Koya San in Wakayama


Koya San in Wakayama 高野山 和歌山県

Koya san is an important place in the history of Buddhism in Japan.
I visited there many years ago and will write about that unique experience later.

At the end of this page is my short essay on the
Light Offerings (toomyoo kuyoo 灯明供養).

Look at my Photo Album of Koya-San
... Photo Album Koya San

Read my Haiku about Koya-San
. Gabi visiting Koya San .

こうやくん Koya-Kun, the mascot of the temple complex.

Koyasan Sohonzan Kongobuji (金剛峯寺 Kongoobuji)
- Homepage of the temple
- source : www.koyasan.or.jp/english


For a general overview of Mt. Koya and Kukai (Kobo Daishi)
by Mark Schumacher:


Sacred Mountain for Shingon Sect of Esoteric Buddhism. A mountain monastery called Kongobuji was established here in 816 AD by Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi, 774 - 835 AD, founder of Japan's Shingon Sect). Kukai is also intimately associated with the Pilgrimage to the 88 Holy Sites of Shikoku. Since its founding until today, Kongobuji has served as the center of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and Mt. Koya remains one of modern Japan's most popular pilgrimage sites. The monastery is a vast repository of Buddhist art, especially mandalas, and home to a large number of graves. Dainichi Nyorai and Fudo Myo-o are two of the sect's most revered deities. Kobo Daishi's name literally means "great teacher of Buddhism." He is also credited with creating Japan's hiragana syllabary.

And the Pilgrimages (Shikoku Henro and more):

.. .. .. . . . . . . . ........ . Foreign Pilgrims at Koya San
Muslims have Mecca, Christians have Bethlehem, and Jews have Jerusalem. Travel 90 minutes by train from Osaka to Wakayama Prefecture and you will reach Koya-san, where thousands of Japanese descend annually in the hope that they will be touched by the spirit of Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist saint whose tomb lies at the top of the mountain.


The Japan Times: Dec. 10, 2004
(no longer availabel online)

Getting holy in Wakayama

Since ancient times, pilgrims have ventured into heavily forested mountains in Wakayama Prefecture to visit Koyasan, the headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. This is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Japan, lying in an alpine basin at an altitude of about 800 meters, and it attracts more than 1 million worshippers and tourists every year.

Admiring the awe-inspiring monastic buildings and outstanding natural beauty there, you will see why Koyasan is loved by so many people and why it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List last July.

Legend has it that more than a thousand years ago -- at a port in Ningbo, China -- Kukai (later to be known as Kobo Daishi 空海、弘法大師) threw a sankosho (a symbolic Buddhist pestle), which had been given to him by his master Keika, into the sky toward the east, with a wish that it would land in the ideal place for him to begin preaching Shingon Buddhism. On returning to Japan, Kukai looked for the sankosho and finally found it hanging on a pine tree in Koyasan in the year 816. After more than 1,200 years, the pine tree is still revered by monks and visited by many tourists daily.

The pine tree has a bundle of three needle-shaped leaves, just like the sankosho, which has three prongs at each end. The tree stands tall in front of Konpon Daito, a 48.5-meter gorgeously colored pagoda situated in Danjo Garan, an area that hosts many seminaries for esoteric practices. In Garan, the chances are fairly high that you will come across ascetic monks reciting Buddhist sutras.

Across a large parking lot from Danjo Garan is Kongobuji, which is the official headquarters of some 3,600 Shingon Buddhist temples in Japan. The original temple of Kongobuji was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) in memory of his mother.
The gorgeous paintings on sliding doors in the temple's rooms must be seen. The paintings include those from the famous Kano painting school from the Edo Period (1603-1867). The doors in the Yanaginoma (Willow Room) are decorated with the painter Kano Tansai's depictions of willow trees. Warrior Toyotomi Hidetsugu (1568-1595), who was exiled to Koyasan on orders from his uncle Hideyoshi, committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in this room.

Beautiful pink rhododendron are in full bloom in the inner-court area in early summer, (Photo from Gabi Greve)

and you can also admire Japan's largest rock garden, which measures 2,340 sq. meters. The shape of the rocks represents a pair of dragons emerging from a mass of clouds.
Another must-see spot in Koyasan is the Okunoin Cemetery, which is in dense forest to the east of the city. Inside the cemetery is Kobo Daishi Gobyo, a mausoleum where Kobo Daishi -- Kukai's posthumous honorific name -- rests in eternal meditation.

Lining the 2-km approach are some 300,000 tombstones, including those of historically important figures, such as Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen, both feudal warlords from the Sengoku Period (1467-1568).

