Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Kongōbuji – The Head Temple of Japan’s Shingon Buddhism

Kōyasan Kongōbuji (高野山真言宗総本山金剛峯寺), opposite Danjō Garan, is the headquarters of the Shingon sect in Japan. The temple has a large precinct that houses many buildings that are lavishly and beautifully designed. Besides the gorgeous paintings on fusuma doors and Buddha statues, Kongōbuji is best known for its Banryūtei Garden. This largest rock garden in Japan will surely be the highlight of your visit. Read on to find out more about Kongōbuji!

As confusing as it sounds, the largest worship hall in Kōyasan Kongōbuji is actually not its main worship hall! Most of the important events are taken place in Kondō (金堂) in Danjō Garan.

The name Kogōnbuji is derived from the sutra, Kongōbu-rokaku-issai-yuga-yugi kyō”. It means the Sutra of All Yogas and Yogis of the Pavilion with the Vajra-Top.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

Originally, Kongōbuji was referred to as Kōyasan. All the temples and halls are collectively called Kongōbuji. It was not until the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) that the temple where the head monk of Kōyasan lived had its name changed to Kongōbuji.

Back when Kōyasan was first founded, the current Kongōbuji was the living quarter of Shinzendaitoku (真然大徳), Kōbō Daishi’s successor. Of course, it was just a small hall at the time. It wasn’t until 1593 that it was transformed into a proper temple.

Under the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), a temple called Seiganji (青巌寺) was built in dedication to his late mother. In the Meiji period, combined with the Kōzanji Temple (興山寺) next door, the name of the temple was then changed to Kongōbuji.

The Buildings in Kongōbuji

The front gate of Kongōbuji is the oldest architecture in Kōyasan, rebuilt in 1593. Although anyone can now go beyond this gate, in the past, only the members of the imperial family and high-ranked monks of Kōyasan could use this gate. Normal monks could only enter Kongōbuji from the small door on the right.

Passing the main gate, the largest worship hall of Kongōbuji will be right in front of you. Reconstructed in 1863, there are two entrances, one bigger than the other. Most people can only use the smaller entrance to enter the worship hall.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

Before entering the worship hall, remember to pay attention to the roof. There are a couple of buckets placed above the roof.

What are they used for? They play an important part in fire hazard prevention. In an unfortunate event, the rainwater from the buckets is used to water the cypress bark roof.

Inside this main worship hall, beautiful paintings on the fusuma doors can be seen in the large hall (Ōhiroma, 大広間), the Buddhist altar room (持仏間), the plum room (梅の間), and the willow room (柳の間).

You can also check out the rooms that were exclusive to Japanese emperors at the time.

© Kongobuji

Tip: In winter, the large hall is the warmest place in the entire temple. It is also where you can get hot tea to warm yourself up.

The Rooms inside the Main Worship Hall

The willow room is also known as Hidetsugu Jijin no Ma (秀次自刃の間), which is where Toyotomi Hidetsugu (豊臣 秀次) committed seppuku (切腹) in 1595. He was only 28 years old.

© Kongobuji

Toyotomi Hidetsugu was the nephew of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Initially, Hidetsugu was the successor of the Toyotomi Administration and was given the position of Kanpaku (関白), the emperor’s chief adviser.

However, the retired Hideyoshi was blessed with a son with Hidetsugu, then being forced to become a monk in Kōyasan. Cutting his life story short, he was later ordered to commit seppuku after being confined at Kōyasan.

Shoin Jōdan no Ma (書院上壇の間) was used as the drawing room during the visit of Japanese emperors. Nowadays, some important rituals still take place here. The walls are covered with gold foil, and the ceiling is in the style of Shoin-zukuri (書院造り), characterized by the high-class folding lattice.

© Kongobuji

The Okushoin (奥書院) along with the Jōdan no Ma (上壇の間) are both rooms with the highest-ranked design and were formerly used as a resting place for the imperial family. There is a hearth at the back to keep the room warm in winter. All the ceilings are carved with flowers with Kōbō Daishi enshrined in the alcove (床の間).

There is a small space/room at the right of Jōdan no Ma, known as Mushakakushi (武者隠し). In the good old days, this is where the emperor’s bodyguards would hide so they could swiftly protect the emperor in case of an attack.

