Japan’s Hidden World of Temples

November 13, 2020

Surrounded by eight peaks and suspended high in the mountains, Koya-san’s 117 temples evoke a spiritual experience like none other.

A walk in the woods

In 816 AD, a monk named Kukai wandered into the thickly forested slopes of Mount Koya (Koya-san) in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture in hope of finding a suitable site to build a base for his newly founded Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism. He chose an 800m-deep valley surrounded by eight peaks, whose ridges resemble the petals of an eight-petaled lotus blossom. Twelve centuries and 117 temples later, Kukai’s spiritual wooded wonderland is a Unesco World Heritage site and one of Japan’s most sacred destinations – a place where the wafting aroma of incense, the chanting of shaved-head monks and the primeval air of forested cemeteries creates a spiritual experience like none other.

Worshipping the natural world

Today, Koya-san is part of the sacred pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodo, whose towering cedar and cypress forests, crashing waterfalls and temple-studded peaks appear to be suspended among the clouds in certain places. This 307km network of moss-covered stones and earthen trails, which connect the three great Kumano shrines to Koya-san, attracts roughly 15 million visitors a year and reflects the ancient Japanese belief of worshipping nature. In the Japanese religion of Shintoism, forests and rocks can be inhabited by the spirits of gods (kami) and every element of nature is considered divine.

Of the 117 temples scattered throughout Koya-san, some 50 of which serve as shukubo inns where guests can spend the night, meditate and commune with monks. And more than 1,200 years after Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) first ventured into Koya-san’s secluded slopes, his spirit is believed to reside here in eternal meditation.

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