Koya-san Day Trip

For my summer vacation, which consisted of three glorious days off in a row, I decided to go to Kyoto Botanical Garden for a day, sleep a day, and spend the final one experiencing Koya-san.  My intended trip to Fuji-san had to be canceled due to lack of $.  Happy to see the photos from Tyler Sherrod, a fellow Southerner’s trip up to the top.   Perhaps next year. Day 1:  Kyoto Botanical Garden.  This place is definitely worth visiting during the peak tourism seasons of cherry blossom season or Fall.  As with any respectable botanical garden, there’s always something going on or blooming.  Most of my time was spent in “zonal denial” at the Conservatory.  Seeing all the tropicals, orchids, and desert plants was dangerous and inspiring at the same time.  The bonsai collection there was not worth seeing on it’s own merit, but admirable that there is effort put forth to promote the art to the public.  Lack of photos here on a bonsai blog means something.  The conservatory and overall garden experience however, was excellent.

My new favorite flower Hibiscus schitzopetalus.

   Cyrtostachys lakka(left) and a section of the massive rose garden (right).

Old Cycas revoluta (sago palm) colony in the Victorian Garden.

Day 2:  Sleep Time

Day 3:  Trip to Koya-san.  Koya-san is home to the Japanese headquarters of Shingon Buddhism.  If you’re in the Kansai Region of Japan and have the time, this place is worth killing a day to see.

 Mt. Koya is in Wakayama Prefecture about two hours south of Osaka by train.  The site was chosen in 816 for a Buddhist monastery as it was far removed from the politics and distractions of city life.  The town sits on a flat-topped mountain surrounded by 8 nearby peaks.  To this day, it’s still pretty far removed from any major cities, although getting there no longer requires three plus days of hiking up and down mountains.  It is the starting point and terminus of the famous 88 Temple Shikoku Pilgrimage so some people still walk there : ). Some cultural and religious sites in Japan have become tourist traps, but Koya-san has done well keeping things balanced with around half the temples (there are about 100 there) providing lodging . Koya-san Tourism Association is top-notch.  Enough foreigners have come to warrant English language guided tours (for FREE) and plenty of maps and hand-outs with directions like “you will not go home if you are not on the 9:15 pm train back to Osaka”.  First thing I did upon arrival was hit their office. Next stop was the Garan, which means “clean and quiet place” in Sanskrit.  As with many important Buddhist places, this one was first a Shinto site first.  This area is home to the original meditation hall, temples, and other important buildings seen below.

     Next was Kongobugi (Vajra Peak) Temple.  In Japan, this is the Shingon Buddhism HQ.  While many monasteries have burned due to war, Koya-san’s buildings have always burned due to lightning.  Following the lead of Oda Nobunaga’s destruction of Hiezan, Toyotomi Hideoshi was intent on destroying this powerful monastic community.  However, he was persuaded to back off and later became a major patron of this site.  He also commited seppoku (ritual suicide) at this temple.  Japan has got to be the most fire paranoid country on the planet.  National Fire Safety and Preparedness day was last week.  Check out the permanent buckets of water on the roof and prepped ladder.

 Inside, there were tons of foreign tourists taking flash photography of all the screen paintings and I cringed with each flash; for the damage to the priceless artwork and the shamelessness of these foreigners to move the “no photos” (in multiple languages) sign for a better angle…..  Shortly before leaving for Japan, Ryan Neil told me “Remember, you’re representing a lot more than just yourself over there”.  So true.

One of Kongobugj’s claims to fame is that it has the largest karesansui (dry landscape) garden in Japan.  Big does not always mean good though; for bonsai and gardens.

My favorite garden was in the back of the temple complex.  The design is fairly simple, but clever shaping of individual plants in the garden proper as well as the perimeter screening plants was impressive.  So much depth and texture even when the pieris, rhododendrons, and azleas are not in bloom.

The craftsmanship and artwork inside of Kongobuji is impressive but you’ll have to check out their site or visit one day.  Between this temple and Okunoin, I wandered in and out of about 10 Buddhist and Shinto sites.  It’s interesting seeing Sanskit inscriptions and distinctly Indian embellishments with Japanese architecture.


A Shinto shrine at the end of a very steep ascent (left).  The oldest and largest Koyamaki niwaki I’ve seen.  Koyamaki, known to us as Sciadopitys verticillata or Umbrella Pine, is so named because it is so common in this area.  The straight species can reach 40′ tall x 20′ wide in the wild but most stay conical or columnar and much smaller in the garden.  Graves here are not decorated with flowers, but with branches of Koyamaki.

My last stop of the day was Okunoin; a massive cemetery almost 2 kilometers long and containing over 200,000 grave sites.  The most important being a mausoleum or “place of eternal meditation” as it is referred to here for Kobo Daishi (Kukai).  Two meals are still made every day in offering.  Grave sites are interspersed throughout the old-growth Cryptomeria japonica forest.  A great place to observe cryptomeria not shaped by man but so easy to get up close to.  I’d read about a monument erected by an extermination company in apology to the billions of insects they kill but alas, could not find it in my wanderings.      


Grave site for people with no remaining family members to pray for them. The monks take this responsibility on.  Bibs are often placed on statues of the Jizo Bosatsu; protector of children in this life and the after-life

Without planning this at all, my day at Koya-san fell on the Rosoku Matsuri (Candle Festival) held annually to provide solace to the souls of family members.  Massive amounts of candles are distributed to be lit along both sides of the 2 km path.







Rain really put a (excuse the pun) damper on things, but made for some nice photo snapping moments.  I was lucky to make it back to the bus and cable-car final trips.  Home by 1:30 am and ready for another day of bonsai work…..

Thanks for reading.