The pilgrimage to Mt. Koya

Trip Start Jul 20, 2004
Trip End Jul 20, 2020

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Where I stayed
Koyasan YH

Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Tuesday, July 20, 2010


After spending an hour at the tourist information quizzing the lady about everything from bus and train schedules to accommodation and trail maps around Mt. Koya and Kumano Kodo, I left the office laden with brochures and maps. I really, really wanted to hike part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail but looking at time and distance, I realized I will only be able to hike part of it if at all. This challenging pilgrimage trail is the Kohechi Trail, which connects Koyasan to the sacred shrines of Kumano. I had 2-3 days at hand and figured I will play it by ear and focus on two days Koyasan and maybe one day Kumano Kodo.  Getting from Nara to Koyasan took a little over two hours arriving at 10:45am.  This is late for my taste, as I like to start hiking early.  Though the train station has English and several Japanese trail maps, I wasn't aware of the fact that there is an 'inner’ and an ‘outer’ trail around Koyasan until I got up to Koyasan.  Koyasan is a popular pilgrimage destination for followers of Shingon Buddhism, and it is connected to the outside world by a network of pilgrimage trails.

From the Koyasan station there are two options; take the cable car up and then the bus into town or walk all the way to Koyasan town.  I choose the latter as the trail from the train station connects with the women’s pilgrimage path starting from Nyonindo temple.  Until 1872 Koyasan was closed to women. Prohibited from advancing beyond this point, women took a narrow and precipitous road to visit the mausoleum of Kukai.

I had no accommodation booked as I was not willing to shell out 9000 Yen ($90) for temple lodging.  So while hiking around town, I was mentally making notes what places seem to be feasible for an overnight sleep (like a nice hard bench, a soft green grass spot or the wooden porch of a temple).  Just in case there are any free or cheap temple lodgings available, I went to the Koyasan tourist info where I was told ‘no there aren’t’ but ‘yes there is a Youth Hostel’.   Off I went to inquire and yes, they had a bed for me.  Well, this took care of any outdoor sleeping opportunities though I kind of was looking forward to it as it would have saved me 3000 Yen.  The town is compact and chock full of temples and temple lodgings.  My favorite part was the enormous Okunoin graveyard. Entering through the Sando (entrance path) one is enveloped by huge cedar trees hundred of years old that tower over the approximately 2 km path leading to the Torado (lantern temple) were the votive lantern, donated by lady Oteru and the "Shirakawa-to", donated by Emperor Shirikawa, have burned in this hall uninterrupted for thousands of years. More than 200,000 grave stones, from military commanders to common folk stand in lines between trees and attest to the faith in Koyasan.  Walking among the gravestones, each grave has one or more Gorinto, five-story pagodas consisting of five pieces representing earth, water, fire, wind and space.  The characters on the Gorintos are written in Sanskrit.  One can spend hours and hours strolling around this place; it exudes an air of peacefulness and timelessness.

I went back to the hostel around 7ish, ready for a shower and a rest.  And what a surprise – I got my own Japanese style tatami room with a table and low chair and fold out mattress with crisp clean sheets.  The doors were the typical Japanese style sliding doors with the windows facing a small naka-niwa or inner garden.  Basically the hostel was the private house of the hostel owner.  I was happy that I had found this place as it made me feel like being part of the owner’s household.  The cost was 3300 Yen.

The next day I started out at 8am venturing one more time to the cemetery to take in a last view of this peaceful, albeit swarming with tourists at this time, and deeply religious place.  I decided to hike down the outer trail or Koyasan-Nyonimichi trail, which is about 9.1 km to Nyonindo temple.  The trail was sheer bliss as I had it for myself for the most part and was accompanied by singing birds.  I also noticed some huge mushrooms and came across two snakes which I was not sure if they were venomous or not.  Midway on the trail I came to the cross section where the outer Koyasan trail intersects with the Kumano Kodo trail. Decisions, decisions. I considered for a while to head down the trail to the town of Totsukawa Onsen.  But I wasn’t sure how long it would take and buses from that town to Nara were only running until about 1pm.  In addition, the bus trip back to Nara would have cost about 3700 Yen.  I conceded and decided that I will have to return to Japan in the not too distant future to hike the entire Kumano Kodo trail.  I continued my hike until I came to the Entrance Gate or ‘Daimon’ from where there was another trail, the Koyasan Choishi Michi trail  to Kudoyama station. The trail, named Koyasan Choishi Michi, is 23.5 kilometers long and takes around seven hours to hike. I figured I give it a try, if not I had the option of shorten the trip by two hours and fours hours respectively by taking the train to the alternative trailheads at Kami-Kosawa or Kii-Hosokawa Stations.

It was an absolutely lovely trail with changing greenery and views, Buddha stupas and a temple along the way and a few hikersion. on their way to Koyasan.  By the time I reached the last trail down to the train station beforeKudoyama Station, I had run out of water and my foot hurt (which it had been doing for the past 3 days).  I don’t like to give up or compromise but I am smart enough to listen to my body and without water, there is no way I would continue.  The map didn’t show any streams for the next 12 km and I just wasn’t going to risk it for the sake of being able to say I hiked about 40 km.  So I headed down to the train station, content with the beautiful time I had spent on the trail and still energized by having hiked about 30km.  These two days in and around Koyasan were well spent and it is for sure a place to head back to.

I have one more day in Nara, an easy day it will be, feeding and watching deer, and strolling around Nara Park before heading to Osaka where I will stay one night with Yoriko before taking the bus to Hakata and from there the hydrofoil boat to Busan, Korea.

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