The Journey to Kōyasan: Japan’s 1,200-Year-Old Sacred Mountain Complex

OSAKA FADES imperceptibly as you depart the city center, like water on a window drying in the sun. Silver turns to green; hills replace the cityscape; open air consumes the sky. I read and scrolled on my phone, content with the small BOSS coffee I’d brought on my journey.

After the first hour and a half heading south, the train arrived at Hashimoto Station in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture. From there, I’d transfer to another train that would take me into the hills towards Kōyasan, the mountaintop settlement where Shingon Buddhism was first established by the priest Kūkai around 1200 years ago.

I imagine the intent required to reach the World Heritage Site deters many travelers — the effort adds to its allure. You can take the train to the top, or, as I planned to do, follow in the footsteps of Kūkai.

I would hike a portion of the Choishi-michi Trail, an ancient pilgrimage route which connects Jison-in Temple at the foot of the mountain with Kōyasan.

The entire trail takes about seven hours to hike. I intended to visit Kōyasan and return to Osaka on the same day. I’d roam a shorter portion starting at Kii-Hosokawa Station.

I had about thirty minutes to wait at Hashimoto Station before the next train arrived. The platform of the rural outpost opened itself to the elements, and seeing as the day was warming and the sun was shining, I ambled to the end of the platform where the sun could be felt.

I sat on the concrete, leaning against a pole. Then came a cheerful voice: Hello! A woman grinned as she approached me, rolling a light blue suitcase and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a loose floral scarf and a large pair of black glasses.

Are you traveling to Kōyasan? she asked, pointing towards the mountain. I remained seated on the concrete, enjoying my position and the touch of the sun’s rays. I told her I am, and that I’m hiking the shortened portion. I asked if she was hiking.

Oh no, she said, putting her hands together in a quick praying gesture, just visiting the Buddhas! She told me she’s from Vancouver and traveling through Japan before visiting her family in China.

I was open to the conversation, influenced by a book I’d recently read, The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux.

“Something human happens and was recorded,” Theroux writes. “That seemed to me the point of travel writing.”

It felt as if we were passengers on a dock hundreds of years ago, eagerly waiting for our ship to embark. The woman’s attitude conveyed that travel fills us both with an endearing enthusiasm. It’s rare for a stranger to strike up a conversation, say, waiting in line at a ramen shop.

Out here at Hashimoto, however, we were both on our way to do something special; that spirit of travel is worthy of conversation, if only with a stranger if that’s who surrounds you, and I hope to be someone receptive to that.

We talked for a while about our shared interests in history and cultures, and then she waved and headed in the direction opposite my gaze.

Ninki desu! exclaimed a sprightly woman holding the handles of a man’s wheelchair; he was wrapped in a beanie, coat and gloves. He seemed fragile, advanced in age; yet a palpable warmth emanated from their counterposed dispositions.

A man approached from behind me and translated when it was clear I didn’t understand. Popular! I laughed. Ah, to be travelers waiting for a train, reveling in sunlight, language, simple conversation.

He wore a black turtleneck and dainty specks above a mask and spoke in accented Japanese, relaying that he’s German and lives in Fukuoka.

The woman said something about Japan and Germany and pointed between herself and the young man, then said something about the United States and pointed to me. They laughed, the man somewhat nervously as his face reddened. He made a gesture indicating the past. I chuckled, too.

The conversation turned to baseball and the pride of Japan, Shohei Ohtani. She swung her arms with an imaginary bat. The man sauntered to the rest of his group. The woman from Vancouver reentered the scene.

You speak Japanese? she asked. A little, I replied. I’m learning. I explained that I’m a teacher in Osaka. Do you get lonely traveling by yourself? 

No, not really. This is what I love, and I have writing, and books, and, well, people to talk to and friends that I’ve made.

I’m happy with myself as company.

I’m fifty seven, she said, I’m getting older, and time is short. She leaned in and asked with sincere curiosity: Don’t you think it’s important to learn about other people and our history?

Then, what’s your Chinese zodiac sign?

I told her I’m the pig. I’m the horse, she replied, my husband is the snake, so he likes to stay home and I like to travel. You’re young, she said. You must see the world.

Don’t worry, of that we’re in agreement.

We were all on the next train.

I sat by the window and opened An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro, reading as we crossed a wide, grey, opaque river.

A father and his son sat in front of me. The little boy wore a straw hat that made me feel like we were in some bygone age; so too did his interest in the scenery. He didn’t play on a phone. I noticed his reflection as he stared out the window with his face against the glass, his mouth open wide, enamored by the evanescing forest.

