Category Archive for Tokyo Gothic Lolita

Celebrating 10 years of blogging! Perturbator concert review: synthwave outrun retro wave music, Akade 80s fashion.

retrowave synthwave fashion clothing hair

Back to the future, baby!

I’m currently obsessed with synthwave / outrunretrowave — the music genre that pays tribute to the synthesizers, video games and night driving soundtracks of the 1980s. If you’re in the same boat (or Testarossa), then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this story about Perturbator’s concert and Akade fashion.

This is a flashback post for another major reason… Believe it or not, I’ve reached my 10 year anniversary of blogging! That’s correct: I began this La Carmina blog a decade ago, on Sept 14, 2007.

We’ll celebrate this ten year milestone with a ride down memory lane, through Neo Tokyo and the Future 80s.

outrun 80s retro clothes, akade wear

Let’s start with the present: I’m currently in love with all things shiny and chrome. Since I was on my way to a futuresynth concert, I wanted to wear something along the lines of this aesthetic (imagine electric neon cityscapes and Miami’s midnight highways, circa 1983).

Unfamiliar with synthwave music? Here’s a dark gaming mix to get you in the mood. Think John Carpenter soundtracks x eighties nostalgia against pulsing, dark, spacey dance beats.

Some of my favorite synth artists are Carpenter Brut, Gost, Lazerhawk, Kavinsky, Dance with the Dead… and Perturbator, who I was about to see live.

synthwave style, retro wave model

I was “dressed to kill” in Akade Wear, an indie clothing line inspired by the retrowave revival. I’m wearing Akade’s New Retro Wave tshirt, which is unisex (I got size XS and tied the end in a bundle, as I did in the early 90s.)

I paired it with this Iron Fist silver skeleton skirt (available here), and a Spiral UK bum bag (which comes in holographic and glitter versions too). Fanny packs rule — why on earth did they go out of style?

I finished the look with a silver hair ribbon in my high sideways ponytail, silver heels, and a bomber jacket by Disturbia. It has a spider on the back, similar to the scorpion jacket in the movie Drive.

new retro wave tshirt logo

The Akade Wear fashion line is a branch of New Retro Wave, the online hub for all things outrun. They’re passionate about the musical genre and associated culture, and bring fans together with articles, streams, events, and now clothing. As they put it, “the sound, drive and sheer passion of the 80’s-90’s is one of the most refreshing sounds to hit the music scene, and has been long overdue.”

Closeup on my NRW t-shirt logo, Dark Tropics leggings, and chrome nail art. The print of palm trees and toucan birds has a rainbow sheen, matching the holographic reflections of my Iron Fist skirt.

synthwave bomber jacket 1980s

I’m having fun “living the 80s dream” in streetwear from Akade! They have a large selection of nostalgic, high-saturation designs for both men and women, and ship worldwide.

(If you’re looking for synthwave streams, check out these YouTube channels by Gelbar and NewRetroWave. I listen to them nonstop.)

perturbator concert posters, logo

Synthwave has gained ground in recent years, and the leading artists are now touring worldwide. Interestingly, a lot of my Goth friends have independently discovered and fallen in love with the genre. Many metalheads and geek-types are also drawn to the retrofuturistic sound, bringing together a fanbase from various subcultures. 

Those with a Gothic disposition tend to be fond of France’s Perturbator, who creates futuresynth with a dark edge. The pentagram posters are spot on: “Satan is a computer.” “If machines could feel the way we do, would they believe in a god?”

perturbator pentagram shirts merchandise

I was excited to see Perturbator live, at the Rickshaw Theater in Vancouver (he’s currently touring North America, with tour dates in major US and Canadian cities). The concert was close to sold out; I spotted lots of guys in long hair, girls in platform boots, and pentagrams on everyone.

perturbator performing live james kent

“The Legend Says He’s Half Human, Half Synthesizer”  — yes! James Kent (Perturbator) helmed a spaceship pod surrounded by vertical lights, which strobed and flashed blinding colors.

From the moment Perturbator took the stage, the audience never stopped moving. He delivered relentless darkwave, heavy and sinister yet uplifting: one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time.

