Mie Wakayama: Mount Koya / Koyasan via Route 168 [Trip Day 3.2] 三重・和歌山:国道168号・高野山

  Trip itinerary and map

After visiting Kumano Hongu Shrine, we continued driving north on Route 168, heading for Gojo. There we would change to public transport, which is the most convenient way to reach Koyasan.

This part of Route 168 runs through the middle of the Kii Peninsula (紀伊半島) in a mountainous area, alongside the Totsukawa (十津川) River. Scenery on the way was great, but even though it’s classified as a national highway, given its rural location there are still many sections of narrow one-way roads. Various widening works could be seen on the way, so the situation should gradually improve. Another challenge is occasional closure of the route due to landslides. As of time of writing, it had already been closed twice so far this year. It’s recommended not to use this route (or in fact, any similar routes in the area) during heavy rain.

To head north, there’s also the Route 371 which goes straight to Koyasan. It has some good sections with good road conditions and great scenery, in particular the Ryujin Skyline (龍神スカイライン) which used to be a toll road. But to get there from our starting point would require cutting to the west on Route 425. This is widely considered as one of the “three worst national highways in Japan”. We’d pass.

After the 100 km drive our rental car emerged with a few scratches. We bid farewell to it at the rental car shop branch at Gojo (五条), and changed to local JR train heading to Hashimoto (橋本), which is where the express train to Koyasan departs from.

There is actually another rental branch at Hashimoto, but due to the way the rental drop-off charge plan works, as we started from Mie Prefecture, Gojo being in the adjacent Nara Prefecture is much cheaper than Hashimoto, which is in Wakayama Prefecture. And of course, once we are in urban roads there’s risk of getting caught in a traffic jam; no such concern with rail.

Mount Koya / Koyasan (高野山)

The small settlement on Mount Koya consists of mainly Buddhist temples and other historical sites. It’s probably the most popular for temple stay. There is also a university (高野山大学) there, and many of the students (young monks) there serve guests at the temples as part of their training.

It’s easiest to travel to Koyasan by public transport. The first leg is by train. There are direct ones departing from Nanba (なんば) in Osaka, but regardless of which lines you transfer from, all trains bound for Koyasan make a stop at Hashimoto. From there it’s about 45 minutes to the Gokurakubashi (極楽橋) station changing to cable car, terminating at Koyasan station. It is then another change to bus or taxi to reach the Koyasan temple town.

We used the Koyasan World Heritage pass (高野山・世界遺産きっぷ) which is good value. It’s valid for 2-day, covering the full train journey, cable car and unlimited bus ride in the Koyasan area. It also includes some discount for admission fee of various places. The price is different depending on the departure point; for us from Hashimoto, the pass cost 2520 yen.

It’s also possible to reach Koyasan by car (such as via Route 371 mentioned earlier). But most require going through some narrow mountainous roads, and, parking is not really convenient in Koyasan town itself. In any case, all the main points of interests are covered by buses (popular ones are more frequent), and of course, if time is available, walking is a good option to see everything.

Okunoin (奥の院) night walk

One of the most important historical sites in Koyasan is the Okunoin (奥の院). There are countless tombstones there, many of them of prominent figures in history, such as Hideyoshi Toyotomi (豊臣秀吉) and Nobunaga Oda (織田信長) from the Sengoku period (戦国時代). Many big corporations and rich people also claim their spots here, as it is considered a sacred place.

Visiting Okunoin at night is an interesting experience (for those who don’t mind walking in a graveyard at such time). In fact, it’s getting more popular that one of the temples organise a paid night tour with both Japanese and English guides. We opt for a quiet walk by ourselves.

Morning service tomorrow would be before 6 am. We had to sleep early!