Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Danjō Garan – The Most Sacred Training Ground in Kōyasan

In 816, Emperor Saga (嵯峨天皇) bestowed the land of Kōyasan to the revered monk, Kūkai (空海), also known as Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師), for the constructions of Shingon Buddhism’s (真言宗) monastery. He devoted all his energy to building the towers and halls on the high ground to express the world depicted in the Womb Realm Mandala (胎蔵曼荼羅). The high ground is now known as Danjō Garan (壇上伽藍), which formed the basis of the esoteric Buddhist studies in Japan. 

This World Heritage site’s status in Kōyasan is as important as the Okunoin (奥之院), where Kōbō Daishi fell into a deep meditation. To explore this sacred place, it is best to visit each of the 19 attractions in a clockwise direction from Kondō after passing the Chūmon gate. If it is confusing, simply follow the sequence down below.

The List of Places to Visit in Danjō Garan

For the 19 attractions above, we will further elaborate on what the official website discussed. For anything we have omitted, please refer to the official website HERE.

☛ The fall foliage season is from early to mid-November for you to enjoy both the amazing historical properties and the vivid autumn color all in one go!
☛ Also, if you plan to stay overnight at Kōyasan from late October to mid-November, don’t forget to take an easy stroll to Danjō Garan for the nighttime light-up from sunset to dawn!

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

How to Get to Danjō Garan

  • From Koyasan Station, take bus services bound for Daimonminami Chūshajō (大門南駐車場) and get off at Kondo-mae (金堂前)
    • From the bus stop, it is a 1-minute walk.
  • You can also take buses that will stop at Senjuin-bashi (千手院橋), which is a 10-minute walk to Danjō Garan. This is so you can board most services departing from Koyasan Station.

Chūmon Gate (中門)

If there are two gates in the precinct of a temple, the second gate, which is closer to the center of the halls, is called Chūmon. It is like the second defence against evil spirits, protecting Buddha’s teaching and the temple’s sacredness from the world of temptation.

In 819, when Kōyasan was first erected, it was a torii gate that preceded the Chūmon Gate. In 847, a simple but elegant Chūmon replaced the torii gate. Since then, several renovations to the gate were done until it was destroyed in a fire hazard in 1774.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

In recent centuries, the Chūmon was actually missing in Kōyasan for a long time since it was burnt down in 1843. The third restoration was only completed in 2015 as part of the celebration of the 1,200th anniversary of Kōyasan’s founding.

Thanks to modern technology, the current gate is almost identical to the one from the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333). Together with the gate reconstruction, the four gods placed on two sides of the gate were also re-carved.

To highlight the gate’s value, the Chūmon we see now was built with cypress and cedar from Kōyasan, which are not typically used for logging anymore (due to the previous over-logging). The number of cypress trees used is as many as 1,500. If you examine the top of the gate closely, you might be able to discern that while it has as many as 18 pillars, no nails were used!

Surprisingly, tools like thickness planners used in the Kamakura period were used again during the reconstruction!

Kōyasan Digital Museum (高野山デジタルミュージアム)

© Kongobuji

Before you proceed further to explore Kongōbuji (金剛峯寺), we suggest you stop by Kōyasan Digital Museum first.

The museum, which was only opened in August 2022, is the best place to gain a good understanding of the history and architecture in the precinct. The information in the museum, especially the film in the VR Theater, will make your visit a lot more meaningful and enjoyable.

You can also rest at the museum’s cafe for a cup of coffee or even enjoy a plate light meal for lunch. There is a small souvenir corner too!

Refer to Kōyasan Digital Museum’s official website HERE for more information.

Kōyasan Digital Museum’s Opening Hours and Access Information

  • Kōyasan Digital Museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
  • The VR Theater is closed on
    • the last Monday of each month from March to December
    • Tuesdays and Wednesdays in January and February
  • The admission fee to the VR Theater is
    • 1,000 yen for adults
    • 500 yen for junior high school students and younger

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Kondō (金堂)

© Kongobuji

Passing the Chūmon (中門), you will encounter a big hall – Kondō. Completed in the early Heian period (794 – 1185) in Danjō Garan, it is the first hall dedicated to Buddhism. The hall was built as a place for all the monks in Kōyasan to gather, just like a town hall.