You can see video clips from the Vancouver show above and here on my Instagram. He played many of his faster, more aggro tracks like “Satanic Rites,” “Neo Tokyo,” “Humans are Such Easy Prey.”

perturbator north american tour vancouver

I was riveted by the strobe and color effects behind him, simple yet powerful. Perturbator kept his hood on and never spoke to the crowd, but bobbed his head to the driving basslines and gestured with his hands during the climaxes.

synthwave festival music concerts

I haven’t been out to as many concerts recently, but synth-wave is changing this up. Perturbator’s live was enormously engaging, and he’s an act that you need to see in person.

You can hear more on his future-80s sound on the Perturbator bandcamp page, and check for upcoming tour dates on his Facebook.

alice wonderland tea room cosplay

During the concert, my friend turned to me and asked, “How long have you been blogging for?” My expression was like above… for I realized we had reached Year Ten!

My “La Carmina blog” launched on September 14th, 2007 — a time when blogging and social media were in their infancy. To put it mildly, a lot has happened since then.

As we reach my blog’s 10th birthday, it makes sense to do a trip down memory lane. I considered recapping the top events, but you can already find my Year in Review summaries here, and all my travel destination stories in one place.

Instead, I’ve recently been in nostalgic mode — and thought you might have fun revisiting these memories as well.

cyber goth tokyo japan futuristic

The early days of this blog (2007-2012 approximately) were very different from the current incarnation. Long-time readers will recall that I focused almost exclusively on Japanese subcultures, particularly Gothic Lolita fashion and Tokyo nightlife. 

This was a particularly exciting era in Tokyo, especially for the Goth clubbing scene, weird pop culture, and experimental style. You’ll find a lot of exciting subcultures in Japan still, but they aren’t the same as they were in the mid to late 2000s. 

tokyo dj sisen cyber goth

Looking back, I’m glad I captured this transformative time. In 2008, I spent part of the year in Tokyo, and met many of the “creatures of the night” that remain my closest friends to this day.

The Gothic nightlife was wonderfully inclusive, bringing together an electrifying group of locals and expats. In particular, Mistress Maya’s club night Midnight Mess and DJ Sisen’s parties formed the heart of the dark subculture (above is the infamous night when Covenant played).

tokyo bondage shibari rope tying

There was the feeling of anything-goes: the freedom to experiment with fashion (even if it resulted in some fails), dive into the dark arts, and dance til morning to cybergoth electro.

I always felt inspired by the clubgoers at Midnight Mess, as well as the stage shows. You might see Akira Death perform robotic metal, the Dark Marchen prance around in Rococo gowns, and Mistress Maya tie up and dominate a Sweet Lolita dolly. 

tokyo goth punk parties

Many Japanese creatives were regulars at these events, always showing up in death-disco ghoul fashion. Above is Goth designer Kenzo A, and nAo12xu of the band †13th Moon†.

dj sisen, selia midnight mess tokyo

The queens of darkness were of course DJ Sisen and Selia, who mesmerized us with her dark operetta vocals. Absinthe, corsets, feathered eyelashes, cyberlox and chains — yes please.

japan goths, gothic parties clubbing

Our personal style has all changed quite a bit since these days… but oh, we had fun!

alamode night artism gothic lolita bar

I went down the rabbit hole, and realized I’d forgotten about many of the events I’d written about in the early days.

For example, do you remember D’s Valentine? He was the master behind Alamode Market and Gothic Bar Heaven, and club nights at venues like Tamachi Cube — I haven’t thought of these places in years.

japanese body modifications split tongue

At the time, Japan’s extreme body modifications were not widely known about. Snake tongue and bagelheads, oh my!

tokyo lgbt gay clubs

I laughed at the caption I had written under this photo. “Unzipped pants and nipple tape… what more do you need in a boy?”

department h drag queen party tokyo

Department H, the hentai / drag / fetish party, has always been a funhouse and remains this way today.

tokyo goth djs clubs

Some of the people I partied with have disappeared, while others remain in my life… albeit with different hair, makeup and clothing choices.

tokyo dark castle, goth parties

The old school Tokyo Goth crew, on the way to Midnight Mess after dinner at Hibari sushi in Shinjuku. Ah… I’d love to teleport back for a night.

