Monk in yellow clothes walking along pathway in Koya

Mount Koya

Come to Koya for age-old mountain temples in mist-wreathed forest; stay to feel close to something deep and old and mysterious.

A mountaintop temple town founded by the monk Kobo Daishi in 826 AD, Mount Koya is the center of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Legend has it that Kobo Daishi wandered for years before selecting this spot, and it’s not hard to see why. Here, it feels as though the boundary between the mortal and the numinous has somehow worn thin. Even if you’re not remotely spiritual, we defy you not to feel something. It’s in the air.

It’s this ineffable atmosphere that makes Koya more than just another temple town. Don’t do it as a day trip. It deserves to be taken slowly. Spend a night (preferably two) at a shukubo temple lodging and get up at the crack of dawn to attend morning prayers with the monks. Then, while the lanterns are lit and the morning mist still hangs in the air, spend some time wandering between the stupas and statues of Okunoin Cemetery. It’s impossible to describe the atmosphere of this place – how the massive trees seem to swallow all sound, and how the grave markers seem to go on forever into the darkness of the forest. It’s otherworldly and magical in a way that’s unlike anywhere else in Japan.

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