Okunoin Temple in Mount Koya is very popular and is visited by many tourists from overseas, so I would now like to introduce 5 things you should know about it before visiting.
(The following article contains information on rituals and practices that include components based on Japan’s traditional religions (such as Buddhism and Shinto). This content is presented solely for informational purposes; these practices are not enforced in these facilities in any way.)
1.Jison-in Temple in Mount Koya ~ Women’s Koya
In the past, Jison-in Temple in Mount Koya used to be called Women’s Koya. Women were not allowed to enter the forest, so this was the place where they could worship. The Buddhist monk Kobo-Daishi Kukai, who started the temple in Mt. Koya, was said to take the trip down the mountain 9 times every month to visit his mother. This is how the town of Kudoyama (“Nine Times Mountain”) got its name. Kudoyama was also the place where Sanada Yukimura’s parents were kept confined after the battle of Sekigahara. Here you can also find the the water well where Sanada Yukimura was said to have enclosed a lightning bolt, and the ancient stone hut which supposedly served as a secret passage to Osaka Castle.
2.The seven wonders of Mt. Koya
It is told that there are seven wonders in Mount Koya. Let’s go on a walk together, and I’ll tell you about them as we encounter them. It’s a beautiful walking trail, too.
1) There are no Habu snakes in this mountain. Originally, it was full of venomous snakes, but it is said that Kobo-Daishi Kukai banished them forever.
2) There are no rice mortars. This might seem like a vulgar story, but since women were forbidden entrance, it is said that there were many pestles but no rice (both elements being euphemisms for the male and female sexes in Japanese culture).
3) There is a water well which acts as full-length mirror. If you peek into this water well near the bridge on the road to Okunoin, and you don’t see yourself reflected, it is said to mean that you will die in the next three years.
4) Heavy rains in Mount Koya carry a certain meaning. In this mountain it is forbidden to consume fish or meat, so it is said that the constant heavy rains fall down in order to wash the impurity left by meat-eaters who enter the mountain.
5) The fish in Tamagawa river are speckled. According to legend, this is because there once was a man who wanted to fry a fish he had caught in Tamagawa river and had pierced it with a skewer, but Kobo-Daishi Kukai bought the fish from him and released it back into the river. That fish which had been skewered started swimming again, and as a result the man stopped killing animals. It is said that the speckles on the fish in Tamagawa are the scars from where the skewer was pierced.
6) There is a history behind the bamboo grove. On his journey back from the capital, Kobo-Daishi Kukai grabbed the bamboo stick he was using as a walking cane and stuck it into the ground. It is said that this spot later became the bamboo grove.
7) There’s a hill called Satori-han Zaka. This hill has a staircase with 43 steps, but step nº 42 is missing, since it signifies “death” in Japanese culture. It is said that if you trip over while climbing this staircase, you will die in the next three years.
So, what do you think? Some of them are a little frightening, but it’s good to know of these seven wonders beforehand, so that you can enjoy their curious significance as you walk by them.
3.The gravesite area of Okunoin
You can broadly divide Okunoin into 2 main areas. The first area is the gravesite, which extends from Ichinohashi bridge all the way to the bridge connecting to Kobo-Daishi’s mausoleum. It comprises almost 2 kilometers of shrine road flanked on either side by more than 200,000 tombstones where a great number of daimyo from the Warring States period are buried. Many famous historical figures such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Takeda Shingen, Ishida Mitsunari and Akechi Mitsuhide have their tombs here, making this a splendorous sight. Probably the most important one is the tombstone of Tokugawa Ieyasu, placed in a separate area of Mount Koya called the Tokugawa Shrine. Please keep in mind that visitors to this tomb must pay an entrance fee. This area is also where Mount Koya’s candle festival is held every year on the 13th of August. On that date, this stretch of the road is illuminated by more than 100,000 candles, making it an even more wondrous sight.
4.The first section of the sacred area ~ Crossing the mausoleum bridge
This 4th point is about the first section of the sacred area. Once you’ve passed the tombstone area and crossed the mausoleum bridge, you will enter the sacred area where it is strictly forbidden to take photographs, eat food, drink or smoke. Up ahead awaits a world very different from the one we’re accustomed to living in, so remember that you’re entering a holy and solemn place where one must tread lightly and adopt a certain humility.
One place you should definitely visit is the hanging lantern hall. On the front of this hall are lanterns which haven’t stopped burning in more than a thousand years. These are said to hold a fire which can’t be extinguished. There are 2 types of unextinguishable flames, the 1st are the lanterns offered by the priests, and the 2nd are those offered by the past Emperors.
5.The last section of the sacred area ~ Kobo-Daishi’s mausoleum
This 5th point is about the last section of the sacred area. Kobo-Daishi’s mausoleum is in the center of this area. It is said that any wishes made in this place will definitely be granted, and many believers come to visit it every year. Kobo-Daishi’s mausoleum is surrounded by millennial cedar trees, and this gives it a truly mystical feel; an atmosphere which is unique to this place. This location enshrines the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, which even today is said to continue to live on in the world of enlightened beings. This is why every morning breakfast is still sent to his shrine. There is a specific time when the monks chant sutras in this place, so I highly recommend adjusting your scheduled visit to coincide with that moment.
6.Some additional information
Mount Koya is home not only to one single temple, but to many wonder-working religious locations, which are constantly receiving visitors, spread all over the enormous mountain terrain. That is why it is fundamental to wear clothes which make it comfortable to walk, since one must travel from one spot to the other in order to visit and / or pray at every location. Furthermore, there are many times when it is necessary to hike up the mountain itself, so please make sure to wear the appropriate attire.
First, once you arrive at Mount Koya the bus will stop at either the entrance to Okunoin station or at Ichinohashi station. It is a 20 minute walk from those stations until you reach Okunoin itself. Also, you will have to walk on stone paths or even gravel paths, so be sure to wear sneakers. You should also carry a jumper or some warm garment to wear, just in case. Mount Koya is very high above sea level, and you will walk through many paths which are covered in trees, so even if you’re traveling in the summer I recommend carrying a warm piece of clothing to help you adjust to the changes in temperature.
For those of you who aren’t able to walk, there is also the possibility of renting wheelchairs.
The souvenir shop located near the entrance to the path also supplies wheelchairs, so if you’re not sure if you will be able to make it by foot, please don’t worry because you can definitely reach the temple! There are also some paths with slopes and facilities for people who use wheelchairs. These are marked on the maps found along the path, so be sure to follow these on your way up to the shrine. Mount Koya is slowly becoming a barrier-free location, and there are also toilets for people who use wheelchairs and many sections with hand-rails. So please don’t over-exert yourselves, be sure to ask the people around you for details on all these services.
This post is also available in: Japanese