atsushi takashi japanese goth twins

Two things that always guarantee a good time: the twins Atsushi and Takashi, and a can of Strong Zero convenience store alcohol!

black veil osaka occult goth club

In the beginning of the blog, I was very Japan-focused. Yukiro and I did a memorable trip to Osaka, where we raged with hard rocker Fu-Ki at occult club night Black Veil. Somehow, I was inspired to do KISS makeup that night…

takuya angel cyber rave designer japan

Harajuku fashion remains exciting now, but it was certainly weirder and rave-ier in those days. I remember that people were infatuated with Takuya Angel’s designs, and yearned to take part in his fashion walk.

japanese lolitas tokyo laforet

Gothic Lolita fashion was thriving. My friends and I loved to gawk at the frilled fashion in Laforet, and hunt for secondhand bargains at Closet Child.

Many of the brands have now closed or downsized, and Lolita style no longer feels fresh to me — but at the time, it was a joy to wear.

harajuku bridge girls crazy fashion

I took this snap on Harajuku bridge. Youths still dressed up and hung out here; this is a rarity today.

moi dix moix mana cosplay concert

I was also a huge fan of Visual Kei / J-Rock music at the time (now, I never listen to it — I gravitate to Italo Disco and retrowave). I saw many of my favorite Japanese bands perform, including Versailles and Moi dix Mois (above are Mana cosplays and tributes at the concert).

tokyo jrock visual kei live

I forgot that I saw Deluhi live. VK hair and styling though… still so good.

japanese host boy hairstyle

How can anyone resist a host boy with bleach-blonde sky-high hair, and velvet joggers with a leopard print top?

japanese french maids, maid cafe tokyo

I remember that readers were fascinated by the Japanese pop culture oddities I reported on, such as maid cafes. Today, these are common knowledge, and you can find theme cafes (such as cat ones) worldwide. Times have changed…

dj chihiro baal auto mod

While you can’t go back to the past, you can certainly revisit it… 10 years is a long time! I know some of you have been reading this blog since MySpace days, and I am enormously grateful. Thanks for growing with me through some bad point-and-shoot photography, dubious style choices, and epic adventures with friends.

synthwave retro wave font

I hope you had fun reading this “old school La Carmina blog” retrospective. Do you have any favorite “member-berries” from Tokyo, or thoughts on how things have changed? 

PS: you can find old blog posts in the right-hand sidebar of this blog, under Archives (there’s a drop-down menu that filters by month and year). You can also see all my Tokyo, Japan stories here, from 2007 to today.

PPS: What’s coming up in the future? Only time will tell… fasten your seatbelts, and stay tuned for more wild rides!

Away x Minions luggage: kawaii cute suitcases! Alex Streeter Gothic earrings, LaForet mall Harajuku.

minions yellow suitcase carry on

Bello! Banana? In this post, I’ll go over some of my current favorites… and then we’ll talk about Japanese fashion at LaForet department store in Harajuku!

First up, let me introduce you to the cutest luggage collaboration ever: Away x Minions. I’m excited to have these adorable travel buddies with me, on my next trips around the globe. 

away minions luggage collaboration

Bee-do-bee-do… As you most likely know, the Minions are the short, eager, bumbling servants of evil masters throughout time (as seen in the Despicable Me movie series).

I love how Away distilled the essence of a Minion in this cheerful, minimal design. When you see the bright yellow case and eye-goggle tag, you can instantly picture a one-eyed Minion tottering behind me!

minions suitcases away travel

Away sent me a large-sized suitcase and a carry-on. Both are made from polycarbonate shell, which is lightweight and bends under pressure, but never breaks. (Quite like the resilient Minions from the movies.)

The new Away x Minions collection comes in four sizes. You can also purchase the accessories separately: they have stickers featuring the characters, and a leather tag shaped like their signature eye goggles.

away luggage minions despicable me

“You used to call me on my banana-phone… Poopaye!”

