is a step-by-step guide to an awesome and unforgettable two-day adventure.
1. Make your reservation to stay at a Shukubo, or Buddhist temple lodgings, where you can experience the monks’ lifestyle and attend morning prayers. Caution: there are dozens of Shukubo on Mt. Koya, and they are all excellent, but only one of them (Muryoko-in) has an English Speaking head monk.
2. Pack comfortable walking shoes, layers, and lots of 5 Yen coins.
3. Bring a book of spiritual import for the two trains, cable car, and bus it takes to get to Mt. Koya. This is a good idea for two reasons: A) it will get you in the mood for a spiritual journey to a spiritual place, and B) it takes a really long time to climb all those mountains, and you’ll want something to do. Note: the Bible and books by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama are excellent choices, but so are Eat, Pray, Love and Life of Pi.
4. Drop your stuff at your Shukubo and say hello to the monks. Extra points for saying something simple in Japanese (like “Thank you”) and getting compliments for how fluent you are.
5. Head to the Danjo Garan complex on the west side of town to check out some really old buildings. Read up on the history of each building, tree, and rock of import. Go inside as many buildings as you can. The Konpon Daito (huge orange pagoda – it’s hard to miss) has some awesome mandalas.
6. See a tiny restaurant with tasty-looking plastic food outside? Stop for lunch!
7. Go into as many temples as you can. Pray at them by tossing a 5 Yen coin in the box, clapping your hands twice, and bowing at the altar. The 5 Yen coin has a hole in it for luck. Extra points if you find a nice, quiet place to sit still, relax, rest your feet, and meditate on what an awesome day you’re having.
8. Wander down the main street. Stop in the tourist shops. Buy something cool, like prayer beads or incense, to remind you of your trip.
9. Make your way to the Daimon – the big gate and the historical entrance to the holy mountain. Warning: this is not the way you came in! Be amazed by the truly awesome gate with its fierce guardians. You will try to take a picture of the whole gate but you will probably fail because, in order to back up enough to get the whole thing in the frame, you might walk off the mountain.
10. If you see a mysterious path that disappears into mysterious woods – take it! Accidental adventures are the best kind, and you might find yourself on the ancient women’s pilgrimage up and around a neighboring mountain. The views are breathtaking!
11. Find another tiny restaurant for dinner. Eating two meals in the same place is cheating!
12. Head back to your Shukubo before it gets too dark. Monks keep early hours!
13. Check the closet, put on the cotton kimono that is in there, and head downstairs to the Ofuro, or traditional Japanese bath. You will get naked in a strange place, and there might be naked strangers there, but there is nothing quite so relaxing after a day of walking and sightseeing as soaking in the super-hot tub. Be brave!
14. Retire early, snuggle into your futon, and sleep like a baby.
15. Get up early for morning prayers. I promise it is worth the sleepiness.
16. If you’re lucky, the English-speaking head monk will notice that you’re not from around here and will take you aside after prayers for a chat and some coffee. Don’t like coffee? Too bad. He’s too friendly to be refused.
17. When you get back to your room, a nice monk will come by with breakfast. It’s vegan and delicious. Extra points if you try at least a bite of everything.
18. Find a convenience store and grab some snacks and a bottle of water or tea. You’ll be grateful you have it when you’re lost in the depths of Step #19.
19. Walk over to the entrance to Okunoin on the east side of town. This is the largest graveyard in Japan, and one of the oldest. The path opening before you winds through 2km (there’s a shorter walk, but that’s no fun) of graves and mausoleums and statues – ranging from intricate to simple, ancient to modern – before bringing you to the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder and central figure of Shingon Buddhism, where he sits in eternal meditation. The graveyard is breathtakingly beautiful, with lots of little side-paths to explore. Give yourself lots of time to wander. Extra points if you find the monument shaped like a spaceship, and the Special Rock That Kobo Daishi Sat On Once.
20. If you see any pilgrims (wearing a white shirt and cone-shaped hat and carrying a walking-stick), give them a smile. Many of them just walked around the entire island of Shikoku. Their pilgrimage ends at Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum.
21. After you’ve found all the graves of all of your favorite Japanese historical figures from the past few centuries, head back out to the world and grab a late lunch.
22. On your way back to your Shukubo, stop in any temples, shops, restaurants, or museums that you see. Say goodbye to the mountain and the people and the experience.
23. Grab your stuff from your Shukubo, thank the kind monks, and head home.
24. Take the long trip down the mountain to look through your pictures, reflect on your experience, and write down your favorite bits to remember later. This will likely be one of the most fascinating and memorable trips of your life.