Space, time and heritage on a Japanese sacred site: The religious geography of Kōyasan

Ian Astley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


I examine the changing profile of religious activity on Kōyasan, a mountain complex of Buddhist temples in Japan over the last three decades and especially since its UNESCO Inscription as part of a complex of sites on the Kii Peninsula in 2004. Kōyasan is placed in its historical and geographic context, framed against Tuan’s (Ann Assoc Am Geogr 93(4):878–881, 2003) concept of place as a “repository of the past.” These presentations stem from orthodox Buddhist scholastic, cosmological and contemplative concepts and mesh with Buddhist and popular millennial beliefs. Significant changes occurred during Japan’s modernization (1868 onwards) with further changes happening with post-war demographic shifts that continue to affect Japanese religions in general and Buddhism in particular The UNESCO Inscription has intensified a shift away from traditional religious motives to travelling to Kōyasan for touristic purposes. This chapter looks at the geographic data relating to the town of Kōyasan in relation to the central plains of the Kinai region with its ancient capitals, and to the Kii Peninsula. Important are the town’s 52 shukubō, temples where lay visitors may stay overnight. The Inscription for the UNESCO World Heritage program is analyzed, showing stereotypical understandings of Japanese religion and the involvement of government agencies. Other materials examined are old pilgrims’ maps as well as contemporary publicity materials. The cemetery at Oku no In, where the founder Kūkai is interred, is also described. Reader’s findings that Buddhism is in a state of serious financial and pastoral crisis are confirmed, despite the support of both commercial and government entities. Concerns are raised about renovation works and the provision of modern tourist facilities on the mountain, a situation not helped by scandals such as the mismanagement of Shingon Sect funds in spring 2013.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Changing World Religion Map
Subtitle of host publicationSacred Places, Identities, Practices and Politics
EditorsStanley D. Brunn
Place of PublicationLondon; New York
PublisherDordrecht: Springer
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9789401793766
ISBN (Print)9789401793759
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2015


  • Japanese Buddhism
  • Kōyasan
  • Shingon
  • Kukai (774–835)
  • Pilgrimage
  • Tourism


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