The Minions roll easily alongside you, with a retractable handle and Hinomoto wheels that rotate 360°.

away travel smart tech luggage

Inside, there’s plenty of room to store bananas. All of Away’s suitcases feature an interior compression system, secure zippered compartments, and a removable laundry bag.

kawaii cute minions suitcase

I’m always on the lookout for fun, beautiful luggage that can withstand my constant travels. Away has been on my radar for some time: they produce first-class designer luggage, direct to consumer, meaning that they can keep prices on the economy side.

travel airport fashion style luggage

The larger carry-on is made to fit the regulations of US airlines. And there’s a tech element: a built-in battery that can charge any USB device, and zippers that fit into a TSA-approved combination lock.

Ready to take over the world with these Minions? Away’s Despicable Me 3 collab is only out for a short time, and I have a feeling they’ll be snatched up fast.

alex streeter jewelry, earrings

As you know from my outfits throughout the years, I like to change up my styling. I had my ears pierced during elementary school, but stopped wearing anything in them around college. However, the piercing hole remains intact — so I decided to play around with earrings again.

Of course, I clicked straight to my favorite jewelry designer: Alex Streeter! (Above, I’m wearing his radiator silver cuff from the Space collection, Ouroboros ring from the Creatures set, and these silver elongated spike heart earrings that suit me perfectly).

goth ring designer alex streeter

Based in NYC and renown as the creator of the Angel Heart Ring, Alex’s designs are favored by rock stars worldwide (including Marilyn Manson and J-rock legends). He started out in the 1960s in San Francisco, carving jewellery from redwood bark and selling it on the streets. In 1971, he set up shop as a silversmith in downtown NYC.

Today, Alex Streeter is an icon — and the go-to designer for those who love Gothic, sci-fi and edgy high-end accessories. Above, I’m wearing his UFO spaceship studs.

alex streeter nyc space jewellery

Alex and his daughter Lily (who works with him) are inspirations: they dress in rock-Goth fashion, and travel to Japan every year (he has a rabid fan following there).

Perhaps you’ve seen his famous pentagram ring on the fingers of celebrities. Alex’s jewelry is all made to order, beautifully crafted in sterling silver (he also works with bronze, brass, pewter and gold). You can also contact him through his site to request a unique, customized design. 

silver pentagram earrings satanic

A serpent slithering down my earlobe, with a pentagram in his mouth… I think it’s clear why Alex Streeter jewellery is my absolute favorite! He is a master, and I’ll be treasuring these signature pieces. Stay tuned to see more photos soon — there are more serpentine designs by Alex that I’m excited to show you.

(PS: my hair color and cut are by Stephanie Hoy at Sugar Skull Salon in Gastown, Vancouver.)

exterior laforet mall harajuku

Now, let’s teleport to Japan — and take a walk inside Laforet in Harajuku. I’ve been doing dispatches from this mall since 2008 — see past posts in my Tokyo Gothic Lolita shopping guide.

Although I’ve been less impressed with the selection recently (more on that below), La Foret remains one of the top Tokyo destinations to find young, alternative fashion. You’ll always see chattering groups of teenage girls at the entrance, much like the anime schoolgirls in “seifuku” sailor uniforms on the poster.

colorful decor accessories tokyo

Laforet has multiple levels, each with a variety of clothing and brands. The experimental street style tends to be in the basement floors. I’m also quite fond of the first floor, which hosts rotating pop-ups. Japanese up-coming designers tend to be featured, such as these colorful Erico earring and accessories.

lady gaga japanese hats

There’s been a lot of talk about Harajuku changing for the worse. I’d say there is truth to this, as more and more big box stores have set up shop (H&M, Forever 21, etc).

Nonetheless, you can still find underground and club-influenced designs in this neighborhood.

abilletage laforet store

Case in point: Abilletage has established a new location inside Laforet department store. This antique / Gothic / Steampunk brand is run independently, and produces gorgeous custom-tailored corsets. (Remember I visited Abilletage during my NHK Kawaii TV shoot?)

japanese antique dolly style

Abilletage is an example of a local designer that keeps the Harajuku spirit going. Everyone there is closely connected to the subculture, and the original designs are handmade or produced in small batches (such as these corset-lace and floral motif tights).

