Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range

Koyasan TombsVisited: June 15, 2014

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 2004

Background and Opinion:

About two hours south of Osaka lies Mt. Koya, one of the end points in the Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range. For 1200 years, Koyasan has served as a sacred place to Japanese Buddhists.

Japanese paying their respects.
Japanese paying their respects.

One of the most interesting sites is the Okunion, which is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism. The entire hike that leads to his shrine is a graveyard holding some of the most important figures in Japanese history.

Koyasan - Sacred Routes Kii Range

I never thought I would say this, but that is one beautiful cemetery. The whole place definitely sets the mood with its overgrowth, deep moss, and dense forest growing all around. It is something you have to see with your own eyes.

Graveyard in Koyasan

The main area where most people stay the night was far more developed than expected. The whole ‘templestay’ experience has become a major business and while I do not doubt that it is worth 70 bucks a night (minimum, up to 150) per person, I didn’t feel it was necessary to get a feeling of what the place is supposed to represent. I can’t call it overrated since I didn’t actually try it. From how other travelers explained it, it is very similar (or even a watered down version) of what you would experience in a Korean templestay, but for about twice the price. Even though I wanted to try it, I had to pass. I would say a day trip from Osaka was definitely doable and a good option.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Karukaya-do
Karukaya-do

Upon reaching the Karukaya-do Hall, I felt completely underwhelmed. I didn’t really understand what was so special about this shrine given the dozens in the area. Nonetheless, it is one of the sub-inscriptions that gave this site World Heritage status, so I decided to check it out. Inside lay one of the coolest things in the area.

Karukaya 2

Around the entire wall of the shrine is a collection of around two dozen pictures carved completely out of wood. They tell the story of Ishidomaru, a man who became very powerful, but upon seeing his wife attempt to kill his mistress, decided to repent by living his life as a monk. He traveled to Koyasan and lived his life happily until his estranged son came looking for him. He never revealed he was his father, but they still managed to build a father son relationship as monk and apprentice. It was not only touching, but quite amazing that it is true and clearly recorded after all of these years.

Daimon Front Gate Koya
Koyasan Entrance DaimonKoyasan SoldierSoldier at the entrance wards of evil spirits. 

Make Sure To Hike!

To get a real sense of the meaning of this WHS, I was determined to hike, even for a little bit to feel how a monk would on his way up the mountain. This was probably the best part of the whole site. Just outside of ‘Daimon,’ the entrance to the town, is the trail head to a hike very few visitors bother to try. If you follow it all the way, you can actually get to a number of different train stations closer to Osaka, but we just hiked for a little over an hour.

Hiking Koyasan

The trail is famous for being labeled with stone markers that have shown monks the way since ancient times. I managed to get a map of the hikes from one of the information desks in town, but as very few visit, it was in Japanese only (and he had to dig it out of the back). Along the way, we ran into a couple of people, mostly older Japanese guys who seemed to be pros with their own custom walking sticks. The views were simply breath-taking and a total must in Koyasan.

You can see a pillar of light penetrate through the thick forest.
You can see a pillar of light penetrate through the thick forest.

Evaluation:

1) Completeness and Originality (11 out of 15): The entire site is original, but my only complaint is that it has become a bit too busy on the main village. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of places to have for yourself, but it is unfortunate very few people attempt the hikes. The site is, after all, for the “pilgrimage route.”

There was a festival the day we arrived as well.
There was a festival the day we arrived as well.

2) Extensiveness of the Site (8 out of 15): While the main town can be viewed in about 2-3 hours, a hike can take an additional 1-8 hours depending on your route. It is totally worth it as you can see the original stone markers that led people to the foot of the village in Koyasan.

Map of Koyasan

3) Cultural Significance (9 out of 25): For two millennia, this route linked the outer villages with each other as well as the historical capitals of Kyoto and Nara.

Hundreds, if not thousands of statues like this one adorn the graveyard.
Hundreds, if not thousands of statues like this one adorn the graveyard.

4) Personal Impact (7 out of 15): It was good, but a good part of me thought it was still “unknown” and “untouched.” I actually didn’t expect it to be as developed as it was, and feel that all of the brochures show it as lodges and temples tucked away in the mountains. Good to visit nonetheless.

The small pagoda on the west side of the complex.
The small pagoda on the west side of the complex.

5) Logistics (5 out of 10): Generally, it is not too hard to visit using the Nankai Lines. From Namba, Nankai sells a World Heritage package which is definitely worth it as the buses at the top can cost 420 yen from one end to the other. However, 2860 yen for transportation alone (roughly $27 USD) is kind of pricey, even for Japan.

Going down the Koyasan Cablecar is pretty awesome.
Going down the Koyasan Cablecar is pretty awesome.

6) Uniqueness (5 out of 20): With the Silk Road, and the Camino Real in Mexico, ‘routes’ as world heritage sites are becoming kind of commonplace.

Many women wear kimonos to pay their respects. While you see a lot of this in Kyoto, most of those are tourists (you can clearly hear them speaking Chinese and can find rental shops for $20 a day). There are no rental shops here, so you can be sure these are actually worn for actual ceremonial purposes.
Many women wear kimonos to pay their respects. While you see a lot of this in Kyoto, most of those are tourists (you can clearly hear them speaking Chinese and can find rental shops for $20 a day). There are no rental shops here, so you can be sure these are actually worn for actual ceremonial purposes.

Combined Score: 45/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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