First settled in 816 by the monk Kūkai as a retreat far away from the courtly intrigues of Kyoto, Mt. Koya is located in a 800m-high valley amid the 8 peaks of the mountain. The original monastery has grown into the town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and over 100 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims.
In 2004, UNESCO designated Mt. Koya as part of a wider World Heritage Site
The mountain is accessible primarily by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka, which connects to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain. Koya (こうや) limited expresses take 80 minutes and cost ¥1650, while ordinary expresses are lower priced at ¥870 and take 10-20 minutes longer with a change of trains possible. The final half of the trip is a slow climb up into the mountains and extremely scenic in good weather.
A cable car from Gokurakubashi then whisks visitors to the top in 5 minutes for ¥390. From the cable car station you'll have to take a bus to town (5-15 minutes depending on your destination). Train, cable car and bus schedules are synchronized.
A good value way to reach Koya-san is to purchase the 2-day Koyasan World Heritage Ticket available from the Nankai ticket counter. At a cost of ¥2860, the ticket includes one round trip on the Nankai train and cable car, a two-day Koyasan bus pass, and discounts at certain attractions, shops and restaurants. A version of the ticket that includes the trip TO Mount Koya by limited express costs ¥3400.
From March 1 to November 30 the Koyasan One Day Ticket (高野山 1-day チケット) may be purchased. This is similar to the ticket above but also includes connection to a single private railway via the Osaka Subway. Sample fares include: Hankyu (¥3090), Hanshin (¥2980), Keihan (¥2100), and Kintetsu (¥3070).
It should also be noted that the regional Kansai Thru Pass can be used on regular Nankai Railway trains and the Cable Car all the way up to Mount Koya, and can be used on the Koya-san buses as well.
The closest JR train station is at Hashimoto, which is a transfer station to the Nankai Railway. From here it takes 40 minutes and costs ¥440 to reach the cable car station at Gokurakubashi by local Nankai service. Japan Rail Pass holders can easily access Nankai trains at the Shin-Imamiya (新今宮) station of the JR Osaka Loop Line, from which the fares for trains and the World Heritage Ticket are the same as from Namba. From Kyoto, rail pass holders can take the Kyoto Line Special Rapid train to Osaka station, then change to the Osaka Loop Line to Shin-Imamiya.
If you have your own set of wheels, you can also head east towards Ise or south to Ryujin Onsen and southern Wakayama. Both roads are small and there is no public transportation, but daring souls might try hitching.
Before the train and cable car connection, which was built in the early 20th century, the only way to reach Mt. Koya was via the ancient pilgrim trail called the Chōishi-michi (町石道) which is still maintained and marked with stone pillars every chō (about 108 meters) - these have given the trail its name. It begins in the town of Kudoyama (九度山), which is a stop on the Nankai train line to Mt. Koya, at the (rather interesting in itself) Jison temple (慈尊院). To reach the temple from the station follow the main road downhill and across the bridge keeping an eye out for the green signage on the left. Note that free detailed English and Japanese hiking maps are available from Jison. If you want to do the Japanese thing, you can pick up a souvenir stamp rally card too - note the 7th and final stamp can only be obtained during business hours.
The trail is about 22km long, ascends about 700 meters (most of this in the first and last quarters) and can be walked in about 7 hours plus resting time, offering a very rewarding hiking experience. In reality, you'll likely want to take the side-detour roughly 1/3 of the way up, adding a third world heritage site on to your journey as well as an extra 2-3km depending upon approach. Local signage claims there is guest house accommodation at this point but this is unconfirmed.
Fire is prohibited, but there is nothing stopping you from camping in one of the observation huts along the way. In fact, like many such huts in Japan, locals have stashed a couple of ground mats in the rafters of one roughly 2/3 of the way up, just past the Yatate Jaya Teahouse.
You can also ask the resident monk at Jison if you can camp on the grounds, if you want to get an early start; there is a little graveled area, just beside the toilets, on which he'll probably let you sleep.
You can get from one end to the other of the village on foot in 30 minutes, but regular buses allow you to save time.
Nankai Rinkan Bus operates the buses around Mount Koya. Passes such as the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket and Kansai Thru Pass (see By train) provide unlimited use. Otherwise board buses using the rear door, take a ticket when you board, and pay the fare based on the display at the front of the bus when you exit. A one day bus pass, sold at the Koyasan cable car station, costs ¥830.
The mountain is home to the following famous sites:
- To the east of town is Oku-no-In (奥の院), the mausoleum of Kukai, lit by thousands of lanterns. According to tradition, the lights have been lit since Kukai's death over 1000 years ago.
- The mausoleum is surrounded by an atmospheric and immense graveyard, set among giant cedar trees with winding paths throughput. Particularly interesting are the many fanciful gravestones, including giant spaceships and cups erected respectively by an astronautical and coffee company, and a monument erected by a pesticide company to commemorate all its insect victims.
- The Garan (伽藍) is a temple complex designed by Kukai on the western side of town. In its center is the Konpon Daitō (根本大塔) pagoda, which according to Shingon doctrine represents the central point of a mandala covering not only Mt. Koya but all of Japan.
- Kongōbu-ji Temple (金剛峯寺) is the sprawling yet atmospheric headquarters of the Shingon sect, with a stone garden that outclasses many of Kyoto's best. Entry ¥500, including a rice cracker and a cup of tea.
Most (if not all) sights close at 5 pm, so there's only little to do in the evening unless you are staying in a temple.
