Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Okunoin – The Mysterious Center of Worship in Kōyasan

The center of worship of Kōyasan has to be Okunoin (奥之院), where Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師) fell into deep meditation (passed away). It is believed that the revered monk is still providing his helping hand to those in need while meditating. As one of the Three Holiest Spots in Japan (the other two are Mt. Osore (恐山) in Aomori Prefecture and Mt. Hiei (比叡山) in Kyoto/Shiga Prefecture), many Japanese choose to have their tombstones along with the approach to Okunoin in Kōyasan.

Instead of taking a bus to the closest bus stop, Okunoin-mae (奥の院前), most people will want to trek from Ichinohashi (一の橋). The 2 km approach that takes around a 90-minute walk is one of the best attractions in Kōysan.

On the way to Okunoin, more than 200,000 tombstones and memorials of famous samurais and people around the country are underneath the cedar grove of more than 700 years old line the entire approach. While having your mind and heart purified by the sacred atmosphere, see if you can find the tombstones of the feudal lords that you may know (^_-)-☆.

Walking on the approach, we are sure you will be overwhelmed by the solemn atmosphere. Seeing so many tombstones here, doesn’t that make you realize that all creatures are equal? Whether you are rich or poor, human or animal, we are all the same after our lives end.

HERE is a map of Kōyasan that you can refer to.

Crossing the Three Bridges to Get to Okunoin

If you have seen the Ghibli movie Spirited Away, you might remember how she entered another world after Chihiro crossed the river at the beginning of the movie. Traditionally, the Japanese believe that you get to the other world by crossing a river.

To get to Okunoin, there are three bridges that you will need to cross. The first one is at the starting point of the approach in the photo, which is the Ichinohashi that we mentioned before. In the middle, there is Nakanobashi Bridge (中の橋). And the last bridge that you will cross is the Gobyobashi Bridge (御廟橋), which is closest to the worship hall where Kōbō Daishi is.

© Kongonbuji

Knowing the myth, having to cross not one but three bridges to get to Okunoin might be scary to some. But rest assured, you will be okay!

It is said that Kōbō Daishi, Kūkai will welcome the worshipers at Ichinohashi Bridge and accompany them throughout their pilgrimage until they pass the Ichinohashi Bridge again on their way home!

To accept his welcoming and accompanying, please join your hands and make a bow before you cross the bridge (=゚ω゚)ノ.

The Best Time to Be on the Approach to Okunoin

When the lanterns begin to illuminate at dusk, this is probably one of the best times to be on this 2 km long approach. Unlike during the day, the entire approach appears to be more solemn at this time of the day.

The mysterious scenery is even more amazing around Nakanobashi Bridge. As the approach curves slightly beyond the bridge, the light of the lanterns seem to be connecting!

© Wakayama Tourism Federation
© Wakayama Tourism Federation

Important: Photography is prohibited as it is a sacred area beyond the Gobyobashi Bridge in the photo above.

If you have time, visit Okunoin in the daytime again. The atmosphere is entirely different from during the night. You will see that some of the offered stone lanterns on the side of the road are still relatively new, proving that Kōyasan isn’t just a historical heritage. It is still the center of Buddhism belief in Japan.

Apart from being able to enter the worship halls in Okunoin, the other reason why you want to walk through the long approach again is for the 7 Wonders in Kōyasan (こうや七不思議).

Okunoin Nighttime Tour

Join Ekōin Temple’s Okunoin Nighttime Tour, which is held almost every night! There is no need to worry about language barriers because tours are also held in English.

The tour is for anyone to join as long as you pay the fee. So even if you don’t stay at Ekōin, you can still book your spot HERE and discover the mysterious Okunoin with lit-up lanterns lined the approach (=゚ω゚)ノ.

The Seven Wonders in Kōyasan

Kazutori Jizō (数取地蔵)

Soon after you cross the Ichonobashi Bridge, at your left, there is an old small worship hall with a Jizō Bodhisattva sitting inside. Don’t be surprised to see pilgrims walking back and forth again and again in front of it. They are earning themselves merits for their next life.

© Kongonbuji

It is believed that this Jizō statue remembers the faces of all the pilgrims who make an effort to complete the pilgrimage. Moreover, he is counting the number of times one has done so.

The data that the Kazutori Jizō has collected is then reported to Yama (Enma, 閻魔) or Yamarāja, the deity of death, the judge of your afterlife. The more merits you have earned in this life, the better your next life will be.

Sweating Jizō (汗かき地蔵)

Next to the Nakanobashi Bridge, there is a small worship hall for a Sweating Jizō.

This Jizō Statue was named “sweating” because it is always wet with dew. It is believed the statue is wet all the time because the Jizō Bodhisattva is busy helping out those who are suffering and, as a result, is always sweating.

