Koyasan Japan Guide | How to get to Mount Koya

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Are you looking for a Koyasan Japan Guide? I know I was when I first discovered the area. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much information on the temple settlement, so planning a trip there wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. The good news is that I made it to Koyasan, and I loved it. Now I’m sharing all the information with you.

What is Koyasan?

Koyasan is often referred to as Mount Kōya or Koya-san. Mount Koya literally translates to Koyasan in Japanese. It’s a temple settlement found in the mountain areas of the Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.

The area is known as the headquarters of the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. It’s believed this is where Buddhism started in Japan, so it’s become the most common starting point to the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

While visitors are unlikely to hike to see the 88 temples, the town of Koya has more than 100 temples that you can access. Since this area doesn’t have a shinkansen stop, many tourists tend to skip it, but that would be a mistake.

Think of Koyasan as a real-life look at ancient Japan. Since there are no hotels in the area, you can choose to stay in a Buddhist temple with monks. Not only will they serve you the best vegetarian food you’ve ever had, but they’ll also allow you to observe their rituals. You’ll also find Okunoin, the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, on the east side of town.

How to get to Koyasan from Osaka

In this Koyasan Japan guide, I’m going to teach you how to get to Koyasan from Osaka. The journey is about two hours total, but often people don’t bother because the route is not covered with the JR Pass. In other words, you’ll need to pay for all your transportation to get there.

Another “barrier” is the fact that you have to use four different modes of transportation to get to Mount Koya. While this may sound intimidating, it’s actually a pretty straightforward process. Plus, the trains, cable cars, and buses are all timed to arrive / takeoff within a reasonable time of each other, so it can be a seamless transition.

Here’s how to get to Koyasan from Osaka:

  • From Namba or Shin-Imamiya station in Osaka, take the Nankai Koya Line to Hashimoto station.
  • At Hashimoto station, change trains for the one that takes you to Gokurakubashi terminal station
  • At Gokurakubashi terminal station, you’ll switch to the Koyasan Cablecar
  • When you get to Koyasan station, take the bus (check with your accommodations to find out which bus number to take). That said, they all end up in the town.

There are a few express trains that take you right to Gokurakubashi from Osaka, but I wouldn’t bother trying to time things exactly as it won’t save you that much time. The trip costs about ¥1,600, but if you take the express train, it’s about ¥2,400.

Again, I know the route sounds complicated, but it’s really easy if you have the app Japan Trains or Hyperdia. It’ll tell you exactly which trains to take, what time they arrive, and even what platform to stand on.

Here’s a visual guide on how to get to Koyasan from Osaka.

Kyoto Japan guide Osaka to Hashimoto
Kyosan Japan Guide Hashimoto to Koyasan

Koyasan World Heritage Ticket

When researching how to get to Koyasan from Osaka, you’ll likely come across the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. This is basically a round trip ticket from Osaka to Mount Koya that gives you unlimited use of the local buses and discounted admission at select attractions for up to two days.

You get two options for the ticket:

  • Regular Version – ¥3,080
  • Limited Express Version – ¥3,630

The regular version of the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket can be used on all trains on the Nankai Koya Line except limited express trains. With the limited express version, you can take the express train when heading towards Koyasan, but not on the way back. Honestly, the express train only saves you 15 minutes, so don’t bother. Both versions of the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket follow the same route listed above.

Since the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket is cheaper than buying individual tickets, you might as well get it. The only time you wouldn’t buy it is if you planned on staying beyond the two-day validity period. Most people only stay one night in Koya-san, so this isn’t an issue.

The Koyasan World Heritage Ticket can be purchased at any major Nankai railway station. I bought mine when I arrived at Namba station in Osaka. Just look for the signs that take you to the Nankai trains. 

Getting around Koyasan

This Koyasan Japan Guide will also cover local transportation. Koyasan has a local bus system which is included for free with your Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. When you first arrive at the Koyasan bus station, you’ll have to take the bus to get into town since walking is not allowed on the street between the bus station and Koya. Most people will head straight to their accommodations to drop off their bags.

Now that you’re in town, you can use the bus, but Koyasan is very small, so you could walk the entire town instead. There’s only one major street and the entire length of the town is about 3 kilometres from end-to-end. That would take you roughly 30-40 minutes to walk it. Of course, you would also get a chance to stop and check out random temples and stores. If you get tired, jump on the next bus you see.