Hiking around Mount Koya is a good option. Among many courses, there is one that starts at Daimon (大門、big gate), hiking up to a tiny shrine at the top of Bentengaku (弁天岳), and then down to Nyonindou (女人堂). Not a difficult hike, and should take only a couple of hours, depending on how often you stop on the way to take photos. You can encounter a few species of lizards and snakes along the way, such as jimuguri (ジムグリ, Japanese Forest Ratsnake), the Japanese five-lined skink, and the Japanese grass lizard. From the top you can see all the way south to Wakayama city and the ocean.
All temple lodgings on Mt. Koya offer Shōjin ryōri (精進料理), purely vegetarian food intended for monks. People who equate vegetarian food with blandness will be surprised - in their hundreds of years of experience with vegetarian cooking, the monks have invented amazingly tasty dishes. A local specialty, Kōya-dōfu, is prepared by freeze-drying and then reconstituting tofu.
- Hanabishi (花菱), next to the east Senjuinbashi (千手院橋) bus stop, tel. 0736-56-2236. This classy restaurant has been serving customers for over 120 years and is a good option for sampling Buddhist vegetarian fare if you're not staying overnight. A shōjin ryōri lunch set runs ¥2100, while a full-on multi-course vegetarian kaiseki experience runs ¥5000-10500 (cheaper at lunch). Note that some of the Bento sets are not vegetarian, so stick with shōjin ryōri for the "real thing".
For those unwilling to eat vegetarian, a number of restaurants offer regular Japanese and Chinese cuisine. There are also many reasonably priced izakaya around the center of town that offer a range of many traditional Japanese pub foods.
- Ima-chan. A fresh fish based pub on the left hand side of the road on the way to Nyonindo from town, just past the Mausoleum of the Tokugawas, prices range from ¥300-1500 and much of the menu is based on the time of year. English menu not available.
- Inoue Diagonally across from the CoCo convenience store. Boasts the largest Om-Rice (omelette filled with rice and some meat) in Japan, ¥550. English menu available.
- Miyasan. Centrally located in the middle of Koyasan, just South of the main traffic lights, it has a menu of about 50 items ranging from ¥200-1000. The inn's banner states that its specialty is fried chicken, although all the items are of high quality. The Ramen is particularly filling. English Menu available.
- International Cafe (Bon An Sha). Located on the left hand side of the main road as one walks from the centre of town to Okunoin cemetery, 150m from the main traffic lights, this cafe and art gallery specialises in organic vegetarian lunches (price varies depending on contents of set. ¥800-1200). The menu changes daily, and a number of homemade cakes are available, as well as coffees and teas (¥300). The couple who run the cafe are collectively native speakers of French, English and Japanese and also fluent in Italian and Mandarin Chinese.
The sole youth hostel on Mount Koya closed in 2011.
About half of the over 120 temples in town offer lodging for pilgrims, known as shukubō in Japanese. Prices vary between ¥9,000 and ¥15,000 per night and include two meals. You will be offered the opportunity to join in the morning prayer session, a hypnotic experience involving sutra chanting, incense and gongs. Outside the main season, you can just show up at the Koya cable car station and book from there, but generally reservations are preferred. A full list is available here, but note that not all temples are set up to handle visitors who don't speak Japanese.
- Daienin (大圓院 or 大円院), ☎ +81 736-56-2009. A fairly typical temple, centrally located (walking distance to both ends of town) and run by a friendly bunch of monks who know a little English. Large breakfasts (7:10am) and dinners (5:30pm) are provided by the monks, who retrieve you from your room when the meals are ready. They will also come to get you in the morning for morning worship (5:55am), so be awake and ready! Temple curfew is 10pm by the sliding door although the main gate closes at 6pm. Rate per person per night was ¥9500 in May 2011.
- Koyasan Onsen Fukuchi-in (福智院), 657 Koya San, Koya-cho (1 min on foot from Keisatsusho-mae stop), ☎ +81-736-56-2021. The natural hot springs of Koya-san are available only at this hotel, are open 24 hours a day, and strictly for staying guests. Only vegetarian dishes are served here, and the meals, which feature seasonal ingredients, are painstakingly planned and prepared by the head chef with a different course every month. from ¥22.000.
While the monks don't drink, alcohol may be available to guests at dinner, and perhaps even from a vending machine. Temples have set hours at which the front gate is opened and closed, and the time the bath is available. This curfew can be as early as 9 PM, so don't expect to head out after dinner — although you'll want to go to bed early anyway if you want to attend the morning prayers (which can be as early as 5 AM)!
If choosing to take the hike up from Kudoyama, in addition to the regular hiking precautions, consider that roughly 1 km of the course runs directly beside a golf course. In addition to stray balls (wear a hat), it seems the owner may be fighting an insane one-sided border dispute because, as of June 2010, around where the trail doubles as an access road, somebody has installed a couple of electrified tripwires over the trail, which appear to be hooked up to the golf links. Be aware.
An otherwise complete set of localised advisories can be found on the English or Japanese hiking maps available at the temple at the very start of the course.
Not far outside Koya, approx. 15 min by car, is Otaki, a small town aptly named for the large waterfalls at its entrance. Once past Okunoin, take the Ryujin Skyline towards Shirahama and look for a small sign about 15 min down the road. The entrance should be on the right. Take the small road downward for about 2 minutes and the 2 large waterfalls should be visible from the road. It is an especially nice place to stop and have a picnic before leaving Koya.