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The hike of Koyasan Choishi Michi trail

Posted by on November 15, 2017

As I like one day hikes, I decided to fly to Japan and walk the Koyasan Choishi Michi pilgrimage trail. This hike is situated in Wakayama prefecture, in the Kansai Area, only about one hour south of Osaka by train. 

Gathering information on the internet was not easy, but luckily I found some very interesting posts by fellow travel bloggers with all the information I needed. It was very useful to do so, especially when I found out the beginning of the trail was not in Koyasan station, but in Kudoyama station! There you can start the hike and finish at Koyasan village, where all the accommodation options are located. The best help for the hike was this map.

I took the Nankai Railway train from Shin-Imamiya (you can also take it from Namba) to Koyasan on the Koya Line. Many websites will tell you to get to Gokuraku-Bashi station and then take the cable car to Koyasan. Don’t do that if you want to do the hike in one day! I went down in Kudoyama station, before Gokuraku-Bashi, and that’s where the hike starts! The trip to get there from Shin-Imamiya lasted just over an hour and the ticket was 790 yen.

The hardest part, at that stage, was to find the beginning of the hike from Kudoyama station. Just outside the tiny station there is a large map that helped me find my way through the small town and to Jison-In, the temple that marks the beginning of the trail. It took me about 20 minutes to get there, helped by an elderly Japanese couple who was traveling in the same direction.

It took five and a half hours of hiking to get from Jison-In to Daimon gate, situated at the entrance of Koyasan village. The map really helped me to understand how far I was and what landmarks I had to look for on the way. On the path there were plenty of maps, so once started, it’s practically impossible to get lost. There are also 180 posts (or chôishi) located at 109 metres intervals to sign the way to the pilgrims. 

Koyasan is an active monastic center founded by Buddhist priest Kukai (later renamed Kobo Daishi) over 1200 years ago. This sacred territory in Koya Mountain has been the destination of pilgrims for over a thousand years, so it immediately attracted my attention when I was looking for an interesting hike to do in Asia. 

The first part of the hike was one of the most intense, as the path constantly led me further up in altitude. The views from this part of the hike were amazing, and I was surrounded by thousands of trees full of ripe persimmons. I could not resist and took one to give me energy for the rest of the hike.

The first five of the total 23 kilometres were probably the hardest. Once I arrived at Ropponsugi Pass, the path became flatter while it immersed itself into the deep forest. Trees were so high that no sign of modern society filtered through anymore. It almost felt like traveling back in time, as everything was the same way it had been for centuries. No other people in sight, I kept going hearing only my footsteps on the irregular ground and the sound of birds chirping high up in the trees.

This felt like the longest part of the hike. The landscape did not change as I kept walking endlessly through the forest. Although it was a sunny Autumn day, I needed to have a sweater on as the light did not reach the path but was stopped a few dozen metres over my head by the trees.

It took me an interminable two and a half hours from Ropponsugi Pass to the small village of Yadate. My legs started to feel tired after this trip through the past. Time spun back to the 21st century as I slipped a 1000 yen note in a vending machine to get a snack and a drink. I sat on a small bench to sip my drink while observing the map.

There were 5 more kilometres to walk to get to Koyasan, so I soon resumed the hike. According to the map, the path was supposed to lead up once more, but I did not think it was as hard as the first part of the hike. At this stage, the road runs close to the forest, so one can hear the sound of car engines roaring while they make the way up the mountain to their final destination. 

The tiredness of my legs did not stop me from enjoying every step of the last part of the hike. The last hundreds of metres were really steep, but by then, with the end in sight, everything became easy and in a few minutes I made the last turn and could admire the intense red of the columns of Daimon gate, which meant the hike on the trail was over. 

The village of Koyasan offers many possibilities of accommodation in a shukubō 宿坊. These temple lodgings may not be the cheapest or more comfortable place of your stay in Japan, but they offer a unique glimpse into life in a temple. Normally, you are served dinner and breakfast and you can join in the morning prayers with the monks in the early morning. As I did not have enough time for that, I did the hike in a day and then got back to Osaka, but I heard many good reviews about people staying overnight and suggesting it as the best way to explore the area. 

The last thing I did before heading back to Osaka was to visit Okunoin cemetery, located on the east end of the village. It was an amazing experience to walk between high cedars and old graves and memorials of families that had probably been built during the last thousand years. The cemetery contains over two thousand graves, making it the largest one in the country. The walk in the cemetery ends with the spectacular Torodo Hall, lit by over 10,000 lanterns. As the legend goes, some of them have been burning for over 900 years.

The cemetery offers a spectacular view even at night, so there are night tours organized to fully enjoy the sacred atmosphere that permeates the place. I did not have the time to stay long after dark, but could enjoy the sight of the lanterns lit up everywhere along the paths that guide you around the cemetery.

Just after sunset, I took the local bus from the town to Koyasan station to make my way back to Osaka. It was a rewarding hike, and although I wished I had more time to spend there, I will always bring with me the images of the high trees, the posts by the side of the path and ancient graves hiding behind the trees in Okunoin cemetery.

J.

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