The sound of steel creaked as we swayed. We passed through several tunnels as we winded through the mountain, reaching Kii-Hosokawa Station after about forty minutes.

The station comprised a platform nestled in a thicket of trees. A woman in a yellow parka holding an umbrella and I were the only to alight, and as the train departed, trailed by a long rush of wind, familiar faces smiled through the glass: the woman and the man in the wheelchair.

The train turned the bend and silence ensued, save for the whistle of a bird. I crossed the rust-colored tracks and asked the single station attendant who, even in this mountain landscape, dressed sharply in a formal pressed blue uniform: Choishi-michi Trail wa, doko desu ka?

He walked me through the gate and presented my route with an outstretched, white gloved hand. A valley unfurled before us. I descended the hill and noticed the woman in the yellow parka along the same path. She seemed to know what she was doing, which put me at ease.

At the base of the hill, a man rode a red tractor across a field. The color of the red tractor leapt prominently from the surrounding greenery. From a distance, the setting was a painting with the tractor as the subject, grazing in the lower third.

White flowers bloomed along the banks of a river which flowed beside the road. Butterflies drifted upon the softest wisps of wind. I stopped to take photos, focusing on the colorful details: each white petal displayed impressions of purple and yellow — watercolors dripping from a brush onto a pearly white sheet.

The sun warmed me to my core, inspiring in me a cheerful attitude. Nothing could be so healing. I passed swathes of swaying bamboo and interspersed homes of those I imagine relish their solitude. After a while of walking, the woman in the yellow parka turned around.

Kōyasan? she asked, pointing up the mountain. Hai! I replied. She grinned, like she was happy for me. Ah, so (indeed). Visiting my mother! She pointed to a home on top of a nearby slope. So, so! I replied. Kirei desu, it’s beautiful. The surrounding homes were simple, with lots of flowers on their steps and soaked in sunlight.

Ganbatte! she said, good luck!

The incline of the pavement road increased and soon I was surrounded by lean, towering cedar trees which soared into the sky. I took deep inhalations of the nourishing mountain air.

After an hour, I emerged from the trail and approached the lone shop on the highway, not knowing exactly what it was but hoping for a beverage or snack.

I entered the dimly lit store where, by the register, stood a small wooden rack of snacks and a fridge containing nothing but two Asahi beers sitting side by side like a couple of pals. I grabbed one.

At the cash register I asked for one of the plastic wrapped mochi cakes which were presented like a deck of cards spread on a table. I asked for green, assuming it to be green tea, and the woman gave me one red and one green. Arigato, you read my mind.

I sat on the bench in front of the shop, drinking the beer and eating the soft red bean mochi cakes. Needed. A pair of motorcyclists lingering in front of the store mounted their bikes and departed.

The scenery felt like Yosemite or Big Sur, California: sweet mountain air, a general store, evergreens. But the signs in Japanese suggested otherwise. You’re in the mountains of Wakayama, I thought, clearing my Asahi. Sweet. 

A group stood in a circle in front of the roadside vending machines, several men in smart black suits and a girl in a black dress with light blue hair falling in front of her face. They chatted amongst themselves and nodded as I passed, dabbing my forehead with my faded blue bandana.

The path is unassuming; I nearly missed it and continued up the highway. There’s nothing but a signpost and apart from that, fallen red roses in the dirt.

The official trail begins with a choishi stone marker behind the shop, one of 216 which span the trail. Cho is an archaic measurement equivalent to 109 meters, while ishi means stone.

The pillars resemble what is called a Gorintō Monument — a five elements pagoda. These stone ones have replaced the original wooden markers that Kūkai is said to have placed on his original ascent.

The scent in the air transitioned from the earthy smell of cedar to the fragrant scent of roses, basking in the sun. And with that, I began following in the footsteps of Kūkai.

The start of the trail.
The start of the trail.

For spurts of the first leg of the climb I listened to music and The Ape That Understood the Universe, by Steve Stewart-Williams. Now I committed to my thoughts as my only companion.

When you walk along a path without headphones, your body and mind attain a rhythm and flow. It takes a moment to set into, but your legs move of their own volition. They want to continue. They want to stride. The mind runs; the body follows.

With time, the mind cultivates thoughts until they bear fruit. Perhaps they don’t, but the movement is healthy and the thoughts are fresh, and every step means progress.

I stopped to analyze the color of the choishi markers; I knocked against their weight; I rubbed my hand upon their complexion. Their structure bears significance, as each section of the pillar represents one of the five elements which, according to Buddhism, make up the world.

