Koyasan Choishi-Michi | All You Need To Know AboutJapan’s Famous Pilgrimage Route
Get yourself on this historical (and extremely) spiritual experience in the Kii Mountains of Japan
Japan’s 24km Koyasan Choishi-Michi route will take visitors deep within the Kii mountain range. It comes complete with striking views of the landscape, impressive active temples of the Shingon Esoteric Buddhists, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enrich the mind with some groundbreaking history every step of the way. The Kumano Kodo consists of pilgrimage routes that have been developed over centuries, each with its own purpose and level of trekking difficulty. A visit to the Kii Mountains combines the history, tradition, and culture that makes it an unparalleled outdoor experience. The Kumano Kodo connects important places of worship in Koya, Kumano, and Yoshino, located in the Nara and Wakayama prefectures.
Famously travelled by Kukai (774–835 A.D), a progressive Buddhist and founder of the Japanese Shingon Esoteric Buddhists, the route to Koyasan is as spiritual as it is refreshing. Spend the entire 4-day, 3-night trip engaging with nature, design, and history.
“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enrich the mind”
The route technically takes visitors on an 800m mountain climb, but with the majority of climbing being within the first 5km it shouldn’t test your physicality – the route is meant as a spiritual journey, not a gruelling mission.
Oh, and don’t forget your stamp book! You can pick up one, either at Kudoyama Town Hall (just a six-minute walk from Kudoyama Station) or Jison-in Temple, and collect stamps for each of the temples you come across.
Note: The journey from Kudoyama Station to Jison-in Temple is where visitors need to pay most attention to their maps – from Jison-in Temple onwards, the path is clearly designated by signposts.
The starting point of the famous Choishi-michi route and a spectacle in itself, the Kudoyama Station is a worthy introduction of what’s to come. First opening in 1924, the station is approaching its 100th birthday. Before you set off, be sure to pick up a mapped tour guide of the Choishi Michi route at Kudoyama’s Town Hall to make the most of your time on the trail.
Equipped with striking feminine statues and artwork, the Jison-in Temple welcomes prayers for childbirth, breast cancers, and empowering women. Until the late 1800s, women were forbidden from Koyasan, however, the Jison-in Temple has always welcomed everyone, including women.
Eagle-eyed visitors will spot a statue of a local friendly dog who would help people along the trail to Koyasan, a statue of Kukai himself, and, a 9th Century statue of Buddha which is only revealed to the public once every 21 years, most recently in 2015.
Although not directly on the Choishi-Michi route, the Niutsuhime-jinja Shrine is a Shinto shrine well worth the downhill detour. Now registered as a World Heritage Site, the shrine was founded over 1700 years ago and retains traditional Japanese architecture and design. Despite the detour, it’s an essential stop on the route and it’s customary to go there.
Visitors can find themselves in session here with a spirit-cleansing priest who will pray and communicate wishes to the Kami-Sama.
Found at the 59th Choishi, six Buddhist sculptures called ‘Jizo’ stand to represent each of the six realms of reincarnation whilst also protecting the safety of travellers. Nearby, you’ll find the Kesakake Rocks. The story goes that Kukai, on his journey, once rested here and hung his robe through a V-shaped gap in the rocks. It’s said that those who can make it through this gap themselves will be granted longevity.
The Daimon Gate
You really can’t miss it. A true spectacle at 25 meters tall, the vermillion-lacquered Daimon Gate stands at the entrance of Koyasan. Statues of guardian deities sit on either side of the gate, crafted by the Buddhist sculptors Koi and Uncho. The gate was rebuilt in 1705, and as the Buddhists gained power, was temporarily used as a weapons store to protect against invasions of the sacred land.
Danjo Garan Sacred Temple Complex
The Danjo Garan is one of the most important religious sites in Japan; the secret Buddha of medicine is housed here, and it is said that secret Shingon Buddhism training has been taking place here for hundreds of years. It’s the central temple complex within Koyasan, so expect to be impressed at the display of traditional Japanese architecture and design.
The main building in the complex, and of the entire Koyasan area, is the Kondo Hall. Visitors in the autumn months, especially, will have a number of opportunities to photograph the leaves of the Japanese maple trees that decorate the pathways.
Kongobu-ji Head Temple
The Kongobu-ji Head Temple was originally constructed in 1593, and is the headquarters of Koyasan Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. Visitors can find themselves in awe of one of Japan’s largest rock gardens, where designs of dragons in the clouds will greet those who wish to stop off for a break on the route.
Struggling to think of Valentine’s Day plans? Each February 14th sees monks celebrating the eve of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s passage into nirvana, where udon noodles are served to everyone at midnight.
Before you reach Kukai’s famous mausoleum (and with it the most sacred part of the route), you’ll have to cross Ichinohashi, a bridge that marks the official entrance to the Okuno-in area. Fit for another stop off on the pilgrimage, the views will feel borderline cinematic. A path ahead of the bridge leads straight to the next stop, Okuno-in, where Kukai’s mausoleum can be found.
