The magic of the Choishi Michi walk to Kôyasan lies in its assumed holiness. Being an ancient and sacred pilgrimage trail, you're constantly reminded that you're in a special part of Japan.
Even before reaching the trail's head a monk brushed gently past us, gripping an immense staff in one hand; the tip was adorned with an intricate set of metallic rings. His blue robe was fastened into place with leather straps. His strides were long and powerful. He had an air of regality about him and held himself with a practised posture, head high. He seemed to possess a kind of single-minded determination, as though on a quest of the utmost importance. We followed the monk to the Choishi Michi trailhead, Jison temple, where he prepared to perform a ritual. Noticing us, he showed the warmest of smiles, the kind usually reserved for only the closest of friends.
Leaving the temple behind, the walk to Kôyasan enters into one of the great forests of the Wakayama prefecture. Weathered stone way markers guide you through a tangle of foliage. They are the Choishi. They mark a distance of 109m each, or one cho. Your strength and determination to reach Kôyasan are supposed to mount as you pass each one. Bamboo shoots, towering pines and sagging vines are common features. Hollie discovered that the tubes of bamboo made a particularly satisfying hollow 'bonk' when struck with her knuckles. She was demonstrating this excitedly to me when, turning to face the bamboo again, she reeled back in horror. Her arms shot to her side as if struck rigid by a thunderbolt. Sitting on the bamboo in the space her hands had just occupied, was a palm-sized spider of mottled red, yellow, white and black. I let out an exaggerated (but entirely unintentional) gasp, my eyes widening.
You could see the individual hairs on its back. I craned in to try and take a photo, but the thought of the damned thing jumping towards me (however unlikely that may have been) was enough to shatter any facade of bravery. I high-tailed it out of there, laughing to myself hysterically. I felt like I'd just locked eyes with fear itself and I wasn't even the one who came close to wracking my knuckles on the bloody things arse. Why had it appeared so suddenly? Hollie must have disturbed the creature, but did it come out because it thought there was a chance to nab some food? I imagined the finger-limbed beast pulling some poor bird into its clutches. Had I known something like that skulked in the woods of Koyasan I probably would have never set foot in Japan. I remain grateful for my ignorance. Hollie, on the other hand, seemed relatively chill about the whole encounter.
The forest is glorious and full of life. Exotic bird calls or monkey-like frog gurgles sound frequently. We passed a large, startling blue beetle, a pair of giant stone torii gates, a family harvesting persimmons in a brightly coloured orchard and spotted a small green snake wriggling about a mess of tree roots. The woods were full of surprises.
Eventually we reached Daimon gate. Two warrior statues glare down their noses at you as you pass underneath and shortly afterwards you find yourself in Kôyasan. Unfortunately for us, we simply ran out of time and weren't able to reach the main temple grounds. Kôyasan itself is renowned for its tranquil atmosphere. The cemeteries are said to be a celebration of life, rather than a sorrowful place, and its possible to organise a stay at one of the temples where you can participate in a monk's diet and join in with morning prayers. If it's anything like the Tōshō-gū shrine we visited (pictured above) then it's certain to be a special place.
Words & Photography: Scott Norris (@_scott_norris) // spring 2015
From Namba station take the Kôya Line to Kudoyama bound for Gokura-bashi (Some trains terminate at Kôya-shita stop so if you get that by accident you'll have to board another train). Get off at Kudoyama.
Take JR Wakayama Line. Swap at Hashimoto for the Nankai Kôya Line. Get off at Kudoyama.
To reach the Jison-in temple at the start of the Koyasan trail from the station, follow the main road downhill and across the bridge keeping an eye out for the green signage on the left. Note that free detailed English and Japanese hiking maps are available from Jison.
From Jison-in the path is waymarked every 109m by the stone choishi. So if you haven't seen one for a while you know you've made a blunder. There are exactly 180 choishi if you feel like counting and they are easy to follow.
From the trail's end at Danjô Garan, the Nankai Rinkan Bus goes to Kôyasan Station. Buses can also be caught in front of the Kôyasan Tourist Association building or by the Daimon Gate. Otherwise it's a 1.5 mile jaunt uphill to Kôyasan station along the road.
From Kôyasan station a cable car goes to Gokuraku-bashi, where you can link to Nankai Kôya Line rail service back to Kudoyama station.