Located in the mist shrouded mountains of the Wakayama Prefecture, Mount Koya (Koyasan) is one of the country's holiest mountains and the center of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Shingon Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, otherwise known as Kukai. Long off limits to women, Koyasan and its 100 Shingon monasteries are now open to the public at large, and offer a quiet retreat for tourists seeking a bit of meditation during their journey through Japan.
On the way to the top of Koyasan, travelers journey through a cedar valley surrounded by eight mountain peaks. Once on top of the mountain, the highlight is spending a night at a temple. One of the most authentic Japan attractions, tourists can chose from about fifty temples in the area that function as shukubo (converted guesthouses) for overnight stays. A night's accommodation includes vegetarian cuisine known as shojin ryori, prepared by the resident monks. Guests also have the unique opportunity to participate in the 30-45 minute morning prayer session that starts around 6 am. Among all the Japan attractions it is possible to visit and experience during your trip, a night at a shukubo is both an authentic experience and relatively cheap at approximately 9,500 Yen per person per night including dinner and breakfast.
In contrast to much of the neon glitz and manufactured amusement that characterize modern Japan, Mount Koya provides a place for personal meditation, and a chance to interact with local Japanese villagers, and the Buddhist monks themselves. The ideal time to spend on Mount Koya would be two nights. During the day you can saunter quietly through graveyards filled with historical figures and visit the many temples. It would be a good idea to plan a day trip with a guide who is fluent in Japanese and familiar with Shingon Buddhism.
The highlight of your stay on Mount Koya, is visiting the temples and monasteries. Of these, the Garan Temple is one of the most sacred. The temple complex was designed by Kukai himself on the western side of the town. In the center of the Garan Temple is the particularly beautiful Konpon Daito pagoda, which represents the central point of not only Mt. Koya, but all of Japan.
In addition to the Garan Temple, Koyasan is home to the huge Kongobu-ji Temple. The headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, the Kongobu-ji Temple is the administrative center for over 4,000 Shingon temples in Japan. The largest rock garden in Japan is located here. Among the best of Japan attractions for garden and architecture lovers, the Kongobu-ji Temple rock garden has 140 pieces of granite arranged to resemble a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds in order to protect the temple.
Finally, if you are planning to visit Mount Koya during your stay in Japan, one of the best options to explore is a guided tour. Many tourist outfits offer 10-day tours of Western Japan which include a visit to Mount Koya. If you want to go it alone, however, Koyasan is only a 90-minute express train ride from Osaka.