Koya-san: Tombstones, Temples and Ancient Legends

We got up really early to take the train to visit mount Koya, about 2 hours south of Osaka. What started as a single Buddhist monastery of  in 819, grew out to the Koyasan Shingon Buddhist headquarters, with hundreds of temples that offer lodging to pilgrims and a huge graveyard in the middle of an immense cedar forest. This place is absolutely beautiful, and I highly recommend going there if you’re in Kansai!

When we got up, we saw the sunrise from our apartment, just behind the mountains. A spectacular view, we should get up early more often haha:

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We then took the train to Koya, including a cablecar right into the mountains.

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We were surprised to see the mountain was covered in snow! Really nice to see since snow is very rare in Osaka.

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A little snowman greeted us:

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Mount Koya has a couple of different areas to visit, one is the huuuuuge graveyard in the middle of a cedar forest. It’s the biggest graveyard in Japan and some of the most famous people (ancient warlords, samurai, members of the imperial family) are buried here. But something really awkward is going on there as well; companies build altars to honor their employees as well, resulting in the most weird tombstones! This one was dedicated to the employees of some space/rocket manufacturing company:

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There were tombstones of coffeecups (UCC coffee company), and companies such as Panasonic had huge tombs there. For us it feels really strange to see these company graveyards, but I guess for the Japanese it’s really normal. After all, in Japan the company takes care of you your whole life (and after!). Another interesting tombstone was by a pesticide company that dedicated the tomb to all the insects it had killed :-)

Walking around the graveyard was really impressive, such a surreal world. The trees were absolutely immense . So immense you cannot really capture it in photographs, but this one might give an impression:

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These trees must be hundreds and hundreds of years old!

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We walked around this magical place for more than an hour. We came across some beautiful statues, altars and tombstones;

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We found this one inside an old withered tree!

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Beautiful isn’t? This tiny statue was wearing winterclothes;

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But there wee also some really scary legends at some of the tombs. For instance, there was a very old overgrown gravestone and it was said that when you “put your ear against it you can hear the cries from hell”. :-s And a little bit further down the trail was a very old well. The legend says that when you don’t see your reflection on the bottom of the well, you will die in three years….. I don’t know but I just had to take a look and man I was happy to see my reflection… (what if the well would’ve been filled with snow?? :0 ) I’m not a superstitious girl but when you walk around in that environment you start to believe in everything.

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In the middle of the graveyard was the holiest of holiest places, the main temple, and photographs were not allowed there.  The story goes that the monk of the temple went inside more than 1200 years ago and is still in meditation, sitting there, inside the inner rooms of the temple. Really beautiful idea isn’t it? That’s why this temple is the starting point for a famous pilgrim-route through Japan, during which you visit 88 temples in the course of a month.

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After a small udon-noodle break we headed to some of the other temple complexes on mount Koya.

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This bridge goes to a little island in the middle of a pond with a small altar on it. the legend goes that a monk met a female dragon here and he built her the altar.

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Waiting for the train home;

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Wow this place has been one of the most impressive places I’ve travelled to in Japan. The beautiful forest with huuuuge trees, the graveyard, the old temples… but for me the legends and stories around this place make this trip even more special. I really want to go back again some day and spend a night in one of the temples!

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