Koyasan temple stay

If you’re making the journey to Mount Koya, it’s highly recommended you do a Koyasan temple stay. These stays were originally provided for people doing the pilgrimage, but it’s now open to the public. Rarely do non-practicing Buddhists get to see the insides of a temple, so getting the chance to see one in Japan is an experience that you won’t soon forget.

The accommodations are pretty basic. You’ll get your own private room, but the washrooms and showers are shared (there are showers for women). Basically, you’re staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan. However, they do provide a vegetarian dinner and breakfast that’s typically delivered right to your room. You can also observe their morning prayers. Some temples even offer a fire show, but that seems to be aimed at tourists as I doubt Buddhists would perform fire daily shows otherwise.

Some of the most popular Koyasan temple stays include:

It’s worth noting that booking your Koyasan temple stay is a bit more difficult than it needs to be. Not every temple shows up on the major search engines such as Booking.com or Expedia.com. Some only allow you to book directly through their own websites, while others work with japaneseguesthouses.com. 

As for prices, you can expect to pay ¥11,000 – ¥25,000, per person, per night. That’s clearly expensive, but again, this could potentially be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so it could be worth it. Most of the temples are similar, so I wouldn’t worry too much about which one you choose from my Koyasan Japan guide.

Koyasan Japan Guide temple stay

Koyasan guesthouses

If you think a Koyasan temple stay is too expensive, then your only other option is to stay at a guest house/ryokan. Honestly, these options are perfectly fine. If you’re unfamiliar with ryokans, it’s a traditional style of staying in Japan. You’ll get your own room, but washrooms and baths are usually communal. Typically guesthouses don’t include any meals, but they may offer a continental buffet breakfast.

Some of the more popular Koyasan guest houses include:

Staying at a Koya-san guest house is about half the price of a Koyasan Buddhist temple. Plus, booking a guest house is easy since they’re on all the major travel websites. Basically, you should choose a guest house if you want to save money. However, if you want a cultural experience, book a Koyasan temple stay. 

Koyasan attractions

A Koyasan Japan guide must include things to do. Since Koyasan is such a small town, there are only a handful of attractions. Generally speaking, you can expect to see three main things in Koyasan.

Okunoin

On the eastern end of Koyasan, you’ll find Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery. While it may seem odd for a cemetery to be an attraction, Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in the country since it’s built around the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. In front of the mausoleum, you’ll find the Hall of Lanterns, which is the centre of worship here. The legend is that some of the lanterns have been burning for more than 1,000 years. Throughout the cemetery, you’ll find lots of interesting tombstones as many prominent Japanese people are buried here including monks, feudal lords, and founders of businesses.

Koyasan temples

Mount Koya has more than 100 temples. Obviously, you’re not going to see them all. The good thing is that most of the temples are concentrated on the west side of town. You only need to dedicate an hour or two to this area. The most important temple is Kongobuji. It was originally constructed in 1593 and serves as the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. Nearby you’ll also find shrines, pagodas, and Japanese gardens. A lot of these attractions have English signs outside with a brief description so you can understand their significance.

Koyasan Reihokan Museum

The Koyasan Reihokan Museum was founded in 1921 and displays over 78,000 Buddhist cultural assets. Things you’ll see include statues, sculptures, scrolls, fine crafts, and more. Despite the fact that there are so many items on display, it’s not a super huge museum, so you can likely finish it in an hour. The museum is typically open every day from 8:30am – 5pm. Admission is ¥1,300, but you get 15% off if you have the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket. 

How much time to spend in Koyasan?

As you’ve likely learned by now, Mount Koya is quite small and has limited attractions. If you’re interested in doing a Koyasan temple stay, then you only need one night. All the temple stays are similar, so there’s no real reason to stay at different temples over a few days. 

It’s also possible to see Koyasan as a day trip from Osaka. It’s roughly a two-hour journey, so if you left Osaka at 8am, you’d arrive at 10am. That would give you more than enough time to see the attractions and to have a nice lunch. You’d still make it back to Osaka at a reasonable time. Some people may think this is quite the effort for a day trip, but it’s a shorter distance compared to a day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima and Miyajima

While this Koyasan Japan guide only covers one area, I also have other detailed guides on Japan including:

About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi

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