Takamasa Tsuchiya is a happy man. This father of two, a shiatsu therapist, accomplished musician and an ordained Buddhist monk calls the quaint mountain town of Koyasan his home since 2009. Nestled at an altitude of 900 m deep in the mountains south of Osaka, Mount Koya is a temple town funded in the year 826 by the monk Kukai, a major figure in Japanese history. Koyasan is getting increasingly popular with foreign tourists but still retains its laid-back charm and countless hidden angles to explore. The surrounding mountains are home to deer, bears and monkeys and hiking trails lead up to Koyasan (Choichi michi) or around the settlement (Nyonin michi).
The latter was once established for female pilgrims as back in time they weren’t allowed to access the temple town itself. Most visitors stay overnight in one of the 51 temples out of 117 that offer shukubo, which is accommodation and meals for pilgrims. This experience comprises sleeping in a futon on a tatami mat the Japanese way and enjoying shojin ryori, the vegan Buddhist cuisine. Optionally, guests can participate in the morning services at the temple, including in some cases a goma fire ritual, a distinctive feature of the esoteric Shingon Buddhism practiced on Koyasan.
The income deriving from these services contribute to the financial wellbeing of the temples. The experience is surely to be recommended especially for first-time visitors of Japan (I recall it as one of the highlights of my first travel to the country), however it lacks a deeper spiritual meaning, being merely a commercial activity. Noticing that, and being willing to help foreign guests developing a deeper understanding of Japanese Buddhism and spiritual practice, Takamasa decided to launch his “Koyasan Wellbeing Foundation”.
Through this interface, he offers various workshops, for example learning to chant the heart sutra and selected mantras, another crucial aspect of Shingon Buddhism. In an age when mindfulness is becoming an ever-increasing topic and concern, going back to very roots of the mindfulness theory as popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn can be a rewarding and in some cases even life-changing activity.
Koyasan is sometimes called the holy mountain of Buddhism in Japan. The founder, monk Kukai, is believed to sit in eternal meditation inside his mausoleum at the very end of the pathway leading through the suggestive and powerful Okuno-in cemetery. The cemetery is nestled in an old virgin forest with centuries old cedar trees. A paved pedestrian road 2 km long leads along more than 200.000 tombstones towards Kukai’s grave. The sights are otherworldly, especially at dawn, when the road is only slightly illuminated. Not to be missed is also the impressive Kongobu-ji temple complex, the headquarters of the Shingon sect and the huge Daimon gate at the former entrance of the temple town. These various sites and the surrounding pilgrimage routes were included in 2004 in the Unesco World Heritage list.
Whether you enjoy hiking in a mountainous forest, discovering traditional vegan food, or are in search of a spiritual experience, Koyasan has you covered. Be sure to contact Takamasa at the Koyasan Wellbeing Foundation, who will be more than happy to give you his best advice for lodging and activities.