Beyond Japan's Major Cities: Escape to Koyasan

Kimura Tetsushi / Getty Images

The secluded Buddhist mountain hideaway outside of Kyoto is one of the country’s most religious sites.

The air in Koyasan is laced with spirituality. The town, home to the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism, is dotted with 120 temples and monasteries, all within the span of about a 40-minute walk. Of its 3,000 residents, a thousand of them are monks or monks in training.

The reason to visit—it’s a two-hour train ride south of Kyoto—is for the privilege of staying at one of about 50 shukubo, working temples with guest rooms where monks attend to travelers as part of their duties. We like the 13-room Souji-in (from $400; 143 Koyasan). It’s decorated like a ryokan, with tatami mats and ornate sliding doors. Monks serve shojin ryori (elaborate kaiseki-like vegetarian cuisine) for dinner at 6 P.M., as well as for breakfast after a 6 A.M. Buddhist prayer ceremony that overnighters can attend. Ask for one of the three rooms with a private bathroom.

Koyasan has one main street that is two miles long, making it easy for a traveler to navigate the area without knowing a lick of Japanese. Across from Souji-in is the Danjo Garan, Koyasan’s central complex. A ten-minute walk west is Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon. Behind the building is Banryutei, Japan’s largest rock garden. The real highlight, though, is Okunoin, a graveyard on the eastern side of town. More than 200,000 tombs, some ancient and some new, flank a meditative one-and-a-quarter-mile path lined with century-old cedar trees.