Best Hikes in Japan- Hiking the Koyasan Pilgrimage Trail
Hiking the Koyasan trail was one of the most cherished memories from my honeymoon in Japan. It was just plain cool and different and so not like hiking in the Western world. The trail has a different energy than other hikes, as if the woods were filled with sprits of the past. From bamboo forests to high alpine tress surrounding ancient burial grounds, the landscape is nothing short of dramatic. Koyasan is a Buddhist pilgrimage hike which takes you from Kudoyama station up the mountain side of Mount Koya, considered the home of Shingon Buddhism. In this guide to Koyasan I will cover; the cost to get there, where to stay on Mount Koya, how long the hike takes and what to pack for summer hiking weather in Japan.
Getting To Koyasan
To get to the Koyasan trail head from Osaka take the train from Nabma to Kudoyama station, leave early as the train ride takes just under 2 hours and most accommodations have curfews on Mount Koya. The cost for the train to Kudoyama and the bus leaving Mt. Koya was about $40 RT per person, check here to see what your cost would be. You'll be able to grab amazing food and drinks for your hike at the station, it is truly incredible how good Japanese rail station food is!
Make sure you get off at the Kudoyama station (NOT Gokuraku-Bashi, unless you want to take a cable car up the mountain) and then follow signs towards the trail head, which will take you 1.5 km through a small village before you arrive at Ji-son In Temple where the trail truly begins. Once you get to Ji-son you don't really need a map but here is the one I downloaded on my phone. The amazing views begin as soon as you get off the train and start snaking the though the mountainside, first through a couple small towns and later through thick bamboo rich forest. There are bears in the area so I recommend bringing along a bear whistle or speaking very loudly on the trail. If you're going to Koyasan for a summer hike, I will list in the next section what to pack.
What to Pack for your Summer Hike to Mt. Koya
Many accommodations provide you with Yukata and sandals to wear, so no need to pack much fashion wise unless you really want a specific outfit to wear. They also have most basic toiletries for you, except toothpaste.
1. Salomon GTX Speedcross shoes
2. Light baselayer + tank
3. Technical fleece
4. Rain jacket
5. Two pairs light merino wool socks
6. Quick dry sports bra
7. Osprey 28 liter backpack with rain cover
8. Head lamp just in case
9. Two full big Nalgenes and one Pocori Sweat
9. 2 pairs of underwear
10. A book or camera
11. Toothpaste, toothbrush, floss
12. Hair brush
13. Bear bell
14. Adapter and phone cords
19. Map on your phone or printed
20. Small first aid kit and blister kit
How long is the Koyasan hike?
The Koyasan Choishi Michi is 24 kilometers long or 14 miles, we completed the entire trail within 6 hours. We started our hike at Kudoyama station and finished at the Okunoin cemetery. It took us 5 hours to get to the Daimon gate, which is already part of Koyasan town.
This map says the average duration of the hike is 7 hours and 10 minutes; however, even if you take more breaks than we did, you’ll probably be able to finish the trail in less than 7 hours. It’s not a difficult hike, the total elevation is 800 meters but most of the climbing is in the first 5 kilometers.
There are markers on the trail, which you can see in the first picture in this post, which mark the trail every 109 meters, it is an easy trail to navigate.
What to see in Koya town
The must see places in Koya are Okunoin Cemetery pictured below and the vermillion hued entry into Koya called Daimon gate. As you hike the Koyasan trail you'll pass through the Daimon gate into town. The town has over 100 temples and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. Okunoin Cemetery is the largest cemetery in all of Japan, named for the monk who founded the mausoleum, in which he is also buried. Lanterns in the cemetery have been burning since his death over 1,000 years ago. The unusual monuments and perfectly carved statues covered in moss look like they've come to life from a scene in a Kurosawa movie. Wander around the town of Koya and check out the different temples, you really don't need to plan much of an itinerary here, just wander. Speaking of itineraries, if you need idea for where to stay in Koya read the next section.
Where to Stay in Koya
We opted to stay in a slightly more upmarket accommodation in Koya at the a Temple called Shukubo Koya-san Eko-in. This Buddhist temple is over 1,000 years old and not much has changed (with the exception of wifi.) There they serve vegetarian kaiseki meals, offer hot springs Ryokan experiences in gender separated bath houses and every morning there is a Buddhist meditation and zen gardening. We loved staying in this historic place, it was so quiet and relaxing and the kaiseki we ordered was delicious. I had tofus I never knew existed, like this avocado infused mousse like tofu which was exquisite, and so satisfying after a long day on the trails. I think staying here is worth the splurge, it is truly a one of a kind experience in Japan.
Traveling to Koyasan isn't too difficult with proper planning and all in all I believe hiking trips like this one are one of the most affordable and authentic ways to experience a new destination. I hope you enjoyed this guide to Koya and Koyasan, contact me with any questions and happy travels!