Navigating Your Way to Mt. Koya

When planning our trip, I read so many accounts of Koyasan being the highlight of others’ visits that I had to incorporate it into our itinerary.  I enjoyed learning some about Buddhism and visiting a monastery during my trip to Taiwan, and Mt. Koya seemed like the perfect place to explore this aspect of Japanese culture.

Getting There

img_2192Our travel route meant that visiting Koyasan between our time in Tokyo and Kyoto was the most logical.  Unfortunately, this resulted in a long travel day.  If all went smoothly, traveling from our apartment in Tokyo to our lodging in Koyasan would require eight transit changes and approximately six hours.  And all did not go smoothly.

The bullet train from Tokyo deposited us at the Shin-Osaka station.  From Shin-Osaka, there are two options for reaching the Nankai Koya Line:  1) taking the subway to the Namba station; or 2) taking the JR line to Osaka and transferring to the Osaka Loop Line to Shin-Imamiya station.  Since our bullet train tickets included inner-city travel on the JR, we chose Option 2.

Here’s where it got tricky.  Between our arrival at Shin-Imamiya and the departure of our train toward Koyasan, we only had six minutes.*  During this time, we had to buy tickets and change train lines.  We knew that our chances of making the connection were slim, but we were determined to give it our best shot.

If you are traveling to Koyasan from the direction of Kyoto/Osaka and plan to catch the Nankai Koya Line from Shin-Imamiya, please note the following:  When you get off the train at Shin-Imamiya, GO LEFT.  If you go right, you will end up outside of the station and have to walk around it and down the street in order to reach the Nankai line.  (As you may have guessed, I know this from experience.)  There will also be nowhere to buy the World Heritage Ticket, if that’s what you plan, as they are not available from the ticket machines.

Please note that this instruction directly contradicts a TripAdvisor forum post discussing this very transfer.  Making a brief connection is very difficult if you do not know exactly where to go, and in this case, making a wrong turn will render it impossible.  Missing the connection delayed us by one hour, certainly not a catastrophe, but meaningful when you’re traveling a long distance for a short stay.

Timetables for the Nankai Koya Line between Namba and Koyasan are available here.  (There is a two-minute difference between the Namba and Shin-Imamiya stations.)  Timetables for the buses running within Koyasan are available at the cable car station.

*It’s worth noting that we faced the same connection on our return with an even smaller window of time and successfully made the transfer.

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A Tranquil Escape

img_1531We selected Shojoshin-in for our temple lodging and could not have been happier with our stay.  The grounds are stunning and serene.  The confirmation email from Japanese Guest Houses (the third party through which reservations are made) stresses that the temple is run by monks and guests should expect a lower level of service than is typical of a hotel stay.  Despite this warning, I found the service to be friendly and perfectly adequate, with the facilities as comfortable as a standard ryokan.

While listed amenities of the temple only mention public baths, there are in fact public and private bathing facilities.  The private facilities are still shared and a sign above the door states that the capacity is two to three people, but the monk who showed us around specifically told me it was for private use and showed me how to lock the door.  (The evening of our stay, I had a refreshing shower and soothing soak in the piping hot tub, but Derek was not so lucky.  Another guest broke open the locked shower door in an effort to enter!  Apparently he didn’t get the same message we did.)

In keeping with Buddhist custom, the meals served at the temple are all vegetarian.  Though held in a large dining hall, guest tables are partitioned, thus resulting in a semi-private dining experience.  img_2131We enjoyed both dinner and breakfast.  We often had no idea what we were eating, and many flavors and consistencies were unfamiliar, but it was all very good.  I became quite full at dinner but was again hungry before bed and wished I had brought some snacks.

The morning prayer service was a bit of a disappointment.  I had expected the ceremony to be participatory, but it was solely observational and performed by a single monk.  It would also have been nice to have a program of some sort explaining the meaning associated with his chants and movements.

Residing in Eternal Meditation

img_1526In addition to the experience of staying at a temple, visiting the Okunoin cemetery and Lantern Hall are the highlights of any trip to Koyasan.  Which is good for us because they’re the only sights we were able to visit.

We checked into our room around 3:30 p.m. and set off for the cemetery at 4 p.m., which gave us just more than an hour to explore before we had to be back at the temple for our 5:30 p.m. dinner.

It was sprinkling and dusk was setting in, making the cemetery all the more mysterious and alluring.  I made my way slowly thru, leaving the main path for nearly every offshoot.  The markers and memorials are overwhelming in their diversity and number.

We weren’t able to see the entire cemetery that evening, so we pushed back our planned departure time in order to return the next morning.  In the bright day with an increased number of visitors, the cemetery lost some of its enchantment but was still a sight to behold.  We completed our visit at Lantern Hall and Kobo Daishi Gobyo, the mausoleum where Kobo Daishi is said to remain in eternal meditation.

We enjoyed our visit to Koyasan, and while I regretted that we didn’t have time to see the Great Pagoda or Daimon Gate, we know we experienced the best Koyasan has to offer.  That said, given the amount of time we traveled contrasted with time spent there, we would perhaps forego the visit if we were to do it all over.  I would recommend a visit to Koyasan if you can travel to and from a relatively short distance.  Otherwise, you may find that you can put your time toward seeing or doing something as enjoyable that requires less effort.