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If you’re also planning to visit Japan at this time, also check out these other great places to see in winter in Japan!
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If you only want to visit Koyasan as a day trip from Osaka, this self-guided Mt. Koya day trek includes transportation and a shojin ryori lunch (see below) at one of the famous temples, or you can try this more thorough guided English Koyasan tour from Kyoto. However, as you will find out below, staying in a temple at Koyasan is a must!
If you are interested in staying in Buddhist temples, you may also want to check out my articles on doing a temple stays in South Korea, at Taiwan’s largest monastery, and in the caves temples at Lion’s Head Mountain in Taiwan!
For travelers today, the most interesting aspect of visiting Koyasan, besides the enormous cemetery, is the opportunity to stay and dine in one of Koyasan’s 50+ shukubo (temple accommodations) and feast on meticulously prepared shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian meals), which are served to you in your temple room with, surprisingly, your choice of beer or sake!
Below I’d like to share some details that should help you decide which is the best temple to stay in Koyasan for you, give some tips to those considering visiting Koyasan in winter, which I’d highly recommend, if you can handle the cold, and also tell you how you can get from Osaka to Koyasan (or Koyasan to Osaka) I hope this information helps!
Temple lovers should also check out Kamakura, an easy day trip from Tokyo.
Getting from Osaka to Koyasan (or Kyoto to Koyasan)
After arriving at the Kansai International Airport in Osaka, I wanted to go directly to Koyasan and arrive before dinner, which can be done if your flight arrives before about noon. This involved taking a train towards Osaka and then transferring onto the Nankai Koya line at Tengachaya.
If you plan to spend a day in Osaka before heading to Koyasan, reserve your seats in advance on a limousine bus, on the Nankai train line, or in a private car, and make sure to pick up an ICOCA card here for swiping onto most public transportation in Osaka, Kyoto, and the Kansai area. Here’s how to see the best of Osaka in one day.
To get from Osaka to Koyasan from the Osaka city center, you can get on the Nankai Koya line at Namba or Shin-Imamiya stations, which takes about 1.5 hours to Gokurakubashi station at the foot of Mount Koya. You can save money by getting this two-day Nankai line pass. Check the train times on HyperDia. The Nankai line is not covered by the JR Pass, so do consider that when deciding whether to get a JR Pass.
From Kyoto to Koyasan, you basically just have to get from Kyoto to the Nankai Namba station in Osaka and follow the instructions above. See more information here for getting from Kyoto to Osaka and Koyasan.
Tickets on the Koya Line include the free Koyasan cable car ride at the end which takes you up the mountain, then you transfer to a 10-minute bus ride into Koyasan village. When I visited in February 2018, the Koyasan cable car was out of order from a heavy storm that damaged it in October last year. I was only able to take the Koya line as far as Hashimoto, from where there was a free shuttle bus up to Koyasan village that took about 1.5 hours, running roughly every hour. The cable car is running again as of summer 2018.
Consider getting this Nankai Line two-day rail pass (you can choose the two days). The ride from Osaka to Koyasan and back almost covers it, and if you take one more ride (for example to or from the Osaka airport on one of those days), you are saving money. If you are visiting Koyasan plus other places in the Kansai region (such as Kyoto, Nara), then a Kansai Thru Pass can also save you some money.
There is a huge amount of information in English about transportation and other travel matters in the Wakayama and Kumano Kodo region on the Tanabe Tourism website. This site was a valuable resource when I was planning my trip.
Visiting Koyasan in Winter
I had wished for snow, and on the day I arrived in Japan, some of the heaviest snowfall in 40 years was recorded in certain regions. I was born and raised in a place where we have snow up to eight months per year, and most people in my hometown would think I’d gone mad to now miss it.
Doing a Temple Stay in Koyasan (Koyasan Shukubo)
Eko In Koyasan: The Best Temple to Stay in Koyasan?
For the first night, I booked a room at the popular Eko In (Ekoin) Temple (see on Booking / Agoda / TripAdvisor). For starters, the location right across the street from the entrance to Okunoin cemetery was phenomenal. Especially given the extreme cold, I was able to make multiple little trips to the cemetery and go back to my room to warm up.
If you were staying in the other end of town, you’d have to make a 15-minute walk each way or take the bus. Eko In actually organizes the nightly walking tour of Okunoin, but I much preferred to do that on my own.
The grounds of Ekoin Koyasan are simply gorgeous, and the simple rooms overlooked a courtyard so pretty that I got beautiful shots right from my room window. I think some of my best photos from Koyasan are of Ekoin itself, which is not something you’d usually say about your accommodation on a trip.
The popularity of Eko In comes at a price; I could see that, since there were quite a few other guests while I stayed in winter, so I’d imagine in summer the place must always be fully booked, often with large groups. Some reviewers complain about the thin walls, and I did indeed hear someone’s TV going until late (who needs to watch TV when staying in a temple?) but this could happen at any traditional guesthouse in Japan, and its nothing a set of earplugs couldn’t fix.
The morning prayers/chanting at 7 am (earlier in summer) took place in an ornately decorated chamber, and the following Homa fire ceremony, in which one monk drums and another chants and makes a bonfire out of sticks that we the tourists have written wishes (and paid donations for), was truly enchanting.