From the top down they include space, wind, fire, water, and earth. They resemble the towering cedar trees in tone, as if the stone pillars and the grey green trees come from the same source.

The weathering of the pillars reminds us of life’s impermanence, and in that weathering I perceived the natural beauty of age: some attained a hue that was light red, the color of clay; minty green moss covered some, and others blending ominously into the darkness of the hillside. I climbed and would salute the pillars in stride, appreciating their voiceless wisdom.

There sat a stone upon the stump of a tree.

I wondered who put it there and for what reason. My mind went somewhere, for this stone and its meaning commanded my thoughts, if just for a moment, but for a moment, no less.

It sat at a section of the path that opened itself to a panoramic view of the valley. On the other side the trees appeared so dense and green that looking into them appeared psychedelic — their movement, the earth’s exhale.

I pondered the words of Kūkai:

Even the trees and blades of grass may become Buddhas.

There’s an insight which I love that comes when traveling: despite being in an arbitrary place at an arbitrary time in the grand scheme of existence, what you’re doing and where you are matters.

It matters because you are there. Because you’re there, you have something to learn, thus, greater understanding.

This often happens teaching English in Japan. I’ll be sent to a small pocket of Osaka. On the surface it seems like nothing but a railway stop on the outskirts of town, an unsophisticated perspective, but I’m human. This is often my first impression when I’m sent to a school I’m unfamiliar with.

I’ll have a fascinating conversation with a student or find a hole-in-the-wall udon shop that nourishes my soul. My universe inverts; I’m no longer a drop in the ocean, but the ocean in a drop.

Nothing — no place, person or activity — is more important than another. Paris, despite being a shining star, is no more integral to the cosmos than that udon shop on the outskirts of Osaka.

That’s what I take from Kūkai’s words: the spiritual isn’t confined to Kōyasan itself just because that’s where the shrines are located. The stone on the stump posses the spirit of the shrine, for it’s not the place or the person who’s essential.

It’s an awareness gleaned from any experience of what life can be.

I have a notion, piqued through adventures such as this, that there’s something integral to being alive that matters more than our physical pleasures and pursuits, angsts and worries.

It’s the spirit which runs like a vein through all of existence. It permeates the stone, the trees, the wind and the shadows, just as it does the blood in my body.

By connecting with this spirit, we form a relationship with something we can’t comprehend, yet we sense.

It’s love.

The spirit of love impels me to question religion and study history and seek a greater understanding: I long to know what it means to be alive. This force tells me to go, experience, live — feel being in totality and allow your questions to guide you.

Do the thing, cherish the journey, and never, ever stop seeking with an open heart.

Things might not make sense, and that’s okay. If you’re questioning, that means you care enough to want to know. You care enough to seize what little time we have on this mysterious planet. And no matter what, that longing to understand will guide you on your journey, because that longing will steer you towards love.

All you must do is take step after step in faith, trusting that what you do matters.

Dusk creeped upon the landscape, discernible from the cooling air. I passed a konnichiwa with the first group I came across on the trail, a family relaxing by the river enjoying the peaceful sound of moving water and swaying trees.

I reached the official entrance to Kōyasan, the massive red Dai-mon Gate, a 1705 rebuild of the original 11th-century structure. I stood by the road, enjoying my accomplishment before passing the sculpted gods which guard the magnificent threshold.

The town was quiet; most stores were closed. The air was getting cold and the light continued fading. I dawdled through the monasteries which make up the sacred complex which, it’s said, Kūkai chose as the center of his religion because he believed the surrounding peaks resemble the petals of a lotus.

I noticed a couple of monks closing the entrances to the monasteries and, although I’d been there for about forty-five minutes, figured it was time to get off the mountain.

I’ll be back, hopefully with friends, perhaps in the winter or fall. We’ll hike the entire route and stay overnight, getting cozy with the monks.

I took a bus, a cable car and another pair of trains. I read An Artist of the Floating World on the route from Hashimoto. Lights flashed in my periphery while looking down, surrounded by darkness; it felt like I was a part of something otherworldly — space travel, movement through an unknown world.

The sounds of travel filled the air: the slowing and hissing of the wheels and the grinding of steel. We stopped at a station and remained for an inordinate length. Bugs flew in while the door stayed open. The train beeped, and beeped, and beeped.

I waited, buttoning my coat to stave off the cold.

The bugs gathered around the pale lights and the sounds of obscurity imbued my thoughts. I was nowhere in particular, inspired by the feeling that I didn’t have to be.

The Dai-mon Gate
The Dai-mon Gate
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