Koyasan: Stay the Night at a Buddhist Temple 3 Hours from Kyoto

forest at Koyasan Okunoin graveyard

Why to Go to Koyasan

Spend the night at a Buddhist temple with monks, eat their meals, watch them pray, soak in hot springs. And visit a breathtaking UNESCO world heritage temples and graveyard in the mountains.

How to Get to Koyasan from Kyoto

3.5 on the subway. Use Google maps on your phone! Get to Tengachaya Station (outside of Osaka). Then take the Nankai-Koya Line to Gokurakubashi Station. From there, take the Nankai Koyasan Cable car to Koyasan station. At Koyasan station, there will be English-speaking attendants waiting with a map to tell you which bus stop to get off at for your onsen temple-hotel.

Note that it’s equally easy to get to Koyasan from the Osaka airport. Again, make your way to the Tengachaya station via the Nankai-Kuko Line; same directions from there.

Where to Stay in Koyasan

At a Buddhist temple! You can find a full listing of Buddhist temples at the official Koyasan website; for fewer listings but an easier-to-use website check out Booking.com

A 3.5-hour train ride from Kyoto, nestled in Mount Koya is a gorgeous 1200-year old Buddhist monk sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage site known as Koysan. While it’s a bit of a trek, it’s a magical trip if you’re planning to stay a week in Kyoto:

river and gravestones at Koyasan Okunoin Gobyo graveyard

The mountain was established as a training ground for Buddhist monks by Kōbō-Daishi Kukai—the founder of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism (“Shingon” being the translation of the Sanskrit word “mantra”)—in 819 A.D. The only way you can reach the place is by cable car, which ascends the steep side of the mountain, and then bus.

The best part about this trip: We spent two nights sleeping in the Fukuchiin Buddhist shukubo temple. Yes…a real Buddhist temple, where monks chant mantras and meditate at 6 a.m. (a ceremony we attended our first day). The temple also features a rock garden, koi pond and outdoor hot spring baths where you can soak away your stress (just be aware that the temple bathrooms are shared, and you’re showering in public, like at all Japanese onsens…it ain’t no thing, except if you find yourself in the tub with another anxious white Westerner). The rooms are traditional Japanese style, where after eating dinner the table is moved to the side and futons are whisked in and set up on the floor to sleep.

Fukuchiin Buddhist temple onsen Koyasan tea and room

At the temple you can experience the same traditional vegan shojin ryori meal the monks enjoy for breakfast and dinner, featuring tofu in all its forms, rice and pickled veggies. The last supper scheduled for the day is served in your room at 6:30 p.m., well in time for the temple’s 9 p.m. curfew.

Fukuchiin Buddhist temple onsen Koyasan vegan meal

TIP: If you’re staying at a temple eat there—not only to experience the food, but also because most of the local restaurants close at 6 p.m. anyway.

I recommend two nights at the temple if you can swing it, so you have time to see all of Koyasan. There are two major sites: the Okunoin graveyard and mausoleum, and the temples near Kongobuji.

After rising at 5:45 a.m. to watch the monks meditate, we strolled past some of the 117 temples hosting Buddhist monks, 54 of which are open to the public as hotels (at one point there were more than 1,000 temples, but many have since burned down or been consolidated):

torii at Koyasan Japan

Torii shrine gates at Koyasan Japan

forest shrie at Koyasan Japan

Forest shrine at Koyasan Japan

At the Okunoin Gobyo graveyard, one of the holiest holy grounds in Shingon Buddhism, over 20,000 commoners and famous Japanese (including the founder of Panasonic, who was from Koya) are buried.

According to the monk on our guided tour, you don’t have to be from Japan or even Buddhist to be buried at Okunoin (with enough money, I’m sure). At each grave only the deceased’s hyoid bone is buried (located in the neck, near the voice box, and considered the holiest bone in the body in Buddhism); the rest of the ashes are kept near relatives, so the spirit can be two places at once.

It’s a mystical place, surrounded by 200 to 1,000-year-old cedar trees over 200 feet high and moss-covered tombstones:

Koyasan Okunoin Gobyo graveyard

Okunoin graveyard; the gravestones in the back represent the five Buddhist elements–from bottom to top: earth, water, fire, air, space

Buddha pyramid at Okunoin graveyard in Koyasan

Buddha pyramid at Okunoin graveyard

Bridge at Koyasan Okunoin graveyard

Bridge outside shrine, with cherry blossoms blooming

At the end of the Sando entrance path is the Torodo, or lantern, temple, covered in thousands of votive lanterns (a.k.a. Hinnyo-no-itto) donated by families of people buried at the graveyard. At the back of the temple is a shrine where the founder monk Kukai is said to be in eternal meditation since 900 A.D.; the monks at the temple have, every day since his “eternal meditation” started, brought him two fresh-cooked meals.

On the other end of Koyasan is the main Kongobuji temple, the main office of the Shingon sect branch, with the largest rock garden in all of Japan:

Koyasan Kongobuji temple rock garden is the biggest rock garden in Japan

The Kongobuji rock garden

Nearby you can visit several other of the shrines and pagodas the area is famous for, including the bright red Konpon Daito pagoda containing four giant gold Kongokai Buddhas. Because they’re all built in wood, the temples have burned down several times and been rebuilt; most are from the 19th to 20th century. But, like all of Koyasan, they’re stunning:

Konpon Daito pagoda at Koyasan

Konpon Daito pagoda

Wood temple at Koyasan

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