For most visitors to Mount Koya, the Okunoin is the best part! To put it plainly, it is a cemetary, but it is surprising at how serene and beautiful it is. The graves and monuments amidst the forest layed out the way it is creates a unique atmosphere. Of course, knowing that Mount Koya is a highly spiritual site may also contribute to the amazing feeling you get as you walk through the Okunoin!
There are many graves and monuments. There are many monuments to famous poets, such as Matsuo Bassho among the graves. The mausoleum of Kukai himself is located here. It is said that he remains in a cave praying as he has been doing for over 1000 years. They still offer food to him daily. You can visit the temple, but of course, the cave is off limits. At the end is the Toro-do Hall, which housing many lanterns that are gorgeous in the darkness of the temple.
The Reihokan is the museum on Mount Koya housing many temple treasures and other important religious artwork. There are many mandala, as well as sculptures inside. It's a nice place to stop as you explore Mount Koya. Because they are trying to preserve the paintings, they keep it quite cool. I imagine this is nice in the summertime. I visited during the winter months, so it was really cold! Still, I like Buddhist art, so I think it is a worthwhile stop.
Entrance is 600 yen.
The Daimon Gate of Mount Koya is quite large and marks one of the entrances to the holy grounds. The Nio statues that guard the sacred site were carved during the Edo Period. The gate is also located near one of the entrances to the women's trail. In the past, women were not permitted to enter the sacred grounds on Mount Koya, but female pilgrims still came to pray and worship. For them, the walked along a designated trail that circled the site. Like the Nyonindo, the Daimon Gate marked the area off-limits to women.
The Garan is the main spiritual center of Mount Koya. This is the complex where Kukai actually built his temple and is the head temple of the Shingon sect. The Kondo Hall and Konpon Daito Pagoda were built by Kukai, but his predecessor built the rest of the structures, because Kukai died prior to the completion of the complex. The temples today are not the originals built by Kukai due to fires, but they house important statues and have not lost their significance.
Kukai is said to have chosen this location when he found a sankosho that he threw from China in a pine tree at this site. When he saw his sankosho, he knew that this was where he wanted to establish his temple in Japan. You can see the pine tree here, as well.
Entrance to the Daito Pagoda and Kondo Hall are 200 yen each.
In the past, there was a Nyonindo at every entranceway to Mount Koya, but today the only one that remains is located at the first stop of the bus across from the Otakejizou.
The Nyonindo served as stations to mark the entrance to the holy grounds, which also meant that they served to indicate the point which women were no longer allowed to travel. In the past female pilgrims were not permitted to enter the holiest parts of Mount Koya, so they could pray here instead. There was also a trail for women that went around the site but never in it.
Those interested in experiencing Mount Koya the way women once did can still walk the trail today from this area, but women wishing to continue to the temples and Okunoin may do so today.
Mount Koya is considered to be the most prestigious gravesite in Japan, so Tokugawa Iemitsu built this mausoleum for his family, as they were highly important figureheads. It is believed to have been completed in 1643, enshrining Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada (Japan's first shoguns).
It is important to note that these men are not buried here. Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried in Nikko at Toshogu Shrine, but just having a shrine in one's honor built in Mount Koya is formidable in honoring them. It's worth stopping here. The mausoleum is beautifully designed with many intricate carvings.
The giant Jizou statue at the beginning of the Koyasan trail was built in 1860 by a woman named Yokoyama Take in honor her parents and all of the of other victims of the Great Ansei Earthquake that hit Tokyo (Edo) in 1855. It is the "Otake" jizou, because her name is Take. The "O" is honorific.
Most people who come here still pray for family and children, which are typical prayers to any Jizou as they are associated with children.
Okuno-In is certainly my favourite place in Koyasan, although we were only there for two days and a night. It's a graveyard/temple in an old forest on the edge of town, where a great monk is interred. I heard that the monk is not believed dead, but in a state of prolonged deep meditation. Follow the signs from the centre of town and you'll get to the entrance, which is a short bridge. Cross the bridge and begin your walk along the winding stone pathway. The trees are towering and wide, and there are purportedly half a million graves along the way. It's very quiet, and all the gargoyles and statues can be spooky if you're by yourself. At the end of the path (maybe a fifteen minute walk) is the main temple complex, where there is a room of lanterns, some of which have been burning for over nine hundred years. Behind the temple is the closed-off pagoda mausoleum of the enlightened monk. Other features to look for are the wooden markers in the river which commemorate babies aborted by drowning, and the small wooden structure which holds a stone that is heavier or lighter according to your sins. Try to lift it onto the shelf!
Each year during O-bon, around August 13th, head up to Koya-san for the candle festival, when people walk from the cemetery entrance to Okunoin, lighting thousands of candles in the cemetery to help the spirits of loved ones and ancestors rise up to heaven. Okunoin, itself filled with candles year-round, holds special ceremonies throughout the evening. The huge crowd also attracts a delicious collection of food stalls.
Take a walk through Okunoin cemetery in the morning, when the sun is rising and there aren't many people around. It's so old and beautiful, with the cedar trees vaulting high over your head, that you'll completely forget you're in a cemetery.
The Daishi Hall is a large structure. The Daishi Temple is very important for Daishi believers all over Japan who want to become missionaries. It is the headquarters for the training of Buddhist missionaries in Japan.
The mausoleum of the Tokugawa Family was built by the third shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa. It took 10 years to build and is architecturally representative of the Edo Period. First Edo shogun Ieyasu and second shogun Hidetada are enshrined in this mausoleum.
The Kondo hall is situated in the middle of the Garan area just east of Daimon. This is the main hall of the Kongobuji Temple. First built in 819, the current structure is the 7th reconstructed in 1932 on the site. Important Buddhist services are performed here.
The Daimon is a mammoth gate which stands as the main entrance to Koyasan. It is flanked on each side by Kongo warriors who guard the mountain. The view from the gate is magnificent and on a clear day, can reach as far as the Seto Inland Sea.
Surrounded by mountains on three sides and with the Tama River running along its foot, Okunoin Temple sits in a tranquil and mystical atmosphere. An eerie silence pervades the atmosphere as one walks through thousands of tombs leading to the mausoleum of Kobodaishi and the hall of lanterns.