I hope you’ll look for this boutique when you visit Harajuku. Also check out the Abilletage Shinjuku location, which has an elegant Victorian tea salon.

frapbois cute clothing japan

Laforet’s B1 and B2 levels are filled with stores that fall on the spectrum of Goth, Lolita, Punk or Street style. The mannequins in the center of the stairwell are always dressed up to the nines, in EGL fashion.

These days, I’m drawn more to minimalist scary-kawaii fashion, such as this Frapbois oversize top.

japanese hard rock clothing

At first glance, the clothes look similar to Western “Nu Goth.” However, they tend to have a Japanese cute twist to them: notice how the skull is made up of cute teddy bears in black and white.

lurem boutique laforet

Cute meets psycho at Lurem, a shop with a deranged bunny mascot. I always enjoy discovering Japanese indie brands in Laforet.

anime manga clothing shirts

As you can see, the youth / street styles can vary widely. These satiny oversized tops are screaming with Bunnicula and anime pumpkin lady prints.

japan shironuri clothing dresses

Contrast this with the flowing, gauzy, romantic dolly dresses next door. Perfect for a shironuri look (all-white face paint, makeup and clothing).

laforet jrock visual kei music store

J-Rock and Visual Kei bands still lurk in the basement of Laforet. There are often meet-and-greets, signings and other events here, with long line-ups of fans waiting to meet their music idols.

anko rock shop tokyo

At AnkoRock, influences from punk, rock, and dark subcultures come together in a refreshing way.

I can’t say the same for the Gothic and Lolita dresses I saw, which felt like they hadn’t evolved over the past years, unfortunately. (More about this below).

More here!


The Birthday Massacre concert: 2017 tour review & new album! Sumo Cyco, Kyoto Gion kawaii shops.

chibi 2017 birthday massacre singer

Summer is back, and I’m ready to play! I have some big new destinations coming up — all will be announced soon.

If you’ve been following my Instagram Stories or Snapchat (@lacarmina), you’ll have seen me at the The Birthday Massacre live in Vancouver!

Read on for a review of the Gothic concert. I also included some snapshots from Kyoto, Japan because they remind of Rose (as I last saw this band with her in 2010.)

time top ufo sculpture vancouver

Greetings, Earthlings. We are now taking over your planet. (Couldn’t resist posing with the UFO spaceship “Time Top,” by Jerry Pethick.)

Before the concert, my friends and I spent the day walking by the ocean, and enjoying the sunshine that has finally hit Vancouver.

john lennon walrus sunglasses

I’m shading my eyes from the light with these exact John Lennon Walrus eyeglasses (yes, he has a glasses collection!) These round, retro metal frames are based on the design that the Beatles musician wore in iconic photos.

If you can “imagine” yourself wearing John Lennon sunglasses, you can get them here.

vancouver fashion bloggers, blogs

We encountered yet another alien mothership on our walk. (Okay, it’s Vancouver Science World).

– Outfit Details – I bought my dress at Siam Paragon / Discovery mall in Bangkok, Thailand.

My diamond fishnet tights are from We Love Colors. They carry a variety of colored socks and legwear (mine are the wide mesh fishnet style in navy — great for warm weather).

vancouver style blogger, summer outfits

A perfect day of wandering around downtown. We stopped for dinner and cocktails, and then headed to The Venue on Granville Street for the show.

sumo cyco sever singer

The opening act, Sumo Cyco, started the show — and stole it. The stylish lead singer Sever (or Skye Sweetnam) is impossible to take your eyes from. She tossed her blue-green hair back and forth, crouched like a tiger, and went out into the crowd to down a whiskey shot. By the end of the set, her powerful stage presence had everyone smiling and bopping along.

skye sweetnam hair color, hairstyle

Sumo Cyco’s songs are a mix of punk and metal: catchy hooks and riffing guitars over heavy beats. I was impressed with Sever’s vocals, which moved from the sweetness of Gwen Stefani to a deadly growl. 

sumo cyco band live concert

My friends and I were all blown away by Sumo Cyco, and would see them live again. It’s fantastic to discover an indie, female-fronted band that rocks this hard, exceeding all expectations for an opening act.

army of the universe concert

Next up: a solid performance by Army of the Universe. This industrial dance music group hails from Italy, and is signed to the Metropolis Records.

industrial band performance, metropolis records

I’m often reminiscing about the 1990s these days… Army of the Universe spoke to my nostalgia, with an electro-techno industrial rock sound reminiscent of early Nine Inch Nails.

the birthday massacre tour, venue vancouver

The crowd went crazy when The Birthday Massacre walked on. The Canadian Gothic group formed in 1999, and has cultivated a rabid following ever since.