At the time, it was a venue for speeches and announcements. It was thus called Kōdō (講堂), which literally means auditorium.

The planning of the symbol of Kōyasan, Konpon Daitō is known to take place at Kondō as well.

According to historical documents, the Kondō back in the Edo period was a bigger scale building, two stories to be exact. The current Kondō is the 8th restoration completed in 1934. Designed by Takeda Goichi (武田 五一), the father of modern architecture in western Japan, the new hall was constructed with concrete to make it more fire and earthquake resistant.

The Buddha Statues at Kondō

Sadly, the seven hidden Buddha statues were all burnt to ashes in 1926. Fortunately, there was a photo of six of the seven statues. This made the restoration process a lot easier. However, there was no photo of the main Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), the medical Buddha. Because the statues aren’t normally exhibited to the public, only a few people have seen them.

Mysteriously, when those who had seen the Yakushi Nyorai were asked about the details of the statue, no one could recall what the Buddha looked like. The only fact that was confirmed is it was a sitting Buddha statue.

Given the Yakushi Nyorai didn’t have its original appearance restored, and no one can remember what he looked like, the current Yakushi Nyorai carved by Takamura Koun (高村 光雲) most likely doesn’t resemble the original Yakushi Nyorai.

If you ever doubt whether the size of the 6 Buddhas is similar to those old photos, it is almost guaranteed they are the same. The statues were made based on the measurements in Kōyasan’s documentation from 1888 (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Also, just want to note that it is also believed that the main Buddha at Kondō is Akshobhya (阿閦如来) back then. So now, both Yakushi Nyorai and Akshobhya are named as the main Buddha.

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Miyashiro (御社)

Before the arrival of Kōbō Daishi, the mountains of Kōyasan used to be called Mt. Miyashiro (御社山). Leaving Kyoto on a trip to find the most sacred land in Japan to build the training ground for Shingon Buddhism, he encountered a hunter with two dogs, one black and one white. Following the dogs, Kōbō Daishi was eventually led to Kōyasan, where he found the vajra trident (Sankosho, 三鈷杵) that he threw toward Japan before he returned to Japan from China.

Kōbō Daishi prayed for suitable places to spread Buddhism continuously during his trip across the country. His prayers were finally answered by the province’s Kariba Myōjin (狩場明神), who transformed into a hunter and appeared in front of Kōbō Daishi with his two dogs to guide him to Kōyasan. The encounter was later reported to the Japanese Emperor at the time, Emperor Saga. Deeply impressed by the incident, the emperor granted Kōyasan to Kōbō Daishi for him to construct Buddhist halls there.

The province’s god, giving up a part of his land, then became the guardian deity of Kōyasan, looking after individuals who travel to the sacred site to devote themselves to Buddhism. This is why the first building that Kōbō Daishi built before any Buddhist training sites is Miyashiro, which enshrines Niu Myōjin, and hundreds of local gods.

Miyashiro’s worship halls were rebuilt in 1594 after a fire hazard in 1521. Since then, maintenance of the thatched roofs has taken place once every 20 years.

© Kongobuji

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Saitō (西塔)

Built by Kōbō Daishi’s successor Shinzen Daitoku (真然大徳), in 886, Saitō goes hand in hand with Konpon Daitō. Contrasting the Daitō, inside Saitō is a Diamond Realm that contains images of the four Buddhas of the Womb Realm.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

With his disciple, donations around Japan were gathered. During their travels, Kishin Shōnin met a monk called Ninkai (仁海), who is said to be able to call for rain after his special ritual. Invited by Ninkai, Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長), the chief adviser to the emperor, visited Kōyasan in 1023.

  • 2021: from the 2nd to the 9th of June
  • 2017: the 24th of August and the 3rd of September

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Sakasashi no Fuji (逆指しの藤)

The legend of this wisteria is that it sprouted when it was planted upside down in the early 11th century. The revered monk, Kishin Shōnin (祈親上人) from Kōfukuji Temple (興福寺) in Nara traveled all the way to Kōyasan because of a revelatory dream that he had. In the dream, he saw himself arrive at Kōyasan in 1016.

