Pilgrimage to Koyasan

The sacred town of Koyasan (sometimes translated as Mt Koya), lies tucked away in a high mountain valley, surrounded by eight peaks that are said to form the shape of a lotus flower. For 800 years, pilgrims have been trekking the Choishi-Michi footpath from Jison temple to Koyasan to visit the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and see the resting place of Kukai, the monk who did not die, but merely settled in for eternal meditation. Although there are fewer now that in its heyday, Koyasan still contains over 100 temples. A number of the temples will host visitors for the the night, provided the visitor joins the morning and evening ceremonies. Most tourists travel to Koyasan by a combination of train, cable car and bus. 

I am not most tourists.

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Ascending the stairs at Jison temple 

It should really come to no one’s surprise at this point that I decided to forego the whole cable car routine and run the Choishi-Michi trail to Koyasan. It’s interesting, in hindsight, that I would undertake any kind of religious pilgrimage, considering how non-religious I am otherwise. I wouldn’t, for example, get so excited about staying in a Christian monastery and participating in their prayers. Maybe it’s the fact that I come from a culture where Buddhism is an anomaly, and therefore mystical and interesting?

Or maybe it’s because I’m surrounded by temples in the city of Kyoto, and I’m increasingly fascinated by the intersection between religion, art and politics that has shaped Japanese history?

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The signs on the well-marked Choishi-Michi pilgrimage route.

Or, the most plausible explanation, I just like to run places. I also knew there was an hour of meditation with the monks impending during my evening in Koyasan, and physical exhaustion was most certainly necessary in order to achieve the spiritual calm to do such a thing. So I ran, through the houses of Kudoyama and up through Jison temple, following the well-marked footpath that was first paved and then transitioned into increasingly rough trail as I climbed higher.

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Running through the bamboo forest.

The long climb into the mountains wound up through fields of Japanese persimmon trees. The sun was shining and I didn’t regret my choice to wear shorts, even though the temperatures have been growing cooler in the last week.

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Japanese persimmon trees in the sunshine 

The Choichi-Michi is marked with stone pillars called ‘stupa’ that are supposed to be spaced every 109 meter along the path. I’m going to hazard a guess that they didn’t have a very accurate way of measuring distance in 1285, when the pillars were originally erected. I found the stupa to be rather unevenly spaced. Apparently many of the stupa are original, and I’d say they looked pretty good despite having stood for 800 years.

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The stupa lining the Choichi-Michi piligrimage trail.

After the initial long climb, the trail was fairly flat and runnable in many sections. I wasn’t feeling particularly peppy, and decided just to enjoy the day, alternately walking and running depending on my mood. I was excited and little bit nervous about the upcoming meditation. Those who know me are aware that patience is not among my natural virtues, and I saw the meditation as a challenge to myself. I know there’s no way to ‘fail’ at meditation, but my goal was to allow myself to be absorbed by it and really try to find to focus on the moment, rather than allowing myself to drift off, or, Kukai forbid, fidget.

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On the final climb to the Daimon Gate.

I met only two other runners, going the opposite direction as me. Clever people, I thought, they get to run downhill all the way! I passed handfuls of hikers headed in the same direction as me, although many weren’t going all the way to Koyasan.

It took around three hours for me to cover the just over twenty kilometers to the end of the Choichi-Michi. The final stretch of trail was extremely steep, and so I didn’t see the Daimon Gate until I popped up over the edge in front of it. The gate is absolutely enormous, and pretty awe-inspiring, a suitable bookend to such a venerable trail.

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The Daimon Gate on the outskirts of Koyasan

As it was still early, I decided to take a slight detour before entering Koyasan proper to climb Bentendake. Just after turning onto the trail, I encountered this nerve-wracking sign:

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Beware of bears! (Don’t go out alone)

I had just gotten over my fear of boars, and now I had to worry about bears! I kept going, jumping nervously every time I heard a rustle in the bushes. On top of Bentendake there was a tiny shrine (what else), before the trail descended steeply to a Nyonindo, one of the points of entry to Koyasan where women traditionally weren’t allowed to enter. There is a trail that circumnavigates Koyasan, so that woman could get near this holy place, even if they were forbidden to enter. In the spirit of solidarity with oppressed women of the passed, I continued along a stretch of this trail. Somewhere along the way I started to get really tired and regretted my solidarity.

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My ‘this-had-better-be-the-last-climb-of-the-day’ face.

I found the quickest route into town and hit up two coffee shops for some much-needed sustenance after my small lunch on the trail. Then I went to check out Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. Anyone who’s anyone in Shingon Buddhism has their remains sent to Okuoin, in order to be close to Kukai in his eternal meditation. There are 200,000 gravestones of all sizes scattered throughout the forest, some overgrown with moss and some still fresh from the engravers tools.

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Someone important is probably buried here.

I had been told to make sure to check in to my temple before 5 pm, so I cut my sightseeing short and head over to Rengejoin, my accommodation for the evening. I was welcomed with tea, but to my dismay bath time wasn’t until after meditation and dinner. I felt kind of sticky from my long run, but reasoned that the bath would be all the better for waiting.

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My little room at Rengejoin temple. If you don’t sleep well on hard beds, don’t go here! 

A bell range through the temple, letting the guests know it was time for the evening ceremony: meditation. We gathered in the main hall, a dimly lit room decorated with intricate ornaments. We could choose between sitting on meditation cushions on the floor, or little stools. I went for the cushion, wanting the ‘cross-legged Buddha’ experience. The monks sat around the alter, and the guests were in a small room in front of the alter, almost like seats in front of a stage.

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A lamp decorating the main hall in Rengejoin temple.

After a long explanation in Japanese, the head monk switched to sing-song, melodic English, explaining how we should fold our hands and cross our legs. “Imagine a pipe, running from your head all the way down your back,” he explained in his peaceful voice, “And when you breathe in, the air flows down the pipe. Count each breath, to ten, and repeat. This is the most basic meditation.” I was a woman on a mission; I had to count to ten for forty minutes.

After some chanting and the banging of a gong, the room fell to silence and I closed my eyes. Breathe in (1), breathe out. I could hear people around me shifting slightly in their seats. Someone cleared their throat. Breathe in (2), breathe out. As my breath slowed, the sound of my heart beat seemed to increase in volume until it shook my body with every pulse. Breathe in (3), breathe out. The room smelled faintly of incense.

I wondered how many ten-breath cycles would make 40 minutes, and decided it was best not to keep track. Breathe in (4), breathe out. My mind wandered to everyday subjects, but the count was louder than the idle chatter in my mind. breathe in (5), breathe out. Don’t loose count. It doesn’t really matter though, you can just start again. Breathe in (6), breathe out.

My feet had fallen asleep and my back ached. I shifted my center of gravity slightly, sitting up tall, determined to stay in my half-lotus position to the very end. Breathe in (7), breathe out. I imagined bearded yogis sitting on cliffs in the jungle, meditating for days and nights on end. I couldn’t feel the places where my folded hands touched each other anymore. Breathe in (8), breathe out. The people around me shifted and sniffed and clear their throats, and it all seemed to blend into a part of the cycle of my counting. Breathe in (9), breathe out.

The gong sounded again, startling me. Was it really over? It was. The head monk had another explanation at the end, explaining about the purpose of meditation and loosing oneself into the cosmic Buddha and encountering transcendental beings. He might of lost me there, but the meditation was an interesting experiences nonetheless. 

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How can a dinner that comes on two trays be so small? Laid out beautifully, as always in Japan.

For dinner, we were served traditional monk’s food, shojin ryori, which is vegetarian. There was tofu in a lots of different forms, rice, pickled vegetables, some tempura vegetables, broth and slices of Japanese pear for desert. It was delicious, if not a ton of calories for someone who had run for nearly 4 hours that day. I may or may not have eaten a candy bar in my room afterwards.

Then it was bath time, and I took a glorious, hot Japanese bath. Feely tranquil, I retired early, setting a 5:30 am alarm to catch the morning ceremony.

For the morning ceremony, the monks chanted. Although this was interesting, and beautiful, I felt a bit distanced from it all, as a opposed to the meditation where I was an active participant. 

After a similarly frugal breakfast, I stopped and got coffee and a pastry before heading to the hills for another run. I ran the rest of the Nyonindo trail, circumnavigating Koyasan and climbing several of the small mountains around the village. The trail brought me through Okunoin once again, and I paid a visit to Kukai’s place of eternal meditation. 

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No photographs allowed in Kukai’s resting place, but here are some Buddha sculptures that you throw water on to prayer.

After a stopping in town for lunch, I jogged the short, steep Fudozaka trail down the mountain, dovetailing the cable car, to catch the train back to Kyoto.

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Above Koyasan on the Nyonindo trails.

I would highly recommend Koyasan for sightseeing as well as trail running or hiking. Staying at the Buddhist temple, and observing the ceremonies, was an enriching experience, although I don’t think I’ll become a nun anytime soon. Beside, I couldn’t fuel my running on shojin ryori!

{Strava data here, here, here and here}

- The Wild Bazilchuk


  1. Breathe in, breathe out... OK, got it!

  2. I love that your job brought you to Japan! Learning about a new culture through the scope of running has been fascinating. Find a job in Africa next, okay? ;)

    1. As much as this is fun I'll be glad to get back to my normal life! Although I would love to travel more in Africa.

  3. There are so many trails near you!!

    1. I know! Most people associate Japan with cities but actually 70% of the country is forested!

  4. Loved reading about your experience! I was planning to do the same hike to Koya-san, but got scared when I read about the bears in the area. Did you have a bear bell, or have any troubles? Any advice is much appreciated!
    I've done 4 days on the Kumano Kodo trail, which is also breaktaking!!

    1. I didn't see any bears in the Koya-san area. I did buy a bear bell but used it very rarely because I found the noise very irritating...

      I would definitely recommend this hike, it's the authentic way to enter for sure! I wished I had had more backpacking equipment with me but I will have to save the Kumano Kodo for some other time.

  5. I'm hoping to do this hike solo in late March! Loved reading about your experience.

  6. Hi! Thanks for your description :) I booked a stay in a temple in Koyasan and am still debating on going uphill or downhill. What would you recommend?

    1. Sorry for the late reply. I enjoyed entering Koyasan by foot because it felt authentic somehow, so in that respect I would recommend uphill if you have to choose. But the correct answer is of course BOTH!


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