It seems all my alternative friends have seen them at some point, and continue to love them (myself included). The band’s dark vision yet inclusive, positive energy have made an impact on many growing up Goth.

chibi singing, birthday massacre

The dynamic lead singer, Chibi, displayed as much energy as ever. She always gives 100% love to her fans, trading cheeky comments and reaching down to hold their hands.

The band’s name, The Birthday Massacre, perfectly encapsulates front-woman Chibi: cute, chirpy, with a touch of evil.

concert live birthday massacre show

Any time you see The Birthday Massacre on a concert bill, you know you’ll get a brilliant performance. The musicians displayed their talent through a wide-ranging dark spectrum of sound: electronic, atmospheric, Goth-melodic, headbanging guitar, and the all-mighty keytar.

canadian goth band, music

Michael Rainbow and Chibi are two of original founders (along with Michael Falcore), and you can sense the telepathic connection between them on-stage.

The touring drummer, Nik Pesut, only had two days to learn the songs, and rocked them. Even with a new addition, the live show is as strong as ever.

the birthday massacre new album 2017

The Birthday Massacre treated us to two hours of nonstop fun and dancing. They played their most beloved songs, including Blue, Kill the Lights, Looking Glass. Chibi gave a shout-out to a fan celebrating her big day, at the start of the Happy Birthday song.

birthday massacre tickets concerts

The group also debuted a few new songs from their upcoming album. I can’t wait for this one: my friend Kevvy Metal (Kevin Maher) worked on the production, and the cover art looks fantastic. The newest songs are on the heavier side, with lots of headbanging riffs.

the birthday massacre chibi michael rainbow

The band ended with a three-song encore, including a cover of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” that got me cheering. (All right, it’s originally by Tommy James & The Shondells).

The Birthday Massacre put on a brilliant, fan-friendly show as always. Check out their site for upcoming tour dates; this is an act you must see live.

kyoto design stores

My friends and I were talking about how strange it is to talk about Rose in the past tense… she would have been the first to get tickets for this show.

Still, it feels like she is alongside us, at events like these. In this vein, thought I’d end by sharing some last photos from Kyoto: I took snaps of cute stores that she would have gone wild for.

San-X Mamegoma Little Seals cute

Rose always wanted to go to Japan, but her health never stabilized to the point where it was possible.

When I saw this collection of cute little seals (San-X Mamegoma toys), I immediately thought of her. She’d run right over to them and give them a squeeze!

kawaii japan kyoto toy shops

Rose loved Halloween everything (like me), and all things kawaii with a touch of weird. She would have swooped up these pumpkin-seal and witch-rabbit hybrids.

This Kyoto portion continues below…

More here!

My Buddhist temple stay with monks in Mount Koya, Japan! Booking a Koyasan guesthouse, Okunoin graveyard.

japanese temple stay, koyasan guesthouse

As the cherry blossoms bloom for sakura season, I’m thinking back to my days in Japan. I did something very different from my usual trips: I escaped for a few days to a Buddhist temple retreat in Koyasan! 

Several of my friends have stayed with the Japanese monks of Mount Kōya (in the mountains north of Osaka), and raved about the peaceful experience. Since I was traveling with my unlimited Japan Rail Pass, it was the perfect opportunity to do a spiritual pilgrimage.

kukai statue, shingon buddhism

Mt. Kōya was first settled in the year 819 by the monk Kūkai, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. He discovered this mystical location high in the mountain peaks, and made it the center for his monastic headquarters.

koyasan bridge, mt koya japan

Since then, both monks and laypeople have come to Koyasan to study and practice Esoteric Buddhism. Most come for a 1-3 night stay, so that they can experience living in a temple with Buddhist monks. (I stayed two nights, which is a good amount of time to explore Mount Koya’s attractions.)