Personally, I don’t care how “touristy” a performance is; I’m happy if I’m able to get good photos. Photography is allowed, just be discreet, turn off your flash and shutter sound, and use your camera’s lowest aperture if you want any hope of getting a clear shot in those dark rooms. I got the shots above with a low aperture lens and by stabilizing my camera right on the floor in front of me while sitting and using the flip up screen. Most other tourists were respectful, but some had their smartphones up the whole time.
Hoon In: A Good Alternative Temple to Stay in Koyasan
Eating in Koyasan: The Shojin Ryori (Buddhist Vegetarian Meal)
First, let me point out that my diet has ranged from vegan to pescatarian for nearly 20 years and I live in Asia, so I’ve eaten A LOT of Asian vegetarian food in my life. Still, the shojin ryori meals served up at every temple stay in Koyasan are easily some of the best vegetarian (actually, they are totally vegan) meals I’ve ever had.
I loved the fact that they were served right in my room (I’m a solitary traveler; I don’t care about meeting other people), and that way I could unashamedly spend as long as I wanted taking photos of my food before I ate it.
And, amazingly YOU CAN ORDER ALCOHOL WITH YOUR TEMPLE MEAL!! (I’m a beer lover, and I don’t care how un-Buddhist this might seem). The shukubo experience at Koyasan is primarily a tourist endeavor and a source of income for the temples, so if they want to serve me beer and make more money from me, I want to let them.
So let’s go back to the food. The dinners I was served in both temples were nearly identical, with Hoon-In being ever so slightly more artfully presented. I listed some of the items that were included below.
If you want a chance to try a shojin ryori meal without staying overnight in a temple, you can do so on this day tour from Osaka!
- Goma-Dofu: I put this first because it was probably the most delicious tofu I’ve ever had. It’s made from ground sesame seeds and has the texture of firm pudding, literally melting in your mouth, and comes with light soy sauce and a dab of wasabi. AMAZING.
- Koya Dofu: freeze dried tofu, a signature local dish known throughout Japan
- Tempura vegetables with matcha-flavored salt for dipping
- Variety of tsukemono (pickled vegetables)
- Tofu hot pot with sprouts
- Miso soup, rice, fruit, tea, beer and sake optional (yes, I got both)
- Black beans, Chinese yam cubes in sour plum sauce (at Hoon-In)
Okunoin Cemetery in Winter
I’m not going to say much about Koyasan’s main attraction, Okunoin Cemetery (read about it here), except that if you only see one thing in Koyasan, this is it. A walk along the cemetery’s main path, which will take you past some 200,000 tombstones and statues, is a hauntingly evocative experience. The forest here breathes centuries of history and veneration, making it an ideal location for the traveler’s meditation I’ve described.
I’m sure the cemetery is magical in any season, but I found it particularly photogenic with all the snow piled up on the tombstones and statue heads, with gorgeous whites and evergreens in the background. This is not a path to rush along but one to spend a whole morning stopping, admiring, photographing, and generally appreciating.
Photos aren’t allowed at the final temple, Torodo Hall, and the Kukai (Kobo Daishi) Mausoleum behind it, and these incredibly important sacred sights probably won’t mean as much to you as they do to the Japanese, but they at least provide a sense of “making it to the end” of your cemetery jaunt, and the 10,000-plus lanterns hanging in the Hall are a sight to behold.
Other Things to Do in Koyasan
Garan (the sacred precinct) is a large park that features several temples and is definitely worth a stroll, though I personally didn’t find it necessary to pay and go inside each of them (200 yen each).
The park was actually larger than I had imagined from looking at maps before I arrived, and when I visited, snow was falling pretty hard, so I didn’t linger or get many photos. The town’s only Family Mart is near the park’s southern entrance, which makes a good warm escape if you need it.
Near Garan, I also visited Kongobuji, the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhism sect. To be completely honest, I wasn’t blown away by this temple. Photography is mostly not permitted inside (sad me), including of all the beautiful fusuma (sliding doors) on display, and the main feature, the largest rock garden in Japan, was covered with snow so it wasn’t much of a rock garden.
Once again, I kind of wondered where all the monks were hiding, too; it felt more like a museum than active temple. Overall, I’d say the temple’s cultural significance is more important than what you can actually observe.
At the far western end of town, the enormous Daimon Gate is worth the 5-minute walk past Garan, and this is also the starting/middle/end point of several hikes. One is the Choishi Michi Trail, part of an ancient pilgrimage trail that goes downhill from here for several hours all the way to Kudoyama train station (most people would walk up from the station).
Daimon Gate is also a midway point on the Women’s Pilgrim Course, or Nyoninmichi Loop, which takes in the six Nyonindo temples, the closest that women were once able to get to Koyasan.
I had actually intended on walking the 2.5-hour portion of the latter hike which leads from Daimon Gate through the hills to Okunoin cemetery, except that after tramping through the snow all morning visiting the sights in town, I was already super tired, plus the warning signs at the beginning of the trail of recent bear sightings didn’t help.
I walked a brief way down the Choishi Michi Trail, and I would say that if you are really considering doing any of these trails in winter when there’s snow, it’s certainly possible, but the snow was pretty thick, making walking very tiring, and you’d really need to have good footwear. Also, they say making lots of noise helps to warn bears of your presence.
There were a few (but not many!) places to get lunch in town; I found a simple eatery with Japanese classics like udon noodles, draft beer, and more of that mouth-watering goma-dofu. There was also a single beer and sake vending machine (I love you Japan).
Final Thoughts about Doing a Koyasan Temple Stay in Winter
I never travel without a guidebook! I recommend these: