KOYASAN / YOSHINO (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 33)
Koyasan is a quiet town situated atop Mount Koya. The town can trace its history back to a settlement founded by Kobo Daishi – sometimes known as Kukai.
Yoshino is a place sacred to the Shugendo (a religion unique to Japan and combines elements of shamanism, Shintoism, Taoism and Buddhism) and is famous throughout Japan for its cherry blossoms.
‘Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range’ was initially registered as a United Nations World Heritage Site in July of 2004. The area itself is huge and straddles three prefectural boundaries – Wakayama, Nara and Mie.
This issue of att.JAPAN will focus on two of the more famous spots within the site: Koyasan and Yoshino. Both are relatively easy to access from Osaka and should be included on any Kansai region itinerary given the time needed to see them properly.
As little as one hour after departing Osaka Namba station, the limited express ‘Koya’ crosses the Kino River and the atmosphere changes. Travel from this point on is not unlike venturing into a different world. A chain of mountains continue alongside the tracks all the way to Koyasan – Mt. Omine and Mt. Kumano can both be seen looming ahead of the train.
Koyasan is located in the northern part of Wakayama Prefecture in Japan’s Kansai region and was first established by Kobo Daishi (Kukai) some 1200 years ago. The area is thus deemed sacred in the Shingon Sect of Esoteric Buddhism and is home to an impressive 117 temples on its 900m high plateau. Surrounding the plateau is a ring of mountains – themselves all approximately 1000m in height. Across the plateau ancient Japanese cedars reach upwards; in the process providing shade against the summer sun.
For visitors there is a trio of major sightseeing spots: Danjo Garan, Okuno-in and Kongobuji Temple – with Danjo Garan and Okuno-in the most sacred sites. Kobo Daishi’s Gobyo (mausoleum) in Okuno-in the reason behind Okuno-in labeled such.
The approach to Okuno-in from Ichino-hashi is an impressive 2km in length and passes through a wooded area watched over by cedars over 1000-years-old. The approach winds through more than two hundred thousand graves including a number of final resting places for some famous Japanese over the centuries; Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578) among others.
When contemplating death, Japanese people generally believe a river separates the real world from the ‘other side.’ After crossing the Gobyo-bashi Bridge, those making the journey can access the sacred mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. NB: a notice found here reads ‘Visitors should tidy themselves up and purify the spirit before entering the area.’
At this point, the majestic building to your front is the Torodo. Inside the Torodo, tens of thousands of lanterns are hung to attract visitors to its mysterious, solemn interior. Torodo has more lanterns within its walls than any other building in Japan.
The mausoleum of Kobo Daishi stands to the rear of the Torodo. It is believed that the man who once possessed the name still resides in and around Koyasan where he continues to save the souls of visitors by way of the flickering candlelight, wafts of ever present incense and crisp mountain air that combine to drive away any lingering evil spirits.
Danjo Garan is a temple complex; another first established by Kobo Daishi as a dojo (school) for the Shingon Sect at the time he entered Koyasan and is home to a vermilion lacquered Konpon Daito (large pagoda); Kondo (main hall) and twin Toto and Saito (east and west pagodas). The earliest building constructed on the site was the Kondo followed by the Daito. The Daito was a pet project first started by Kobo Daishi but completed by his successor.
Kongobuji Temple is the head Shingon Sect temple and is located at the heart of the Koyasan site. First built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) to aid in the repose of the soul of his deceased mother, it is also the largest temple complex in Koyasan. The fusuma paintings in the great hall of the main building were finished by a famous painter in the Japanese Edo era – Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) and the temple is also home to the largest rock garden in Japan; the quiet simplicity of 140 rocks set in white sand depicting a pair of dragons in a sea of clouds tasked with the duty of protecting the building.
Koyasan is jam packed full of artwork linked to esoteric Buddhism and includes among its number a great many important cultural properties. The Koyasan Reihokan Museum houses both Buddhist paintings and 3D forms of art.
The vermilion lacquered gate surrounded by trees and known as Daimon serves as the main gate for the town; standing 25.1m in height and protected by 2 huge Kongorikishi statues on either side. The structure has been burned down and damaged by lighting many times with the gate seen today a 1705 reconstruction. On a clear day, it is said that Awajishima Island floating atop the Inland Sea can be seen in the distance.
Koyasan is home to 53 shukubo, temple lodgings which act not only as inns but also as places at which to sample shojin-ryori (vegetarian) lunches. Each shukubo is actually a traditional temple with its own unique character. Some are home to valuable cultural properties and can also boast beautiful gardens. The average day starts very early in a shukubo with seppo (preaching) from around 6am. For those unable to catch the chants, Shakyo, (transcriptions of the sutras) are available at a number of the facilities.
After crossing the Yoshino River by train, the steep slopes of Mount Yoshino gradually come into view.
Yoshino is located near the center of Nara Prefecture and has long been famous for its beautiful cherry blossoms. En-no-gyoja, the founder of Shugendo (c. 7th – 8th century) considered the cherry trees here to be real life embodiments of the gods so thereafter deemed Yoshino to be the center of the Shugendo. Shugendo necessitates ascetic training in the mountains on the path to enlightenment.
