Western tourists in Japan share with almost all of their foreign counterparts this understandable appeal, especially for Tokyo and Kyoto. But they often add this sometimes surprising fascination for Mount Koya, probably related to its constant appearance in classical paperback guides.
On site, this flow of Western tourists is immediately betrayed by a rare specificity in Japan: the display of signs written and even the broadcast of vocal messages in English, French or other western languages (with bonuses: grammar and vocabulary mistakes!). If during your travel, you are willing to find peace and resource yourself far away from your roots, you may have to think about these far away places of Kii mounts, and avoid to place Koyasan as the main site, or you might come back disappointed.
In order to make it convenient, the journey to Koyasan is a well organized and accessible small trip. Koya being nested directly in the South of Osaka, the departure site is naturally there. Count about two hours to reach the end of the train, cable car and bus trio. Once at the top of the peak, distances happen to be quite small (the farther points of interests are only separated by a few kilometers) and it is possible to do everything by walking, allowing then to remain independent of a barely working bus network.
Majestic attractions and temple lodgings
The heart of the visit mostly happens in the gorgeous walk until Okuno-in, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (Kukai), one of the founder, during the 9th century, of the Buddhism as we know it today in Japan. Do not get fooled in your path: if the original, typical, offers a delicious walk among the guardian summits of a cemetery which spreads out of sight, the other path is a vast, asphalted road without charm, constantly beaten by a massive flow of tourists buses. We could have imagined something more authentic as being the unofficial starting/arriving point of the 88 Shikoku temples pilgrimage.
The other main goal of Koyasan obviously remains Shukubo, an overnight stay in one among Koya-san's hundreds of Buddhist temples. It is absolutely possible to chose not to stay, therefore validating the possibility to enjoy the place in one full day. One can read everything and its contrary about spending the night in a temple: from delighted customers of this authentic atmosphere (prayers at dawn and vegetarian food) to comments disgusted by an expensive experience and finally very (too much?) money-based by monks considering you as no more than the rest of the flow of Western tourists they see all year long, and this up to selling souvenir products!
The rest of the visit in Koya-San consists in several pretty points of interests, among which Garan, Kongobu-ji and also Daimon. Enough to spend a very good time there despite the massive groups of visitors, especially during the touristy season, which may prevent you to find a calm and quiet time.
As a good alternative, hiking in the Kii Mountains, when your planning and the weather allow it, offer a more mystical and less touristy approach. As often, the journey is worth more than the destination.
How to get to Mount Koya
Reaching Koyasan in 3 steps from Osaka:
First by train to Gokurakubashi from Osaka-Namba or Shin-Imamiya : 1h20 by direct express train (5 trains/day) or 1h40 with a transfer at Hashimoto (2 to 3 trains/hour)
Then cable car from Gokurakubashi to Koyasan station: 5 minutes
Finally by bus from Koya-san to Senjuinbashi (central stop on the top of the mountain) : 10 minutes
Location unreachable with the JR Pass
Get there with a rental car
Common ticket “Nankai Koyasan World Heritage Ticket” (for 2 days on train, cable car and buses) from Osaka Namba or Shin-Imamiya: 3,400¥ / ~US$ 30.20 by Limited Express or 2,860¥ / ~US$ 25.40 by classic train (50% off for children between 6 to 11 years old)
Combined ticket (without transportation): 2,000¥ (~US$ 17.80), available for main attractions e.g. Kongobuji, Garan, Reihokan and Tokugawa mausoleum
Overnight in temple lodging: count about 10,000¥ / ~US$ 88.90 in average
Get your Japanese Yens free of charge
How long / when to visit
A minimum of 1 full day or more, depending of the nights spent on site
Ideal period: all year round (but very cold in winter)
In 2015 Koyasan celebrated its 1200 years old!
Due to the typhoon on October 23, 2017, the train was suspended from Hashimoto. Work completed on March 31, 2018