To his surprise, when he got to Kōyasan, the temples in the mountain were mostly obsolete due to conflicts between Kōyasan and Kyōōgokokuji Temple (教王護国寺) in Kyoto, which was the head temple of Kōyasan, and the fire hazard caused by thunder in 994. Seeing Kōyasan in a deserted state, Kishin Shōnin vowed to revitalize Kōyasan, and planted the wisteria upside down as a gesture of his determination. To people’s surprise, the wisteria sprouted, and the situation started to change from that point!

With his disciple, donations around Japan were gathered. During their travels, Kishin Shōnin met a monk called Ninkai (仁海), who is said to be able to call for rain after his special ritual. Invited by Ninkai, Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長), the chief adviser to the emperor, visited Kōyasan in 1023.

With full-scale support from Fujiwara, the temples in Kōyasan were able to be restored to their former glory. Additionally, the construction of Gobyobashi Bridge (御廟橋) and Tōrōdō (燈籠堂) in Okunoin was completed.

For more information about Okunoin, the center of worship of Kōyasan, please read our article on Okunoin!

The Current Sakasashi no Fuji

© Kongobuji

Unfortunately, the Sakasashi no Fuji planted by Kishin Shōnin in the Heian period died during the fire hazard in 1521. The current wisteria-bearing white flowers were planted recently.

If you would love to see it blossom, visit Kōyasan around mid-May!

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Sanko no Matsu (三鈷の松)

Between Kondō and Miedō is a pine tree protected by a fence. It is said that it is the pine tree where the vajra trident (Sankosho, 三鈷杵) landed when it was thrown from China towards Japan by Kōbō Daishi after he finished his study of Buddhism. The fact that the vajra trident landed in Kōyasan was a clear indication to him that the Kōya area was the ideal site to promote Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Differing from a normal pine tree with two-pronged leaves, this pine tree is said to have had three-pronged leaves grown all over it at the time. Nowadays, as not all leaves are three-pronged, you will see pilgrims spending time around the tree trying to find a fallen three-pronged leaf to bring home as a lucky charm.

Tip: If you can’t find one, check with the staff at Okunoin to see if they are still handing out three-pronged leaves there (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Konpon Daitō (根本大塔)

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

The 48.5-meter tall pagoda is practically the symbol of Kōyasan. It was constructed by both Kōbō Daishi, and his successor Shinzen Daitoku (真然大徳), from 816 to 887.

The pagoda was built as a physical representation of the teachings of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism (真言密教), comprising a three-dimensional mandala world inside the tower.

As the central place for Buddhism training, the pagoda is called Konpon (根本), which means fundamental and essential. Inside the tower, you will meet the golden Vairocana in the Womb Realm, surrounded by another four Buddhist statues from the Diamond Realm.

Each of the 16 pillars inside the pagoda was then painted with images of sixteen bodhisattvas. To complete the mandala, images of the eight patriarchs who spread the teachings of esoteric Buddhism are drawn on the walls in the four corners.

Coming out of the world of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, pay attention to the Konpon Daitō as architecture. The style of having the first story as a plain square with the second floor built in a round shape is believed to be a first in Japan. It has since been the prototype of the many pagodas in the country.

Sadly, the Konpon Daitō, built in the 9th century, doesn’t exist anymore. Built with wood, the pagoda repeatedly suffered from fire hazards. In 1934, it was finally decided that the pagoda must be rebuilt with concrete after it was destroyed again in 1843. So the current pagoda completed in 1973 is the sixth rebuild since it was first constructed.

The Powder at the Entrance of Konpon Daitō and Kondō

At the entrance of Konpon Daitō and Kondō, you might notice a container with some powder inside. The powder, called Makafushiginakona (摩訶不思議な粉), is actually just made from fragrant wood.

The powder achieves the same purpose as perfumes. On top of that, in temples, it has the role of purifying the mind and body, removing and repelling evil spirits.

Furthermore, for monks, covering their body odor is their way of showing their respect to Buddha. This is especially the case for those who weren’t able to shower daily.