Over the centuries Yoshino flourished as the town in front of Kinpusenji Temple and has a full bag of historical episodes in its history that involves such iconic figures as Minamoto Yoshitsune and his consort Shizuka Gozen from the 12th century and the emperor Go Daigo from the 13th & 14th centuries. Yoshino is also the location to find Yoshimizu Shrine, Yoshino Mikumari Shrine, Kinpu Shrine and a host of other similarly historical spots.
Mount Yoshino is quite simply one of Japan’s very best cherry blossom viewing locations. An amazing 30,000 trees encompassing 200 varieties cover the mountain and from early April, when the blossoms at the foot of the mountain start to bloom, the whole mountain is slowly blanketed in pink until later in the same month when the green shoots appear. Toyotomi Hideyoshi is known to have held a grand cherry blossom viewing party with 5000 guests in 1594 but is not alone in big names making the journey to this Mecca of blossoms as Matsuo Basho, Shimazaki Toson, Tanizaki Junichiro and a number of other novelists and scholars are also known to have visited Yoshino.
Walking on Mount Yoshino
The route from the foot to the summit of Mt. Yoshino is more often than not covered on foot. From Kintetsu Yoshino Station travel to, then from Yoshinoyama Station to Senbonguchi Station by cable car and stop by Kinpusenji Temple where the famed copper ‘Do-no-torii’ – one of the nation’s top three torii – stands in welcome. Passing through the majestic Niomon Gate, Zaodo, the main hall of the temple and the second largest wooden building in Japan (the first being Todaiji Daibutsuden) will come into view. Standing approximately 30m at its tallest point, the roof covering is actually made of hinoki (cypress) bark.
A narrow road lined with souvenir shops and restaurants leads to Yoshimizu Shrine from the temple. Yoshimizu is itself home to the oldest shoin-zukuri style room in Japan as well as a selection of other cultural properties.
Next comes, Hanayagura – via Katte Shrine, Nyoirinji temple and Chikurinin. From Hanayagura a panoramic view taking in much of Mount Yoshino can be enjoyed. The next point, Yoshino Mikumari Shrine, is often the point from which many journey back to the station but given the time and self-confidence why not push on to Kinpu Shrine and Saigyoan?
By plane to Kansai International Airport or Osaka International (Itami) Airport. Alternatively, by Shinkansen Bullet Train to Shin-Osaka Station.
From either airport or Shin-Osaka Station, travel first to Nankai Namba Station. From Namba Station take the Nankai Line to Gokurakubashi Station (1h 17mins) and from Gokurakubashi Station to Koyasan Station by cable car. (5 mins)
From the airports or from Shin-Osaka Station, first travel to Kintetsu Abeno Station. From Abeno Station to Yoshino Station takes 1 hour 18 minutes on the Kintetsu Line direct limited express.
Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club – Ms. Matsuyama (President of the Koyasan I.G.C.)
Koyasan I.G.C., a volunteer interpreter guide club, was first established in 2005, but its president – Ms. Matsuyama is herself a veteran interpreter-cum-guide with more than 10 years experience in her field.
“I feel that recently more and more tourists are coming to Koyasan from foreign countries that include the U.S., Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. We guide mainly in English so have less chance to guide French people, but I’ve heard the number of French tourists has also been increasing. Most people who want to use the services of a guide are interested in various aspects of Japan – from religion to architecture to art. It seems that they want to learn about the differences between Japanese and other (their own) cultures. Some people have obviously studied in advance and such folk often ask deeper, more complex questions.
She says that when guiding visitors she does feel a difference between the Japanese and foreign tourists she takes around. “Take Okuno-in and its approach for example: most Japanese people think of the approach as sacred due to the presence of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi and the graves of many Japanese men of lore – all in a setting towered over by imposing cedars. Foreigners, however, are different. Most foreign tourists are less informed of Japanese history and if they are traveling without sufficient background information only look at the approach as something of a large cemetery set in cedar forests….it is sad, for them and us, that they miss out on the importance of the place.”
Guided tours can be conducted at a leisurely pace in half day or full day options.
More details: http://www.geocities.jp/koyasan_i_g_c/
Shukubo – Rengejoin
Shukubo are one of the quainter points that attract many to Koyasan and some facilities even have English speakers on hand – Rengejoin notably so. Long before Koyasan was registered as a World Heritage Site, many foreign tourists would stay at Rengejoin where Ms. Kiyomi Soeda, owner of this shukubo would declare: “Foreign tourists usually stay for quite a long time, sometimes for (as long as) 2 weeks. Some people are fond of Koyasan and visit (us) several times. They enjoy shojin-ryori (when here) and one day, (when) we thought the guests were tired of shojin-ryori, we served coffee and bread for breakfast, only to be told they preferred the vegetarian breakfast.” At present the head priest of Rengejoin gives his morning sermon in both Japanese and English.