The path toward the mausoleum is shrouded by hundreds-of-years-old giant cedar trees, which add to the tranquil spirit of the cemetery. Okunoin's tallest tombstone -- at 10 meters high -- marks the grave built for the wife of Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), the second Tokugawa shogun, and it is believed that it took as long as three years to build it.

The interior of Torodo (the Lantern Hall, tooroo doo 灯篭堂),
located at the end of the approach, just short of Gobyo (go-byoo), is illuminated by about 20,000 lanterns of various sizes. You can take a different route to leave, heading toward the Nakanohashi parking lot. You will see modern gravestones on this path, including corporate graves such as a coffee cup-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. or a television-shaped one for Sharp Corp. But the strangest gravestone must be the one built by a termite exterminator to console the spirits of white ants. It says "White Ants. Rest in Peace." (see below)

If you want to stay here, then lodging is available at 53 of the 117 temples in the Koyasan Basin. At such shukubo, tourists can enjoy the traditional vegetarian diet of monks. Goma-dofu (sesame bean curd) and Koya-dofu (freeze-dried bean curd), both local specialties, are especially worth a try. Guests can also experience Ajikan meditation at some shukubo temples. Ajikan is a meditation method of Shingon Buddhism, practiced in a leg-folded sitting position. When checking out shukubo Web sites, you might be surprised about the temples' commercial approach, as one would like to believe that such a spiritual place as Koyasan should avoid such influences.
But today's shukubo management dates back to the Nanboku-cho Period (1336-1392) or Muromachi Period (1392-1573), at a time when a huge number of pilgrims were traveling to Koyasan.
Around 1400, the Koyasan management prohibited shukubo temples from aggressively touting pilgrims from the Kyushu and Chugoku regions by operating checkpoints (sekisho). Some shukubo temples were using bribes to attract pilgrims.
"This illustrates a severe battle among Koyasan temples over regional supremacy at that time," said Yasunori Koyama, a professor at Tezukayama University who specializes in Japanese medieval history. "Apparently, shukubo management has been a huge financial resource for Koyasan."
Some shukubo temples also used to negotiate to decide which shukubo would accommodate which noble or shogun family, and such rights were often traded between temples. The tradition still remains at some shukubo, according to Koyama.

Koyasan is a unique Buddhist town. For those who love esoteric Buddhism (mikkyo), visiting this place is a must. For those who don't know much about it, this is still well worth a visit. And Koyasan is just two hours by train from central Osaka.

A trip in Koyasan will be twice as much fun with a local guide. If you are interested in a guided tour, contact the Koyasan Tourist Association at (0736) 56-2616 or the Wakayama Interpreter Volunteer Group at (0736) 73-5606. The group offers a foreign-language guide service for about 3,000 yen (transportation expense for the guide.)


Graves of famous Japanese at Koya San

It takes a while to load, but you get a good impression of the walk in the woods along the path to the Oku no In, innermost sanctuary.

places to stay in the Temple Grounds:Shukuboo

A gravestone for the souls of white ants, killed by pesticide.
Erected by the company that produces the pesticide (to placate their own soul???)

The white ants are great enemies of the wooden Japanese homes. They start eating the foundation or the roof beams and ruin it all, making it unsafe to stay in the house. When you detect them (usually you hear them gnawing on a quiet night) you have to inform the authorities, because your neighbour's home is in danger too. The official exterminators come to take care of the problem. And to placate their soul, I guess, they erected this stone at the All Japanese Graveyard:

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . . . . yasuraka ni nemure - rest in peace


.. .. .. .. .. .. .. Oku no In 奥の院

The most holy place in Koya San is the Innermost Temple, where Kobo Daishi is sitting in his eternal rest.
In front of his grave-temple is the Hall of the Lamps ,Tooroo-doo (the Lantern Hal l灯篭堂).

You can rent a lantern for a period of time as a religious service to a lost soul or relative. For three days you pay 1000 yen, for a whole year you have to deposit around 500 Dollars. The ceiling of the hall is full with these lamps and when you climb down, rows and rows of lanterns are hanging there, with the name of the deceased and the time until it is still burning. Needless to say, the hall is always quite warm with these many natural flames.
. . . CLICK here for Photos !

Approach to the Oku no In, more pictures

Lantern Festival at the Lantern Hall

.. .. .. .. .. Inside the Lantern Hall

Two sacred fires, which reportedly have been burning since the 11th century, are kept safely inside. The mausoleum itself is behind the Lantern Hall. Buy a white candle, light it, and wish for anything you want. Then sit back and watch respectfully as Buddhists come to chant and pay respects to one of Japan's greatest Buddhist leaders.


