Everyone has a bucket list of adventures. Mine has two categories: a bucket list for places to see while I’m still in Japan, and one for places I want to see before I actually kick it. In the former, I’ve had one thing at the top of my list for the past two or so years: a trip to Mt. Koya.
Koya is in Wakayama prefecture, and about a 3 hour train ride (if the transfers all line up correctly). It’s a sacred mountain with huge cemeteries, museums, mausoleums, woods, hiking trails, and more. If you want to get your dose of culture in while also enjoying some beautiful nature, this is one way to do it.
Many people do an overnight on Mt. Koya at a temple; there, you can try some shojin ryouri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) and take part in temple activities like meditation or prayer in the early hours. And while that is something I would still like to do some day, this Golden Week I and some friends attempted a challenge: going and sightseeing on the mountain within one day.
Can it be done?
Let’s go through the steps.
First, we opted to take the Hankyu Limited Express train to Awaji station, followed by a transfer to the Sakaisuji Line to Tengachaya. At this stage, we switched to the Nankai Line, where we had a brief stop at the train station office to buy something called the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. There are two prices for this ticket, but both amount to basically the same idea: it covers the rest of your travel from the Nankai station (Namba or Tengachaya) to the Mt. Koya cable car station at the top of the mountain, acts as a two-day bus pass for while you’re on the mountain, AND discounts for entry to several different places. The ticket costs 2860 yen, unless you opt for the rapid express trains included. Then it can be closer to 4000 yen, so be careful which you choose! We went for the cheaper option because we didn’t see a massive difference in speed getting there/back.
We departed Kyoto City around 8am and got to the cable car station at 11:40 a.m. A late start to our day, mainly due to one thing: waiting in line for that World Heritage Ticket. We’d failed to take into account that there would be loads of other people waiting in line at that ticket office, namely people heading to Kansai International Airport, so we lost a good half hour or so at Tengachaya Station. Ouch.
Still, we made it, and the weather was significantly cooler up there! And it was a relief to be off the train. One word of warning: the final train to the bottom cable car station is creaky and screechy as all get-out. Bring earplugs or loud music to listen to, or you’re going to be wincing every time the train makes a turn on the tracks.
Once on the mountain, there was the question of what to do.
We opted to hop on the buses immediately and head for the furthest part of Mt. Koya, Okunoin. This where you can find the mausoleum of none other than Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. When you get off at the correct bus stop, you may at first feel a bit of bemusement at all of the buses, vending machines, and parking lots you’ll see. After all, isn’t this meant to be a sacred mountaintop?
But once you go into Okunoin itself, a lot of that drops away… especially if you delve deeper into the woods, beyond the main stone path. There are countless graves along the way, some better taken care of than others, and you are free to wander around and admire any and all of them, provided you show the proper respect. Oh, and uh, apparently you’re not meant to take pictures in there. Which we didn’t realize until we were pretty far in so, oops.
Further along the path, you’ll find the Hall of Lanterns, as well as Gobyo, Kukai’s resting place. You can enter both places, and they of course offer the usual temple goods for sale, including o-mamori charms （お守り）. One interesting thing: you can buy the o-mamori pouches, sans blessings, for 200 yen. When I asked the shop clerk why, she said some tourists like to use the pouches as a place to keep jewelry or other small items. So if you see some cheap goods available, that may be why.
When we finished exploring, it was already 2 or so in the afternoon, and we wanted to get a hike in before it got too late. Bugging the nearby tourist office for advice, we were told of a hiking trail beyond the parking lot (which was across the street) that would provide an hour or two of entertainment. The tourist guide was concerned, however, stressing to us that it was a “mountain hike”, and not a walk. We thanked him and gallivanted off past the parking lot to find the trailhead.
We ended up taking the Women Pilgrim’s Course, which at a slow pace took us around 2 hours to complete. Upon starting, we immediately understood why the tourist office worker had warned us about it being a mountain hike- there was a lot of steep “up” to go through for the first several minutes! It was doable without any special equipment, but if you’re not accustomed to hikes you will feel it afterward.
Still, it was a beautiful hike/walk with some lovely views of the mountains around us, and by the end it was around 4pm and we were starting to feel our long day.
“Let’s hit up one or two more things, then call it a day,” one of us suggested, and so we split up for the last hour or two in order to check out some nearby museums and temples. I opted to go for Garan, where you can find Kondo Hall and Konpon Daito Pagoda. It was a more relaxed way to end the day, and there was a souvenir shop and bus stop not far away that got us straight back to the cable car station in a reasonable length of time.
All told, we got back to Kyoto City just shy of 9pm.
Am I satisfied with what we got done? For the most part, yes. Considering I was shepherding a group of 8 people around, we were able to manage what we wanted to see and do quite well. We saw three big things while up there (Okunoin, Garan, and did a hike), which is not bad for only one day.
That said, I wish we’d left earlier and gotten our hands on the tickets we wanted faster. If I were to do it again, I would leave Kyoto from 6am or so. Or, best case scenario, I would spend a night there.
Still, this comes down to the original question: Can Mt. Koya be done in a day?
Yes, it can, and for not very much money! We spent something like 4,000 yen max for transportation for the day, 1,000 yen or so for souvenirs, another 1,000 yen or so for drinks/food while up on the mountain. 6,000 yen for a day trip, especially of this magnitude, is extremely reasonable.
Would I recommend it? Sure, but you gotta have things planned in advance, and know where you’re going. This is not a day trip where you can go and just meander around; you need to prioritize what you want to do, and keep an eye on opening/closing times for things, especially if you want to see a museum.
Have you been to Mt. Koya? Did you do an overnight? Or, alternatively, did you attempt a day trip like us? How did it go, either way?