We almost hate to spread the word about the wonderful town of Koyasan perched high atop sacred Mount Koya in southwestern Honshu, 40 mi/65 km south of Osaka. It's well-known to the Japanese—thousands of Buddhist pilgrims make the rounds of its wealth of temples—and becoming increasingly popular among Western visitors. The temple complex is the headquarters for the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, founded in 816 by the monk Kukai and known for is esoteric, fiery ceremonies.
In addition to the acres/hectares of religious architecture, Koyasan is also the site of Okunoin Cemetery, where Japan's highest-ranking dignitaries traditionally have been laid to rest: Tombs of samurai, lords, shoguns and emperors can be found among the 200,000 graves. Kukai himself was laid in eternal meditation here and is believed to still be alive, meditating and waiting for the coming of the Buddha of the Future.
Half the pleasure of visiting Koyasan is getting there. The trip begins on the express Nankai electric railway from Osaka, passing through a beautiful gorge. Travelers then board a cog railway that ratchets itself up the steep mountain. The journey through stunning scenery is finished by bus (keep an eye out for shrines, stupas, pagodas and temples along the roadside). You're likely to stay in one of the dozens of temple inns, basic lodgings shared with resident monks who provide vegetarian meals and expect you to attend the morning reading of sutras..
Be aware that Koya is quite snowy in the winter; that said, the temples, fire ceremonies and ancient tombs are extremely beautiful in the snow.
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