© Kongonbuji

According to Gautama Buddha, from the year he passed away, we will need to wait for another 5.67 billion years before another Buddha (who is currently Maitreya Bodhisattva) is born into our world. During this time, Gautama Buddha had asked Jizō Bodhisattva to care for the living creatures. No wonder he is always sweating!

The Reflection Well – Sugatami-no-Ido (姿見の井戸)

© Kongonbuji

At the right of the worship hall, there is a well. The Sugatami-no-Ido, a well that will reflect your appearance, isn’t a well that you would want your appearance to appear on inside the well.

As scary as it is, the legend says that if you can see yourself when you look into the well, you will die within three years…Σ(゚Д゚)

If you have the courage, give it a try! Other pilgrims have used the well as a “health checker”. They will head to the hospital for a full body check if they see themselves (´▽`*).

Kakuban-zaka (覚鑁坂)

The next wonder – Kakuban-zaka (覚鑁坂), is as terrifying as the second one.

Trekking a little further from Nakanobashi Bridge towards Gobyobashi Bridge, there is a gentle slope consisting of 43 stone staircases. This is the one slope in the world that you won’t want to trip over. It is said once you fall on the slope, you won’t live for more than three years… The slope is thus also known as Sannen-zaka (三年坂).

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

The number of staircases here wasn’t just randomly built to be 43. It was purposely set to 43, so it goes past 42, which can be pronounced as “Shini”, which means “to death” in Japanese.

Zenni Jochi Memorial (禅尼上智碑)

© Kongonbuji

Along the Kakuban-zaka slope, you might find some people gathered in front of the Zenni Jochi Memorial. Some of them might even have their ears attached to the stone pillar.

What are they doing? They are either hearing the sound of hell or the melody from the Pure Land Buddha described for us.

When it is your turn, close your eyes and press your ears against the cool memorial tower. With a calm mind, which sound will you hear?

Tip: Make sure it is the dented part of the pillar that you press your ears against.

The Fish in Tama River (Tamagawa no Sakana, 玉川の魚)

When you cross the Gobyobashi Bridge, pay attention to the fish in the Tama River flowing underneath. See if you can find one with black dots on it. The river that sources the mountain stream from one of the sacred mountains of Kōyasan – Mt. Yōryū (楊柳山) is said to have a fish that Kōbō Daishi saved.

When Kōbō Daishi was spreading Buddhism at Kōyasan, he saw a guy at the side of the Tama River who was going to grill the fish he had just caught. Upon seeing the scene, Kōbōdaish immediately paid the guy for the fish and put the fish back into the river. The miracle was that the supposedly dead fish from being stuck by a skewer came back to life!

Realizing what just happened, the guy who was going to eat the fish gave up on fishing all at once. The fish that was saved is said to carry black dots on its body, the spots where the body was stuck.

Mirokuishi Stone (弥勒石)

Crossing the last bridge – Gobyobashi, there is a small worship hall with lattice walls on one side of the road close to all the grave tombs.

What you want to do here is, stick one of your hands into the small hole and move one of the Mirokuishi Stones to the upper shelf. If you are a male, please use your left hand. For the ladies, use your right hand. Make a prayer while you move the stone. If you successfully place the stone on the upper shelf, it is said what you just prayed for will come true!

It is also said that when a good person lifts the stone, it will be an easy task, with the stone being light. If it is the contrary, that person will have difficulty moving it.

Originally, the legend is that the stones were fallen from heaven where Maitreya Bodhisattva (known as Miroku Bosatsu in Japanese) is living. Those who stroke the stones are said to have effectively built a relationship with Maitreya Bodhisattva.

© Kongonbuji

As time passed by, somehow, this place of Kōyasan became a place where people come to test their strength, and another legend was told (´▽`*).

Important: Photography is prohibited in this area. The photos we have in this article are provided by Kongonbuji.

Shotokuden Tea Hall (頌徳殿)

Enough of the supernatural talk. For those who would love to take a rest after a long walk from Ichinohashi Bridge, Shotokuden Tea Hall is the perfect place to do so.

The tea hall is where you can enjoy some self-service tea! It is open from 8 am to 4:30 pm from May to October and from 8:30 am to 4 pm from November to April.

For more information about Okunoin, please refer to the official website HERE!

Mizu-muke Jizō (水向け地蔵)

© photo-com.au

Just in front of the last bridge – Gobyobashi Bridge (御廟橋), you will see a series of Jizō statues with water fountains in front them. It is said that if you follow their order and pour water onto them one by one, the Jizō Bodhisattva will look after you.

Mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師御廟)

One of the most sacred sites in Kōyasan is the Mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi. If untold, most people won’t be aware of another hall inside the mausoleum that isn’t visible from the outside. The current mausoleum we see is built above the chamber where Kōbō Daishi entered deep meditation.

To get to the actual mausoleum, you have to enter the basement of Tōrōdō (燈籠堂) first. There is a corridor close to the reception to get to the basement. Follow the passageway and proceed in a clockwise direction. Then, you will find the entrance at the right of Tōrōdō.

From there, the road will lead to the chamber where Kōbō Daishi is, directly underneath where the worship hall of Mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi is. However, as you might have expected, you won’t be able to see the Kōbō Daishi himself. Instead, there is a drawing of him on the wall of our side of the chamber. This is the space for pilgrims to pay their respects and pray to Kōbō Daishi.

Kōbō Daishi’s Body is Still Alive?

From Kōyasan’s documentary, 86 years after Kōbō Daishi entered deep meditation, Kangen (観賢), a high-ranked monk of Kyoto’s Kyōōgokokuji Temple (教王護国寺), which was Koyasan’s head temple, visited Kōbō Daishi’s chamber. From what he said, Kōbō Daishi was sitting as he was still alive!

Kangen even helped Kōbō Daishi to shave the hair and beard grown over the 86 years of deep meditation!

There was a book published in 2015 written by the person who changed the thatch roof of the mausoleum. The book described how he was amazed by the level of the sturdiness of the building. Being a building built more than 400 years ago, it has to be some extraordinary power protecting the mausoleum from aging.

Shōjinku (生供身供)

At Okunoin, there is a ritual that has been performed daily over the last 1,200 years. Known as Shōjinku, it is basically the food delivery for Kōbō Daishi. Leading by Ina (維那), a status of one of the highest-ranked monks of Kōyasan, a wooden box with food inside is carried with another two monks to the Mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

The only person allowed to enter the chamber and serve the food to Kōbō Daishi is Ina. However, his mouth is guarded by the strict rules of Kōyasan. So, in other words, the only person in the world that knows the current condition of Kōbō Daishi is Ina.

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

Shōjinku takes place twice daily, at 6 am and 10:30 am. The food offered to Kōbō Daishi is made at the Gokusho (御供所), close to Gobyobashi Bridge (御廟橋). Before the food was placed into the wooden box, it had to be offered to Ajimi Jizō (味見地蔵) first to make sure everything is fine (i.e. the food isn’t poisoned).

So if you are interested in seeing the ritual, mark the time when you come to Okunoin!

Okunoin’s General Opening Hours and Access Information

  • Okunoin is open from
    • 8 am to 5 pm from May to October
    • 8:30 am to 4:30 pm from November to April
  • From Koyasan Station, take bus services bound for Okunoin (奥の院) and get off at Ichinohashiguchi (一の橋口) to trek the 2 km approach or at Okunoin-mae (奥の院前) to cut down the amount of walking required
    • From the bus stop, it is a 10 to 15-minute walk
    • The bus trip takes around 15 – 20 minutes

Koyasan Candle Festival (ろうそく祭り)

© Wakayama Tourism Federation

In summer, not only is Kōyasan a great place to escape the summer heat, but on the 13th of August from 7 pm, it is also when the Kōyasan Candle Festival takes place!

Formally known as Mandōkuyōe (萬燈供養会), it is the biggest event in Kōyasan. In the evening, around a hundred thousand candles will line the 2 km approach to Okunoin. With the light from the candles, those who have passed away know exactly where Okunoin is.

Combined with the solemn atmosphere that the approach has, the scene is considered the most fantastic in Japan.

From around 6 pm, temporary stalls will also be set up at the car park at Nakanobashi Bridge (中の橋). Please be aware that not all dishes served there are vegetarian.

As you can imagine, the day is probably the most crowded day throughout the year in Kōyasan. So if you can, avoid driving to Kōyasan by parking your car around the train stations along the Nankai-Koya Line (南海高野線), Then utilize public transport to get to the mountain.

The candles will be given out at the reception tent at Ichinohashi (一の橋) for free!

Important: Given this is an event to pay respect to those who have passed away, participants are asked to avoid dressing in Yukata (the type for sleeping) or pajamas prepared by your accommodation that may be considered too casual.

Other Places to Visit in Kōyasan

Apart from Kongōbuji, Kōyasan also has a couple more temples that you definitely can’t miss out on when you visit the sacred land.

Find out information about Kongōbuji, the head temple of Kōyasan, Danjō Garan (壇上伽藍), where most of the important cultural properties are located, and where you can stay for a night with our article on Kōyasan!

Kongobuji-Koyasan-Wakayama-Japan
Click the photo to find out more about Kōyasan!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *