KOYA-SAN: Spiritual Place
Koya-san is a region surrounded by 3 peaks and 5 mountains in Wakayama Prefecture, located south of Osaka, in a 900m high valley. Koya-san was first settled by a famous priest, Kukai, 1,200 years ago for the study and practice of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Kukai, also known posthumously as Kobo-Daishi, was a priest who established the sect during the Heian period (794-1185). Shingon Buddhism arose after the monk Kukai went to China in 804 and studied in the city of Xian under Hui Ko and returned with many texts and art works. He made great efforts to spread Shingon Buddhism throughout Japan.
Koya-san has two major holy areas essential to the doctrines of Shingon Buddhism. One is Okunoin, the heart of the faith, where the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is enshrined. There is a vast cemetery where some famous Japanese people are laid to rest including Toyotomi Hideyoshi, as well as the spirits of soldiers killed in the Pacific War.
The other is Danjo Garan, the precinct for religious practices, with temples, halls, pagodas and Buddhist statuary. When Koya-san was founded on this very ground, Kobo Daishi held a groundbreaking ceremony and then dedicated his life to its construction.
In the last 1,200 years, the teachings, rituals and traditions of Koya-san have not changed. Through the efforts of countless people, the community has been able to preserve its rich heritage and customs, but there have been some notable changes as well through the centuries. Although many of the ancient buildings have survived for many years, some of them have been lost due to fire.
Another significant change occurred in 1872. This was the year that the law prohibiting women to enter Koya-san was revoked. This change not only brought women to Koya-san, but with them, many other common people and children came to the mountain community. Koya-san, once a place for male priests only, gradually transformed into a small town.
In 2004, Koya-san was registered through UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” is the official title. Since being registered as a World Heritage Site, more and more visitors have come to Koya-san to appreciate its rich history and unique atmosphere.