Banryūtei Garden (蟠龍庭)

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

From the main hall, the corridor leads to a new complex (新別殿). It was built in 1984 as a reception hall for all the pilgrims that gathered as a memorial service for Kōbō Daishi, after he entered deep meditation 1,100 years ago.

Along with the hall, the rock garden – Banryūtei was built at the hall’s north. Boasting a size of 2,340 square meters, it is currently Japan’s largest rock garden.

Using the white sand from Kyoto and the blue granite from Shikoku, an image is created to show how male and female dragons float in the sea of ​​clouds to protect the inner hall (奥殿). The garden is also considered to be one of the most popular spots for autumn foliage hunting.

The Betsuden Hall (別殿)

Similar to the new complex, the Betsuden Hall, which is also connected by the hallway, was built in 1934 as a memorial service for Kōbō Daishi. The style of the hall is Momoyama style (桃山様式). The inside of the hall is divided into four larger rooms, each with spectacular paintings on the fusuma doors.

The rooms on the western side have flowers and birds of the four seasons drawn. Each of them is dedicated to Kōyasan’s beautiful autumn maple scenery.

The rooms on the east have the theme of Kōbō Daishi’s life story, starting from his journey to China during the Tang Dynasty to study Buddhism. One of the rooms has the capital, Chang’an’s (長安) Rakuyūgen (楽遊原) sunset scenery, one of the capital’s gates, Chunming Gate (春明門), and the famous Kyokukō Pond (曲江池) on the right.

Another room is painted with the story of Kōbō Daishi being led by a black and a white dog, the messengers of Kariba Myōjin (狩場明神), the sons of the local god – Niu (丹生).

With the dogs’ guidance, Kōbō Daishi discovered the sacred land of Kōyasan.

© Kongobuji

Shinzen Mausoleum (真然廟)

© Kongobuji

Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum is at Okunoin. If you have ever wondered where his successor, Shinzen Daidoku’s mausoleum is located, it is at the north of the main hall.

Back from the side hall, follow the hallway until you reach Shinzen Mausoleum, which was completed in 1640. It is where the ashes of Shinzen Daidoku are placed.

If you look into the mausoleum, you will also see dishes in front of the altar offered to the Buddha and Shinzen Daidoku.

Kongōbuji’s Kitchen (金剛峯寺の台所)

Lastly, before you exit Kongōbuji, you should check out its kitchen, where you will find big wood-burning stoves (called kamado in Japanese) and chimneys.

The three stoves (see photo) can cook for around 2,000 people!

Up till 1975, the stoves were used to make mochi rice cake at the end of the year in preparation for the new year celebration.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

Ajikan Meditation (阿字観)

Photo from Kongobuji

At the back of the Betsuden Hall, another complex is used for Ajikan Meditation. Plan your visit between Friday and Monday if you want to attend the session. The meditation is held at 9 am, 11 am, 13:30 pm, and 3:30 pm. Each session lasts for an hour and costs 1,000 yen.

Currently, due to COVID-19, the capacity for each session is set to 10 people only (normally 20). No reservation is required, but try to arrive early as it is held on a first-come, first-serve basis.

For more information, please refer to the official website HERE. If the English website isn’t updated for 2023 details, refer to the Japanese website HERE and translate it to English using Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.

Note the session is held in Japanese only. There will, however, be English instructions.

Kongōbuji’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • Kongōbuji is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm.
    • The last admission is at 4:30 pm.
  • The admission fee is
    • 1,000 yen for junior high school students and above
    • 300 yen for elementary school students
  • From Kōyasan Station, take bus services bound for Daimon-Minami Chūshajō (大門南駐車場) and get off at Kongōbuji -mae (金剛峯寺前).

Other Places to Visit in Kōyasan

Click the photo to find out more about Kōyasan!

Apart from Kongōbuji, Kōyasan also has two other temples that you definitely cannot miss out on when you visit the sacred land.

Find out more information on Okunoin (奥之院), where Kōbō Daishi entered a deep meditation, as well as Danjō Garan (壇上伽藍), where most of the important cultural properties are located and where you can stay for a night in our article on Kōyasan!

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