Founded in the 9th century by Kobo Daishi (the monk historically credited with bringing Buddhism to the archipelago), the temple complex on Mount Koya is the oldest in the country. It is situated three hours from Kyoto, on a high plain surrounded by wooded peaks which Japanese tradition believes resemble a lotus bloom. Despite extensive renovation they’ve received over the years, and the fact most people these days tend to be whisked to the top of the mountain by cable car, the shrines have retained a palpable air of mystery and sacredness.
An early-morning (or late-evening) walk along the pilgrimage trail around Mount Koya is a meditative experience in itself. The path winds past a succession of beautiful stone lanterns and through the giant, vermillion-red Daimon Gate to the Okuno-in cemetery. The tranquil atmosphere continues as you join your hosts, the resident Zen monks, for a simple 'shojin ryori' meal. Then it’s time for an early night on a futon mattress in a room with tatami-bamboo-mat floor. Having slept soundly, you wake at dawn for a meditation session, led by a 'senpai' (elder monk), in the candle-lit shrine hall. Although conducted in Japanese, this is an unforgettable experience . The wonderful, archaic strangeness is a world away from the neon-lit urban corridors of 21st-century Japan.