I hope this guide to Mount Koya gives you a sense of what it’s like to spend a few days in this spiritual village. You can see more about my entire J Rail Pass journey in the video above, or here on YouTube.

cable car to koyasan, mount koya

How to get to Mount Koya by train: I recommend getting a JR Rail Pass like I did. The pass lets you ride the rails throughout the country for a week or longer; it includes JR and bullet trans, busses and some ferries.

Most people come to Koyasan from Kyoto or Osaka. From Osaka, it’s only a 1.5 to 2 hour train ride: take the Nankai line from Namba or Shin-Imamiya Stations, and get off at Gokurakubashi (you may need to transfer at Hashimoto station). Then, it’s a 5 minute cable car up the scenic mountains, and a short bus ride into the town where the temple-stays are located.

japanese spiritual buddhist retreat

How to book a room at a temple stay: These Buddhist guesthouses (shukubo) are run independently by the monks, and most don’t even have websites.

Foreigners can visit the Koyasan Shukubo Association website, and fill out the form to make a reservation request (your travel dates, price range, etc). You’ll quickly receive an email reply in English, with a booking that you can confirm, and information such as maps. There’s no fee for this tourist service; you simply pay the guesthouse directly in cash upon check-out.

hoon-in shukubo, temple stay koya

I stayed at Hoon-in, a simple yet comfortable and authentic shukubo. I was greeted by a young Buddhist monk, who spoke English and showed me to my room (traditional-style Japanese accommodations with tatami floor mats, sliding doors, and futon mattresses).

koyasan temple monk dining hall

The monks serve the guests a vegetarian breakfast and dinner every day, and these meals are included in the price of the stay (about 10,800 yen per person, per night). I enjoyed gathering in this long dining hall and sitting cross-legged on the mat.

vegetarian food mount koya

Everyone receives a tray of delicacies — it’s a joy to open up the lids and see what’s inside! The cuisine is seasonal and vegetarian, and there are a variety of small dishes: tofu, soups, pickled vegetables, tempura, miso eggplant, rice and fruit. You can also order a small bottle of hot or cold sake to round out your meal.

I was impressed with everything I ate at Hoon-in. The plant-based fare is fresh, delicately seasoned and beautifully presented.

koya-kun mascot mount koya

I loved participating in the simple day-to-day life of the temple. At the lush entrance, you take off your shoes and wear socks or slippers. Each guest gets a robe to wear, and can soak in a large Japanese-style bathtub.

koya temple overnight stay, shukubo

Although you get to feel as if you’re in ancient Japan, the guesthouse has modern amenities such as free and fast WiFi. There’s even a convenience store and ATM machine next door, and you can easily walk to cafes, shops and more.

shingon buddhist chanting ritual

There are no “mandatory activities” or programs at Mt Koya’s shukubos. However, the guests are invited to wake up at 6am to see the resident Shingon monks chant sutras. I’m not a morning person, but this is well worth getting out of bed for.

buddhism prayers chanting koya

The monks’ chanting consists of low, guttural, repetitive verses, expressed in the same or different tones. (You can hear the Buddhist chants in my travel video.)

This ritual is as form of meditation that joins the body, speech and mind. It’s a feast for the senses: the monks sit beneath gold relics, light incense and candles, arrange offerings on the alter, and ring a bell or gong. It’s a powerful and uplifting effect that I hope you can experience in-person.

koyasan tourism, travel

For the rest of the day, you can walk around and visit the various temples, ancient gates, Tokugawa mausoleum, and other sites.

Of course, the town has a kawaii mascot: “Koya-kun!” The cute character is supposed to be  little monk in a “kasa” bowl-shaped hat… but doesn’t he remind of Toad the mushroom-head, from Super Mario Brothers?

japanese pyramid statue

I encourage you to wander around at a leisurely pace, rather than making specific plans. There’s no better place than Koya to practice mindfulness and being in the moment.

Okunoin cemetery entrance

Visiting Okunoin graveyard is an absolute must. It’s best to come during the morning, when the lighting conditions are ideal and there aren’t too many other visitors.