Here are the steps on how to apply the powder, also called Zukō (塗香)

  1. Take some of the powder with your index finger and thumb of your dominant arm
  2. Put the powder that you just took on the palm of your other hand
  3. Join your hands together and rub gently
  4. Then apply the powder lightly to the skin that is exposed
  5. Do a deep breath and enter the hall/pagoda with a calm mind

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Daitō’s Bell – Kōyashiro (大塔の鐘・高野四郎)

One of the two bells in Kōyasan – Daitō Bell is just opposite Konpon Daitō. It is also called Kōyashiro because the bell’s size is the fourth largest among all the bells in Japan at the time.

The bell housed under a white hall is rung at 4 am, 1 pm, 5 pm, 9 pm, and 11 pm to notify everyone in the mountain about the time. If you are going to stay overnight at Kōyasan, you can try to count the number of times the bell was rung.

It should be 108 times altogether, representing the number of times ordinary people worry in a single day (´▽`*).

© Kongobuji

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Fudōdō (不動堂)

Apart from the Konpon Daitō and Kondō, the building that you should definitely visit is the Fudōdō. It is the only building in Danjō Garan known as one of Japan’s National Treasures. Across Kōyasan, the other national treasure is in Kongō Sanmai-in (金剛三昧院).

The worship hall, completed in 1197 under the request of Hachijō Nyōin (八條女院), daughter of Emperor Toba (鳥羽上皇), now enshrines Acala and his eight attendants. This is why it is now called Fudōdō.

Accepting the request to construct the Fudōdō, Gyōshō Shōnin (行勝上人) built the worship hall for the princess near where his temple Isshin-in (一心院).

That is right. Fudōdō was only relocated to Danjō Garan in 1908 when the major repair took place, which dismantled the entire building. And because of its original location, which is near the Nyonindō (女人堂) and Kōyasan Station, when Danjō Garan suffered from numerous fire hazards in the past, it escaped the fate of being burnt down.

But no, the current building still isn’t the original worship hall that Gyōshō Shōnin constructed… However, most building materials were from the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333)!

What Was Fudōdō Built for?

Contrasting other temples in Kōasan, the reason why Fudōdō was built remains unknown. Based on extensive research, it was determined that Fudōdō didn’t enshrine Acala when it was first constructed due to the lacking the Goma Alter and traces of Gomadaki (護摩焚き).

Gomadaki is a ritual performed by burning small pieces of wood on the altar to invoke divine help.

Based on the kind of wall used to support the main Buddha statue (which is long gone now), and the kind of alter (Shumidan, 須弥壇) left in the worship hall, it was determined that Fudōdō was originally built as a worship hall to enshrine Amhitaba (阿弥陀佛).

Furthermore, the architectural style of Fudōdō is similar to the residence of the aristocracy in the Heian period (794 – 1185). If you look carefully at the hall’s roof, you will notice it spreads out wider, almost like a crane’s wing. The style of the roof is called Sugaruhafu-tsukuri (縋る破風造り), which is a style commonly used from the Heian period to the early Kamakura period.

The purpose of Sugaruhafu-tsukuri is to cover the lower buildings around it from snow and rain. At the same time, it is a part of the building’s decoration.

So combining what has been said, the theory that Kōyasan University announced was that Fudōdō was built as a hall for rituals to be performed to send the aristocracy who passed away to Amitabha’s Pure Land.

Click HERE for the list of places to visit in Danjō Garan.

Hasu-ike Pond (蓮池)

The Kangaku-in (勧学院) next to the Hasu-ike Lotus Pond used to be a part of the Hasu-ike Pond until Kangaku-in was moved from Kongō Sanmai-in (金剛三昧院) to where it is now, in 1318.

Also, the original pond covered the land as far as where Kōyasan Daishikyokai (大師教会) is currently.

© photo-ac.com

Find Out Other Attractions in Kōyasan

Click the photo to find out more about Kōyasan!

When you make your way to Kōyasan, Danjō Garan shouldn’t be the only section of the mountain you explore. There are other temples like Kongō Sanmai-in (金剛三昧院), which is absolutely worth your time!

To find more divine places to visit at the sacred mountain, please read our article on Kōyasan. You will also find information on restaurants to enjoy the vegetarian Shōjin Ryōri, as well as temples where you can stay overnight!

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