Surrounded by lush forests, Koyasan is a small, religious oasis in the mountains of Wakayama. The Buddhist temple settlement is home to a sacred cemetery and over a hundred temples.
Nestled in Wakayama’s heavily-forested mountains is Koyasan, a historic Buddhist temple settlement. Koyasan, or Mount Koya, is not entirely off the beaten path, but is a lesser-visited spot in Japan. This Koyasan itinerary lists the must-see spots in this peaceful mountain town.
Kobo Daishi established Koyasan in 816 AD. He is one of Japan’s famous religious figures and is credited with founding Shingon Buddhism. Daishi chose Koyasan as a sacred site and spent his later years here until his death in 835 AD. But according to Buddhist beliefs, he did not die. Instead, he rests in eternal meditation in Okunoin Cemetery.
Koyasan flourishes as an important historic and religious site today. The cemetery and the surrounding 100+ temples attract visitors to Mount Koya. The best things to do in Mount Koya include visiting the sacred cemetery and spending a night at a temple stay. If you have more time, there are also temples and shrines to explore.
Koyasan Itinerary Quick Guide:
The must-see spots on every Mount Koya itinerary:
If you have the time to stay overnight, it is absolutely worth it to experience a temple stay. It’s one of the best things to do in Koyasan. But if you’re tight on time, or you’ve done a temple stay elsewhere, many visitors opt for a day trip to Koyasan. The must-see spot on the Mount Koya itinerary is Okunoin Cemetery; it’s unlike anything else I saw in Japan.
Koyasan Itinerary: Day 1
Okunoin Cemetery is the most sacred place in Mount Koya. The cemetery is the resting place for hundreds of thousands of monks.
Okunoin Cemetery is a must-visit on the Mount Koya itinerary: if you are here on a day trip, make this your main stop. The sacred cemetery is eerie, peaceful, and otherworldly beautiful. We visited on a rainy day, and the cemetery was shrouded in a light mist. A path winds past 200,000 graves that are hundreds of years old.
Flanked by towering cedars and with moss on nearly every surface, the cemetery is lush and green. Small Buddha statues wearing bright red hats and bibs punctuate the greenery.
The occasional placard gives historical context to important graves. Eventually, you’ll reach the Torodo Hall (the Hall of Lamps), a glowy and incense-filled hall that contains over 10,000 lamps donated by worshippers.
Past Torodo Hall is Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum, the most sacred site on the Mount Koya itinerary. Kobo Daishi rests in eternal meditation here.
Visiting Okunoin Cemetery was my favourite stop on the Koyasan itinerary. The atmosphere of this cemetery felt so intimate and gave it a quiet sense of peace.
Read the full Okunoin Cemetery guide here.
Kongōbu-ji is the ecclesiastic head temple of Shingon Buddhism. First constructed in 1593 and then rebuilt in 1861, this important building is one of the top temples on the Koyasan itinerary. Like many temples in Japan, it has been destroyed several times over the centuries. However, the main gate from 1593 still stands.
It’s free to walk around the temple, but there is a small fee to enter the building. If you enter, one of the main attractions inside is the historical sliding doors (fusama). Painted landscapes and cranes adorn these ancient screen doors. And the immaculate rock garden is pretty impressive as well.
After a day of walking through Okunoin Cemetery and Kongōbu-ji, we stopped in a local sweets shop called Kamikishiya Koya. The slightly cramped but charming spot has some fabulous mochi.
We tried the red bean soup and mochi. I’m not all too big of a fan of red bean (it’s an acquired taste), so I got a mochi and ice cream dessert that was delightful. The mochi was thin and had a light layer of red bean taste (not overwhelmingly bean-y like some others). And of course, you can’t go wrong with any dessert paired with vanilla ice cream.
Temple Stay at Muryōkōin
A temple stay is an unforgettable cultural experience on the Koyasan itinerary. If you have the time to stay overnight in Mount Koya, it’s so worth it. You’ll have the chance to experience daily temple life. Watching morning prayers, eating vegetarian meals, and participating in meditation are all on the itinerary.
These temple stays have a long history behind them. They began centuries ago to house pilgrims travelling along pilgrimage routes. These temple stays typically have tatami rooms with sliding wooden doors. Most have a traditional futon rather than a Western-style bed.
We ended our day early at Muryōkōin, the temple we chose for our overnight temple stay. Our room had a kotatsu (a low table with a blanket and heater underneath). We spent the late afternoon snacking and listening to music, with our legs tucked under the kotatsu to keep extra cozy.
Part of the temple stay experience is to eat the Buddhist temple food: the completely vegetarian meals the monks eat. We went to dinner in the early evening. Meals are served on low tray tables and you’ll sit crossed-legged on square cushions. Several dishes are served on small plates and bowls. We had simmering tofu, udon, tempura, rice, pickled sides, and of course, green tea. While it looks simple, it’s savoury and delicious. After a warming meal, we retired to our room to relax. The hearty food is part of the relaxing experience that makes a temple stay one of the best things to do in Koyasan.
To my surprise, this ryokan had no showers, just a shared onsen. Turns out shared bathrooms are pretty common; this is the simple and austere monk’s life after all. For a more luxurious experience, you can also opt to stay in a room with a private bathroom or onsen. So I did have my first “onsen experience” here. I didn’t get into the actual hot tub but did have to shower in the onsen in front of an old Japanese lady. It ended up being pretty funny and made me get over my nervousness to visit a public onsen.
The next morning, we had the chance to watch the dawn prayers. Getting up in the early morning to the fall leaves covered in frost was a lovely experience. For those who are religious or spiritual, witnessing the dawn prayers makes the temple stay experience one of the best things to do in Mount Koya.
We quite liked our stay at Muryōkōin. It was nice enough for a reasonable price and gave us the traditional experience we were looking for as part of our Mount Koya itinerary.
Koyasan Itinerary: Day 2
Okunoin Cemetery (morning walk)
After attending morning prayers, head out for a morning walk through Okunoin Cemetery. You don’t need to walk the entire route, but a stroll in the peaceful morning mist is worth the wander. It will be much quieter without the day-trip visitors. And no matter where you are, nothing beats a morning walk through the forest.
Once you’ve checked out of the temple stay, visit Danjō-garan, Mount Koya’s central temple complex. The temple is pretty and peaceful. The most eye-catching building is the Konpon Daito Pagoda, which is a bright vermillion colour. Standing at 45 metres tall, the bright pagoda draws the eye.
The other main building is the Kondo Hall, a larger wooden temple. The current building dates back to 1932, but was established well before.
One unique building in the complex is the Rokkaku-Kyuzo, a hexagonal building that holds sacred sutras. The building has a central pillar with large wooden handles that you can push to rotate a section of the floor. Each rotation symbolizes the reading of the sutra.
Overall, Danjō-garan is a quiet complex that has a tranquil atmosphere. The buildings are surrounded by tall trees that give it a serene feel, a common theme in peaceful Mount Koya.
Explore the historic sites of Mount Koya with this two day Koyasan itinerary.
Koyasan has a rich religious history that is apparent when you start exploring this mountain town. From visiting the moss-covered Okunoin cemetery to sleeping at a peaceful temple, there are so many cultural things to do in Mount Koya. This peaceful mountain town is worth a visit on your next trip to Japan.