Offerings of Light、toomyoo kuyoo 灯明供養

The offering of Light, together with Incense, Flowers, Water and other things to please the deities is a custom coming from India whith the spread of Buddhism. Toomyoo (灯明), in Sanskrit “diipa”. First, oil from plants was used, later candles and nowadays of course electric lights are used.

The symbolism of light in the Buddhist context is to “tear away the darkness of illusion through the all-penetrating light of the Buddha”. The Buddha light brings wisdom and compassion to all humankind. At the end of your life, it will lead you to the paradise in the west.

The well-known “Hall of Lanterns” (see above) at Mt. Koya is a place for the offering of light.
Legend knows that the Monk Kishin in 1016 saw a bright light on the moss in front of the mausoleum of Kuukai one night. So he decided to put up a candle at this place and this first light of his candle has never seized to burn, a never-ending light (kiezu no toomyoo 消えずの灯明) until today.

In Esoteric Buddhism there are special Bodhisattvas for the Offerings (kuyoo bosatsu 供養菩薩), one of them is the one for light offerings, Kongootoo Bosatsu (金剛灯菩薩). Some temples have a “never-eding light” (jooyatoo じょうやとう) 
(mujintoo 無尽灯). After a Buddhist burrial it is customary to keep this light up for 49 days.

There are many rituals where Light Offerings play an important part at the temples, for example the “festival of ten thousand lights” (mandoo-e 万灯会) at the Temple Toodai-ji on August 15, during the O-Bon Festival period. The more than 2500 graves around the temple are all lit with candles.

. . . CLICK here for Photos !

Maybe the many fire festivals, hi-matsuri 火祭り are also connected to this belief in the offering of light to the deities.

On the altar, the most simple arrangement of tools is the
“three objects” mitsu gusoku三具足、an incense burner, a candle holder and a flower vase.


Next we have the “four objects” yotsu gusoku 四具足with two flower vases, one on each side. This constellation is very seldom。

Five objects, go gusoku 五具足, is a usage for large ceremonies. Two candle holders at both sides. Two vases next and one incense burner in the middle.


The Lotus Sutra, Hokke-kyoo 法華経、describes various deities as Bosatsu concerned with light offerings.

Niman Toomyoobutsu二萬燈明仏
Sanman Toomyoobutsu三萬燈明仏
Nichi-gatsu Toomyoobutsu日月燈明仏, the Sun and Moon Light Offering Buddhas
Myookoo Bosatsu妙光菩薩

They all belong to a grouping of “secret Buddhas for 30 days” (sanjuunichi hibutsu 三十日秘仏).

Buddha of Burning Light,
Dapankara, Dipankara (Dpankara) Buddha大和竭羅

Megha, a young disciple of Brahmanism, was given a prophecy by Dpankara Buddha that he would become Buddha, an enlightened one, in the next world. The original word for 燃燈 is Dpankara, which is also translated as 定光 or 錠光 in Chinese. This tale is generally called the Dpankara jataka.

Read more about this Buddha here:

Dipankara, the Buddha of Fixed Light

The Dipankara Buddha is said to predate the historical Buddha in a world cycle long past and to have foretold his coming. He is sometimes equated with Adibuddha, the "original Buddha." Since about the 17th century his cult has been popular with Nepalese Buddhists who consider him a protector of merchants and associate him with alms-giving. One of Dipankara's local names, the "Samyak god", refers to an alms-giving festival where images such as this one are displayed, as well as images with wooden or basketry bodies and metal heads and hands. Basketry images consist of a large, hollow torso covered with clothing and ornaments capable of concealing a man who animates it in procession.

.. .. .. .. ..

The Celestial Tejaprabha Buddha of Bright Light and the five planets,
Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink and colours on silk

Copyright © The British Library Board

Cross-Currents in East Asian Buddhism and Buddhist Art Conference Abstracts


This concludes my excursion to the world of Light Offerings.

To learn more about light and stone lanterns, read Mark Schumacher here:


enten no sora utsukushi ya Kooyasan

the blazing sky
is so beautiful -
Mount Koya Monastery

Takahama Kyoshi 虚子
Tr. Gabi Greve

. enten - blazing sky and haiku


For a little extra joy, look at my photo album with great pictures of Koya-San
. Koya San, Photoalbum .

Read some of my haiku about Koya-San
Koya-san in Wakayama

Light offerings are also many kigo for Haiku.
... Light offerings ...





Gabi Greve said...

The white ant gravestone was intriguing.
I was searching for more information on the white ants and came across this one:



Gabi Greve said...

ANT, a kigo for haiku



Gabi Greve said...

. Mount Koya -- Japan's holy retreat, By MICHAEL DUNN .

May 2006, Japan Times


Anonymous said...