Before entering the mausoleum, you’ll cross Gobyobashi, another bridge. Keen-eyed visitors might catch a reflection of the underside of the bridge’s tiles in the water, bearing the names of different Buddhas written in Sanskrit.
The sanctuary of Kukai’s mausoleum, and a spectacle in and of itself, Okuno-in is Japan’s largest burial ground. Interestingly, this isn’t actually a cemetery. Although some small remains of the deceased are held here, such as individual bones or locks of hair, these are seen by the Shingon Buddhists as offerings to assist with the ascent into Heaven. It is said that Kukai rests within the mausoleum “in a state of eternal meditation,” which should add to the incredible atmosphere found here. The impressively large trees and historic monuments here help to make this an attraction that can’t be missed.
Yoshinoyama (or Mount Yoshino)
Another world heritage site is Yoshinoyama in Yoshino town, Nara Prefecture, which is renowned for its striking cherry blossoms in the springtime. Its visual and spiritual beauty has defined the mountain as a major religious and literary site and continues to inspire new generations to this day. Yoshinoyama is covered by an estimated 30,000 cherry trees, the first of which were planted more than 1,300 years ago. The cherry trees on Yoshinoyama tend to start blossoming in late March and typically reach full bloom in mid-April.
Shugendo: A Unique Religion of Japan
In the Zao-do Main Hall of Kinpusen-ji Temple, you might get a chance to watch Shugendo monks involved in their zealous, visceral training. Shugendo is a religion unique to Japan, blending aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and mountain worship. Their training involves using fire and chanting, a strong contrast from the calm meditative nature of the Shingon Buddhist monks we encountered earlier.
Chikurin-in Gunpoen is a former Buddhist temple containing a garden that is now known as one of the three famous Yamato gardens. The temple itself is over 1,300 years old, the garden, a mere babe in comparison at around 500 years old.
The temple’s future was forever changed in the Meiji Period, which began in the late 19th century. Shinto was declared Japan’s main religion and important Buddhist statues were taken from the temple to be hidden away in nearby Yoshimizu Shrine. Decades later during World War 2, students fleeing the air raids on nearby Nara and Osaka came to the area looking for places to stay. The temple provided food and lodging for the hundreds of students who came, but in order to do so, they had to officially register themselves as a ryokan (inn) rather than a temple. Chikurin-in Gunpoen never returned to its status as a temple, and over the years since, has hosted many important dignitaries as their guests.
North of Yoshino is Asuka village, historically the home of Japanese Buddhism. When Buddhism came to Japan from overseas, Asuka was the first village in which it took root. The temple, known as Asukadera Temple, is quite understated considering its important position in Japanese religious history, but don’t let its appearance fool you.
According to the Chronicles of Japan, Asukadera Temple was constructed in 596 and at the time, was 20 times larger than it is today. It was the very first of many Buddhist temples built on Japanese soil. The classic architecture of the temple, which seems commonplace in Japanese architecture today, was actually a collection of modern building techniques brought to Japan by Buddhism. This was one of the reasons Buddhism was embraced by the aristocrats of the time.
Asuka village is quite pleasant to explore as a whole, with its quintessential scenes of rural Japanese life against the backdrop of lush forested mountains. Rent an electric bicycle next to Asuka Station and enjoy a leisurely countryside ride through a very peaceful side of Japan.
NIPPONIA Tawaramoto Maruto Shoyu
Tawaramoto Maruto Shoyu was a soy sauce brewery that was in business for 260 years, at least until the end of World War 2. The ravages of the war created severe resource shortages in Japan, including soybeans and wheat, essential ingredients for making soy sauce. Eventually, the brewery was forced to close and its beautiful historic buildings remained dormant for decades.
Recently, the current owner of the property collaborated with NIPPONIA, an organization that has enjoyed great success in the restoration of traditional Japanese buildings for use in the modern age. With their help, several of the brewery’s buildings were restored and converted into a stylish restaurant, cafe, and accommodation facility. The restaurant has resurrected the brewery’s soy sauce recipe and uses it in their flagship lunch, a six-course meal made with local ingredients that highlight the rich flavor of the soy sauce manufactured here.
Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine
If you’ve noticed any small cedar balls hanging in front of the breweries and izakayas (Japanese style pubs), then Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine in Sakurai city, which is the oldest shrine in Japan, should definitely be on your itinerary. Due to a long history with the sake industry, the decorative cedar balls traditionally come from Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine. Every year on 14th November a ritual is held to pray for the safe brewing of new sake, and cedar balls are offered to participating sake breweries all over Japan. Green cedar balls hanging at the doors of sake breweries means that newly brewed sake is available. With time, its colour gradually changes from green to deep brown. This change reflects the maturation of the sake.
Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine worships Mount Miwa and all that it represents. Unlike other shrines, Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine has no main hall, but the mountain itself, Mount Miwa, which lies behind the shrine. Those who would like to visit the mountain will have to register with the shrine, and strictly follow all the shrine’s instructions, due to the mountain’s sacred nature.
The spots mentioned in this article have taken measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
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