The Mystery of Mt. Koyasan

essay, Mar. 2019


Kumano Kaido is a route to Mt. Koyasan, which Kukai passed through. I first got through Kumano Kaido when I stayed at Mt. Koyasan on an elementary school trip (1). At that time, I had no idea that Mt. Koyasan was a home of Esoteric Buddhism, which Kukai established. I only remember that I saw a big earthworm.

Forty years later, I thought of climbing up Mt. Koyasan again. At first, I was going to climb up by myself, but since the distance to the top was 21km and the height was 800m, I became nervous and asked my son to accompany me. I was relieved that he said yes.

The road was more rugged than I’d thought. I was climbing up through the path, which was as if it would cut off a sharp slope by 1m. There were many places that I would not be able to climb up again if my feet slipped.

My son and I followed the route that Kukai went through about 1,200 years ago. It would have been more dangerous and steeper than it was now.

As I came deep in the mountain, I felt as if I was travelling back in time 1,200 years. Only the sound of the cable cars to the top reminded me that I live in the 21th Century.

Suddenly a golf course appeared in front of me, and this made me laugh a bit: “how can I think that it’s 1,200 years ago? It’s 2018 now”.

Now I explain who Kukai is and what Esoteric Buddhism is: Kukai is a founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. It is said that from his childhood, he entered deep in Mt. Koyasan and learned many things from Chinese people, who lived there and probably had been carrying out mercury-based treatment (a sort of alchemy) in the mountain.

As Kukai grew up, he studied in Chang’an, China, the largest city in the world in the Tang Dynasty. He completed all kinds of academic studies within a year (he is known as one of Japan’s most famous geniuses), and finally met Esoteric Buddhism. Kukai learned its essence, which was an oral tradition, from his master, and came back to Japan.

Esoteric Buddhism is actually a combination of Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is very exotic even for Japanese people, because it aims at “the attainment of Buddhahood during life”. Where general Buddhism aims for the deliverance of one’s soul (or Buddhahood) after he/she is reborn tens of thousand times, Esoteric Buddhism tries to attain this deliverance all at once: during a monk’s single lifetime.

Esoteric Buddhism was abolished later in China, so now it remains only in Tibet and Japan, and its home is here, Mt. Koyasan.

Besides the steepness of the path to the top, it was even harder to climb up because recently a huge typhoon struck the west side of Japan, thus there were many big trees fallen on the path. On the way to the top, I continuously felt anxious about what if our path would become a dead end. But fortunately, locals already cut trunks and managed the route to be passable.

These difficulties climbing up the mountain led to my huge pleasure when we reached the top.

It is said that Kukai still remains at the top of Mt. Koyasan as a mummy. Since the door which leads to Kukai’s last place has not opened for 1,200 years, no one knows whether it is true or not. However, I think it is probably a fact because it can’t be easy to keep a lie for so long time.

There is also one more mystery. Far away in front of Kukai’s mummy, there were tombs of various famous families that thrived over 1,200 years after Kukai lived. An interesting point is that these families were all enemies of each other. However, now, they were all sleeping on the same ground. This may be one of the wonders of Japan.

Visit Mt. Koyasan:
Official Website

1. In Japan, elementary schools generally hold school trips to stay in mountains or near the ocean to give students the experience of living in nature.

written by


Lived in the US, China, Taiwan and HK. Love visiting Japanese traditional places with run. Want visitors to know the unique and deep mystery of Japanese history and enjoy Japan more.

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