Enoki Takaaki painting at Mt. Koya



Gabi Greve, Worldkigo said...

Kooya hijiri 高野聖(こうやひじり)"mendicant priests from Mr. Koya"
"Wanderpriester vom Bergkloster Koyasan"

Lethocerus deyrollei

name of a giant water beetle, kigo for all summer

Gabi Greve - WKD said...

yamainu o nogarete kiri no hijiri kana

he escaped
the wild dogs, this mendicant
monk in the mist . . .

Kooya hijiri 高野聖 Koya Hijiri

. Yosa Buson 与謝蕪村 .


Gabi Greve - Basho archives said...

Matsuo Basho

kono kokoro suiseyo hana ni goki ichigu

this my heart
you will know - with this flower
and this begging bowl

Written in the spring of 1692 元禄5年春
for Kagami Shiko

Gabi Greve said...

Matsuo Basho Stones at Koya san






Gabi Greve said...

Matsuo Basho

貞亨5 45

Together with his disciple Tsuboi Tokoku he visited Mount Yoshino and then Koyasan and reached Waka no Ura at the end of the third lunar month.

Gabi Greve said...

春の闇 師とみほとけをこの山に
haru no yami shi to mihotoke o kono yama ni

spring darkness -
the great teacher and the Buddha
on this mountain

Sugimoto Hiroshi 杉本寛

(Maybe he is talking about the mountain monastery Koyasan and Kobo Daishi.)

Gabi Greve - Basho archives said...

Matsuo Basho

chichi haha no shikiri ni koishi kiji no koe

Father, mother dear!
I hear as I mourn for you –
hear the pheasant's cry!

The voice of the pheasant;
how I longed
for my dead parents!

Tr. Blyth

This is a reference waka by Gyoki Bosatsu 行基菩薩

Written in 1688, Basho age 45
at Mount Koyasan, Temple Kongobu-Ji 金剛峰寺
MORE hokku about the pheasant

Gabi Greve said...

Fudo Myo-O at Mt. Koya (Koyasan, Kooyasan)

不動明王 Fudo Myo-O

Gabi Greve said...

金剛峯寺 Kongobu-Ji, Wakayama
Koyasan Museum 愛染明王 - 高野山霊宝館

Kobo Daishi Kukai introduced Aizen Myo-O to Japan.
Aizen Myo-O 愛染明王

Gabi Greve said...

tokko, dokko 独鈷 と伝説 Legends about the Vajra Thunderbolt

Gabi Greve said...

Tengu Koorinboo 高林坊 Korin-Bo, Korinbo
護法天狗高林坊 Goho Tengu Korin-Bo, protector of the law
identical with 狩場明神 Kariba Myojin of Mount Koyasan.

. Niu Myoojin 丹生明神 Niu Myojin .
A female mountain deity that resides in Mt. Koya 高野山.
Nui Myoujin's son (or emanation) Kariba Myojin 狩場明神 (also known as 高野明神 Koya Myojin) appeared as a hunter who led Kukai to the site.

Gabi Greve said...

Legend from Iwate, Ofunato

奥州の仙人伝説 Legends about the Sennin from Oshu
At the temple 龍福山長谷寺 Hasedera there lived an old priest, 阿光坊澄水法印 Akobo Sunzu Hoin.
In 1597 on the 21st day of the 9th lunar month, he suddenly asked his disciples to put water in a tub and place it in the garden. The then sprinkled the water with his fingers.
When they asked him why he did this, he said there was a fire at Mount Koyasan and he wanted to help extinguish the fire.
At that hour, there had indeed been a fire at Mount Koyasan.

Gabi Greve said...

高野山聖衆来迎図 Reigozu
raigoo, raigō 来迎 Raigo, the soul on the way to paradise
"Decent of Amida Buddha", "Amida Coming over the Mountain"


Gabi Greve said...

ishi doorooo 石灯篭、石燈籠、石燈篭 Ishidoro, stone lantern
tōrō, tooroo 灯篭 Toro stone and other lanterns


Gabi Greve said...

Koya Kaido 高野街道 pilgrim roads
- - - - - Coming from Kawachi Nagano were
東高野街道 Higashi Koya Kaido
中高野街道 Naka Koya Kaido
下高野街道 Shimo Koya Kaido
西高野街道 Nishi Koya Kaido

- - - - - Coming from Hashimoto were
町石道 Choishi michi
京大坂道 Kyo-Osaka michi
勅使坂 Chokushi saka - 三谷坂(ミタニザカ)Mitanizaka slope
黒河道 Kuroko michi

Gabi Greve said...

Hokekyo 法華経 / ホケキョウ Lotus Sutra legends