The most awe-inspiring and magnificent of Koyasan's many structures and temples, Okunoin contains the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The most dramatic way to approach Okunoin is from the Okunoin-guchi bus stop, where a pathway leads 1.5km (1 mile) to the mausoleum. Swathed in a respectful darkness of huge cypress trees forming a canopy overhead are monument after monument, tomb after tomb -- approximately 200,000 of them, all belonging to faithful followers from past centuries. The audio guide from the tourist office will guide you to the most famous tombstones, including those of the Toyotomi, Shimadzu, Maeda, Asano, and Matsudaira clans.
I don't know whether being here will affect you the same way, but I am always awe-struck by the sheer density of tombstones, the iridescent green moss, the shafts of light streaking through the treetops, the stone lanterns, and the gnarled bark of the old cypress trees. Together, they present a dramatic picture representing more than a thousand years of Japanese Buddhist history. If you're lucky, you won't meet many people along this pathway. Tour buses fortunately park at a newer entrance to the mausoleum at the bus stop called Okunoin-mae. I absolutely forbid you to take this newer and shorter route; its crowds lessen the impact of this place considerably. Rather, make sure you take the path farthest to the left, which begins near the Okunoin-guchi/Ichinohashi stops. Much less traveled, it's also much more impressive and is one of the main reasons for coming to Koyasan in the first place. And be sure to return to the mausoleum at night; the stone lanterns (now lit electrically) create a mysterious and powerful effect.
At the end of the pathway, about a 30-minute walk away, is the Lantern Hall, or Torodo, which houses about 21,000 lanterns, donated by prime ministers, emperors, and others. Two sacred fires, which reportedly have been burning since the 11th century, are kept safely inside. The mausoleum itself is behind the Lantern Hall. Buy a white candle, light it, and wish for anything you want. Then sit back and watch respectfully as Buddhists come to chant and pay respects to one of Japan's greatest Buddhist leaders. Many who have successfully completed the pilgrimage to Shikoku Island's 88 Buddhist temples, often dressed in white and carrying a staff, conclude their journey here.
More to See & Do -- Kongobuji Temple, located near the main Koyasan Tourist Association office in the center of town (tel. 0736/56-2011), is the central monastery headquarters of the Shingon sect in Japan. Although Kongobuji was originally built in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commemorate his mother's death, the present building is 150 years old, reconstructed following a fire. Pictures by famous artists from long ago decorate the rooms, including those depicting Kobo Daishi's trip to China, and the huge kitchen, big enough to feed multitudes of monks, is also on view. The most important thing to see, however, is the temple's magnificent rock garden, reputedly the largest in Japan and said to represent a pair of dragons in a sea of clouds. If it's raining, consider yourself lucky -- the wetness adds sheen and color to the rocks. Admission is ¥500 for adults, ¥200 for children.
Another important site is the Garan (tel. 0736/56-3215), the first buildings constructed on Koyasan and still considered the center of religious life in the community. It's an impressive sight with a huge kondo (main hall), first built in 819 by Kobo Daishi; a large vermilion-colored daito (pagoda), which many consider to be Koyasan's most magnificent structure and which is very much worth entering (¥200 each for the kondo and daito); and the oldest building on Mount Koya, the Fudodo, which was built in 1197. Next to the complex is the Reihokan Museum (tel. 0736/56-2254), displaying wooden Buddha sculptures, scrolls, art, and other Koyasan treasures spread through two buildings, with exhibitions changed four times a year. Admission here is ¥600 for adults, ¥350 for students, and ¥250 for children.
All of the sites above are open daily: 8:30am to 4:30pm November to April, and 8:30am to 5 or 5:30pm May to October.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.