Be open, not empty – In The Tranquility of Koyasan

People from around the world visit the sacred mountain of Japanese Shingon Buddhism for various reasons. Young and old western tourists come to experience the modern-popular “zen” ambiance exotic to the great tradition of Greek philosophy; Buddhists go on a pilgrimage; people like me who are in between – speak a little Japanese and learnt a little about Buddhist teachings but really nothing more – probably visited out of curiosity, or a pathetic desire to escape the fuss of city life for literally, calmness in the mountains.

Like everywhere else I have been, I didn’t have a noble reason to visit Koyasan and I wouldn’t pretend that I did just because I learnt something after the trip. But Koyasan is a noble place. It is sacred but welcoming anyone who is interested in learning or developing their spirituality. All visitors of Koyasan stay in one of the 50+ temples, where they follow local rules and customs, be it Buddhist (e.g. vegetarian diet) or Japanese (e.g. no shoes on tatami). It was intimidating when the monk suddenly asks you a question in Japanese, or when you don’t know how to sit to eat in the common dining hall, but they are all part of an authentic experience. Pure with little additives, just like the local Shojin ryori.

From Kansai International Airport, I travelled for almost 4 hours on trains (JR to Wakayama, JR to Hashimoto, Nankai Electric Railway to Gokurakubashi) before reaching the cable car station to Koyasan. It was the end of March and schools would start spring break very soon. Halfway on the Nankai railway journey, all other passengers had left and there remained only me and the train staff, always doing their job no matter how many passengers are on board. Finally, I arrived at my temple lodging. It was past admission time and I wasn’t expecting any service or meals. Fortunately, the monk kindly showed me around the temple and offered dinner which was still warm and delicious. I could even use the hot bath although I was late, before they turned the lights off for all guests to rest.

Then, quietly, morning came.

View outside my room

This photo was taken at 3pm but it was basically what I woke up to. Small trees, rocks and a pond make a nice garden inside the temple. In the pond a small mill keeps the water running and always alive. Maybe it’s man-made nature, but it was a view I always wanted from my room, but never had a chance to enjoy until now.


In the morning I could finally see how the entrance to my temple lodging looks like. When I arrived it was already 8pm, and the night in March was really dark.

Cross section in front of Sekishoin

From this photo you could tell that it wasn’t a very bright day. Even the tree leaves looked cold but it was interesting to see the contrast of something really old (the temple’s architecture and maybe the tree too) and something relatively modern (the paved and painted road, and the van).

Ichino Hashi Stream

A stream on the bridge Ichi no hashi to Okunoin.

Ichino Hashi

The entrance to Okunoin. It’s believed that the great master Kobo Daishi awaits and welcomes his visitors on the bridge sometimes with a kind smile. So I took a bow and entered with respect and seriousness.

Army Memorial Tower

This is a memorial set up by Japanese soldiers who fought in WWII in remembrance of their comrades who died in the war. Looking back, the war had done no one good and it was sad to realise that many of their friends they joined the army with died on the battlefield. All they want now is world peace, and this is just a memorial for their peers who didn’t survive.

Special mother cedar forest

The red sign reads “Special Seed Trees”. The Great Forest of Japanese Cedar in Okunoin composes of trees from 200-600 years old, and has been registered as a prefectural natural monument of Wakayama. There are 1300 trees and some are as tall as 50m. The Special Seed Trees are those that are in good health, which provides excellent quality wood and seeds.

Kenshin Uesugi Soul house

The Mausoleum of Uesugi Kenshin. Uesugi Kenshin was a feudal load in the 1500s.

Seishishinin Bodai

A grave for one of the temples – well protected by the great old cedar trees, next to the Mausoleum – I believe this is great “fengshui” and the temple’s has chosen a great spot.

Japanese Buddhism statues in graveyard

A family grave and I took a photo because it shows the classic arrangement of monumental rocks in Japanese Buddhism which presents the 5 elements : Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Atmosphere.

Water tower

A small water fountain/ tap, usually present outside Japanese temples for rinsing your hands before entering. A ritual similar to other religions like Islam, which makes me think how dirty our daily selves really are, both spiritually and physically.

Kanto Earthquake memorial

A memorial for the victims of the Kanto earthquake in 1923.


A monk walking freely and fastly (with his belongings and a really cool outfit).

Manihōtō front

A Manichaeist temple/ museum which first caught my attention not because of the religion, but the bright contrast of red, white and colour on the wall. The master of a temple established the architecture in memorial of the soldiers who died in the war in Burma during WWII, as he had seen it before his very own eyes when he was studying Buddhism in Burma. Photographs of war and Buddhist statues from around the world are presented and an underground experience invites visitors to meet the Buddha.


One of the 50+ temple lodgings that bears the name of lily.

To Koya Forest Park

Walking towards a natural park but I gave up because it got darker and colder.

Unfortunately these photos don’t represent all of my experience in Koyasan for two reasons – the weather wasn’t always good for film pictures and much of the depth of my inner reflections while I was there couldn’t really be captured by a camera (with my current photographic skills). When I was resting in my room in the temple, when I was walking through the cedar forest passage to Okunoin (where Kobo Daishi’s spirit resides), when I was only stepping in a local store … I became aware of my mind, my thoughts, my words and my actions just because it was such a tranquil and disciplined environment. Even though my knowledge on (Japanese) Buddhism is still limited, I was inspired to learn more because for the two days there I was able to relax, reflect on my past and clear up my mind for something new that could contribute to my spirituality.

Koyasan is a really special place and maybe the most special among where I visited. Although I have been always honest on this blog I’d like to keep some of these reflections to myself (not many people are that interested anyway I assume). What I would conclude is that even I wasn’t able to visit Koyasan for a sacred reason, I am glad I wasn’t one of those who visited just for a exotic zen experience. It’s good to have an open mind when travelling and visiting especially places of spirituality, but an empty mind is a different thing. An open mind allows you to be inspired even it may have little effect on your beliefs at the end; but an empty mind leaves you the shame of not being able to take what Koyasan has to offer with its history, heritage, well-preserved natural environment and a friendly, welcoming Japanese Buddhist community.

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