At the Ichinohashi Bridge (the traditional entrance to the cemetery), visitors bow and pay respect to Kobo Daishi (the posthumous honorific name for Kukui).

koya buddha statues wearing hats

I loved exploring Okunoin, filled with 200,000 ancient graves. This immense, forested cemetery is the largest in Japan, and home to the mausoleum of Kukai.

Okunoin buddhist graves

I came across many small Buddha statues, adorned with red bibs and hats. They represent the Bodhisattva Jizo, who protects travelers, women and children.

gravestones Okunoin graveyard japan

The gravestones are surrounded by a lush canopy of towering cedar trees. The inner sanctuary contains the resting grounds of several famous Japanese, including the samurai ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Pacific War.

hiking japan mountains

Okunoin cemetery has an otherworldly feeling. I felt as if I were surrounded by ancient Buddhist spirits.

ancient japanese graveyard

Some of the graves are over 1000 years old, and covered in layers of moss. No wonder Koya-san was declared a UNESCO protected site in 2004.

buddhist cemetery, mount koya

The path through the cemetery spans two kilometers. Along the way, you’ll find lots of interesting sculptures and gates, which cast shadows under the morning rays.

buddhist spiritual retreat

Many visitors leave flowers and offerings in front of the tombstones.

overnight stay mountains japan temple

The buried Buddhist monks are not dead according to legend, but meditating and waiting.

old buddha statues

You’ll notice that many of the little Buddha statues are wearing colorful red or purple bibs. Often, people who lost children tie these cloths around Jizo Bosatsu, since he is believed to protect children in the afterlife.

buddhist statue wearing clothes

These lovingly handmade hats and accessories keep the Bodhisattvas warm.

Bodhisattva statues

Doesn’t it seem like these stone statues are bursting with personality? I half expected this little guy to stand up and bow, as if were a character out of Totoro.

okunoin cemetery night

At night, Okunoin cemetery is lit up by long rows of stone lanterns for a spooky atmosphere.

shingon monks ritual march

I was fortunate to be in Mount Koya during an October festival for the spirits. These yellow-robed Buddhist monks walked single-file through the graveyard, followed by the head monk under a red umbrella.

koya buddhist monks procession

Everyone followed the Shingon Buddhist procession to the main temple of Okunoin. The monks slipped off their shoes to enter the inner sanctuary, which was glowing with lanterns and golden artefacts.

From behind the barrier, we watched the monks march in a circle and recite chants, while incense filled the air. A powerful and uplifting ritual — I’m fortunate to have witnessed it.

Kongobuji temple rock garden

The next day, I continued to take in the sights around Koyasan. I’m standing inside Kongobuji temple, the head temple of Koya’s Shingon Buddhist sect. It was built in 1593 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi upon the death of his mother.

Inside Kongōbu-ji, you’ll find Banryūtei, the largest rock garden in Japan. The inner rooms are beautifully decorated with sliding doors (fusuma) that depict cranes, animals and ancient landscapes.

Konpon Daito Pagoda koya-san

The Garan (Koyasan’s central temple complex) features a Kondo Hall, and the eye-catching Konpon Daitō pagoda.

The interior holds a statue of the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai) surrounded by art, which comes together to form a three-dimensional mandala.

mt koya temples

I snapped a photo of a monk bowing in front of Sanmaido Hall. This is supposedly where Nichiren (Buddhist founder of the Nichiren school) debated other monks.

zen buddhist garden pond

I discovered a pond with lotus leaves, under a red arching bridge… Koyasan, you’re magic.

zen rock sand gardens japan

There are many shukubo (guesthouse) to choose from, which all offer the temple stay experience. This one had a perfectly raked sand garden.

zen temple stay overnight

Do you see Koya-kun peeking out from the bushes? (I’m wearing vintage Japanese robes.)

japanese shinto buddhist retreat

I loved immersing myself into the spiritual culture of Koyasan. I hope you’ll take the cable-car up to these tranquil mountains one day.

staying with monks temple koya

Would you do a temple stay in a Japanese Buddhist temple, like I did? For more about Mt. Koya and my Japan trip, enjoy my travel video — and feel free to ask me any questions in the comments.