Koya: Visiting one of the most sacred places in Japan

Mount Koya is home to the headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. A few hours south of Osaka by train, it's a sprawling temple settlement that was first established by the monk Kukai in AD819 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, the town of Koya boasts a university dedicated to religious studies and more than 120 temples and monasteries. It is one of the most sacred places in Japan.

It's also home to Okunoin cemetery, the last resting place of some 200,000 souls, all spread out around the shrine to Kukai, aka Kobo Daishi. It has something of the ineffable about it, a feeling that mere words won't do it justice. Let's give it a try, though.

I'm not a spiritual person by any means. This forest of gravestones and soaring cedar trees isn't beset by wandering spirits or tinged with the afterlife. The trees are not squatted in by sprites. The dead are dead. And yet, there is an eerie splendour here.

It helps that I'm particularly drawn to the dead; show me a decent graveyard and that's me gone for hours. It's not the mystical or the divine; it's awe at the strength of faith that caused believers to turn mere blocks of stone into ethereal cathedrals; it's the fascination around the drive to remember and to commemorate. It's the pens that people leave by Douglas Adams' headstone in Highgate cemetery, the potatoes on Antoine-Augustin Parmentier's tomb and the lipstick kisses on Oscar Wilde's memorial in Paris's Pere Lachaise.

Here at Okunoin cemetery, it's the little knitted hats and scarves – and even make-up – that people put on the statues throughout the cemetery. It's the towering magnificence of the trees that climb, like the bones of some natural cathedral, into the sky. It's the low-key lantern-lined path that meanders for two kilometres through all this, a not-so-yellow brick road to where Kukai sits, dead for almost 1200 years but supposedly still meditating in the mausoleum behind his shrine. He will wake up, say the followers who still drop food off to him every day, when Maitreya, the future Buddha, makes an appearance.

We are visiting in February and the land is just emerging from winter. It's cold enough that the water in the fonts scattered around the grounds is solid ice and there's a thick layer of frozen snow on everything, which adds a certain Narnian sheen.

I find myself taken with the gentle fuzz of the autumn-coloured mosses and lichens that have attached themselves to the tree trunks, to the wood of the shrines and to the faces of some of the statues – as if the environment is slowly absorbing it all and there will come a time when the space between the natural and the man-made world is erased forever. It is quite beautiful. (Somewhere in here is a memorial to all the termites that a pest control company's products have been exterminating.)

The shrine itself is at the end of the path through the woods. We cross Gobyonohashi Bridge, past which no food, drink or photographs are allowed, climb the steps up to the front entrance and find ourselves in a room hung with more than 10,000 lanterns that are never allowed to go out. This is Torodo Hall (the Hall of Lamps in Japanese, don't ask me why) and we arrive to find a meditation of monks chanting hypnotically away in the flickering penumbra.

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The mausoleum behind the shrine is a little underwhelming to be honest, and looks like the back of a stone dunny. The cool bit, though, is to be found around the corner and down a flight of stairs to the bizarre underground portion of Kukai's tomb/dunny/meditation chamber.

And if that's not enough, the walls here are, extraordinarily, lined with narrow shelves on which rest more than 50,000 small black Buddha figurines that have been donated to the shrine over time.

We walk back to our hotel through the snowbound "forest" as the day draws to a close, breath solidifying in the cold twilight air, the stone lanterns by the side of the path now alight. It would be quite something to return at night, under snowfall. I'm pretty sure Mr Tumnus would appear and show us the way.

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin was a guest of Inside Japan Tours and Qantas.

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FLY

Qantas now flies direct from Sydney to Osaka's Kansai airport three times a week on an upgraded two-class Airbus A330. Flights from Melbourne and Brisbane go via Singapore or Tokyo. See qantas.com

STAY

Inside Japan Tours chooses hotels based on the individual traveller's needs and budget. At Mount Koya we stayed at Fukuchi-in, one of the 52 simple temple lodgings (shukubo) on the mountain. Do get up early for the monks' 6am prayers as it's quite an experience. See fukuchiin.com for more details.

TOUR

Inside Japan Tours offers small group tours, tailored self-guided adventures and cultural experiences in Japan. See insidejapantours.com

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