08/27/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Mount Kōya: One of Japan's Enduring Sacred Mountains

Mount Kōya (Kōyasan in Japanese), or the High Plains Mountain, is one of Japan's enduring sacred sites, a mountain where one of Japan's most famous Buddhist monks, Kūkai (774-835), established a Buddhist monastery in 816 and is believed to be still dwelling in a state of meditation. This mountain, which rises over 800 meters above sea level south of Ōsaka in present-day Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, is renowned as a place of breathtaking natural beauty. Today it is also the site of a large Shingon Buddhist religious complex possessing over one hundred temples.

Distinct from Zen Buddhism and Soka Gakkai, Japanese Buddhist traditions with extensive reach in North America and other places throughout the world today, Shingon Buddhism is one of the traditional forms of Buddhism in Japan. The Shingon Buddhist tradition is renowned for its complex rituals and for forms of meditation in which one strives to attain Buddhahood very rapidly by uttering sacred mantras, by forming mudras, or prescribed hand gestures rich in symbolism, and by using mandalas, or maps of the sacred universe, in order to realize one's unity with the cosmic Buddha whose enlightened activity constitutes the universe.

Every year thousands of visitors not only from throughout Japan but also from around the world travel to Mount Kōya and its small secluded town. They stay overnight in temple lodgings, modern hotel-like accommodations built within temple structures linked to the distant past. These pilgrims and tourists visit famous locations on the mountain that have figured prominently in the mountain's long history.

Such renowned sites include especially the Inner Sanctum (Oku no In), or the area around the founding saint Kūkai's mausoleum where over 200,000 tombstones memorialize deceased individuals. This location constitutes the largest cemetery in Japan. In order to approach Kūkai's revered tomb, which for centuries has been the main destination for pilgrims to the sacred site, visitors walk a path of almost two kilometers through the expansive cemetery and the towering Japanese cedar trees that fill this area. A wide range of individuals including feudal lords, prominent Buddhist monks, and employees in modern Japanese companies have sought to be buried here in the presence of Kūkai, a monk revered both for his astounding learning and miraculous powers.

The other main sacred area on the mountain is the central monastic complex, which consists of several major temple buildings including the Great Pagoda (Daitō), a sacred tower that enshrines sculptures of several Buddhas at the heart of the Shingon Buddhist tradition; Kūkai's Portrait Hall (Mieidō), which enshrines a sacred portrait of Kūkai that is usually hidden within this small square building; and a shrine to several local deities who purportedly donated this sacred space to Kūkai so that he could build his new Buddhist monastery.

All of these places are linked to stories about the mountain's early history as a sacred Buddhist site. For example, just outside the Portrait Hall stands a tree that purportedly captured a three-pronged vajra, or implement used in Shingon Buddhist ceremonies, when Kūkai threw it there from China in the early ninth century while seeking a suitable location for his new monastery in Japan. Such stories, including the important narrative about Kūkai's transcendence of death by entering mediation in 835 and his remaining there in this state until the present day, animate the lives of many faithful devotees who travel to this mountain. These narratives imbue the place with a profound sanctity, a serenity that one finds at a sacred site believed to be inhabited by miracle-working saints and resident deities.

In 2004, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Mount Kōya, in addition to several other famous sacred locations in the Kii Peninsula, including Yoshino, Ōmine, and Kumano Sanzan, as World Heritage Sites, "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range." All of these sacred sites are situated in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains, which overlook the Pacific Ocean. Together, these sacred sites represent ancient traditions of worship, as all of these sacred mountains have histories extending over one thousand years. Based on Mount Kōya's rich history as a sacred site and for the ways in which it preserves the particularly Japanese fusion of Buddhism and Shintō, or the main non-Buddhist religious tradition in Japan with its own long complicated history, the UNESCO designation ensured that millions of visitors will continue to visit this sacred mountain, a symbol of Japan's rich traditional culture.

Below are some photos of Mount Kōya:

Mount Kōya