2015 No.16


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Strolling JapanStrolling Japan


A pilgrimage to a celestial place
Mount Koya

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Photos: Miyamura Masanori/Aflo

An early morning haze hangs over the Mount Koya highlands, creating a truly sublime scene. The temple complex here is celebrating its 1,200th anniversary in 2015.

Wakayama Prefecture is situated to the south in the middle of Japan’s main island of Honshu, and the Kii Mountains there have been venerated since ancient times. High in the mountain range, the area known as Mount Koya (elevation around 900 meters, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has been regarded as a sacred place in Japanese Buddhism for 1,200 years, ever since the priest Kobo Daishi (Kukai) founded a monastic center for the esoteric Shingon sect there in 816.

The entire area of Mount Koya is considered to be a place of prayer—117 religious buildings are scattered about within its temple complex, the most revered being Kongobu-ji Temple. Among these religious buildings, the spot where Kobo Daishi first established the monastic center is called Danjo Garan, and here you can see pagodas and temple halls whose architectural design reflects esoteric concepts. Walk under Chu-mon Gate and the first remarkable building to strike your eyes is Kondo, the “Golden Hall,” where various religious rituals are held. Beside it rises Konpon Daito, the Great Central Pagoda, 48.5 meters high and the symbol of Mount Koya. Inside on the pillars and walls are illustrations of the Buddha and Bodhisattva saints, three-dimensionally forming a world of mandala imagery that represents the spiritual awakening achieved through the Buddha’s practice. When the pagoda is illuminated at night, the aura it creates against the sky is truly impressive.

In the entire area of Mount Koya, the place considered most sacred within the complex is Okunoin, the location of the mausoleum where the temple founder, Kobo Daishi, is said to be meditating to this day. People think of him as virtually alive, still holding out his hand to help those in need, and they feel that this place offers the most direct opportunities to venerate him. Here, twice a day, food is brought to him in the Shojingu ritual. The pilgrims’ path to Okunoin is surrounded with cedar trees that are several hundred years old, creating a mystical atmosphere.

In the foreground stands the main gate of the head temple, Kongobu-ji. The main hall seen beyond the gate has beautiful illustrations on sliding fusuma doors (fusuma-e) and a most impressive garden.

Statue of Seitaka Doji, one of the eight Hachidai Doji attendants of Myo’o, a demi-deity venerated in esoteric Buddhism. Property of Kongobu-ji Temple.

Konpon Daito (Great Central Pagoda) is the main building in the Danjo Garan Temple Complex.

Inside the pagoda are five statues of the Buddha and 16 pillars adorned with depictions of the world of satori, the spiritual awakening of Buddhism. (Photo: Terui Sohei)

Monks carry plain wooden boxes containing a traditional shojin ryori vegetarian meal, on their way to the Torodo. The ritual, called Shojingu, has continued without a break for 1,200 years. It is performed twice every morning, at 6:00 and 10:30.

One of the simple pleasures of a pilgrimage to temples or shrines is the shuin-cho notebook. Religious institutions will stamp pages for you to show you were there. The cover is made of beautiful Japanese washi paper. The stamp of a temple in your shuin-cho makes a good souvenir to remember your visit by.