Nearly a year ago, I made reservations to spend Christmas in Koyasan, Japan's holy mountain that is the center of Shingon Buddhism and that once boasted thousands of temples. It's a 7-hour journey from where I live, so I'd been saving Koyasan for the holidays.
The remaining 117 temples (52 of which operate as hotels) are largely along the main road, each boasting unique features that make them inviting to photograph. Women pilgrims were not allowed to enter Koyasan until the late 1800s; before then, there were special shrines called Nyoindo (only one of the original 17 still stands at the entrance).
I stayed in two different temples, Fudoin and Fukuchiin. On the first and third mornings, I attended morning prayer services followed by breakfast.
The rest of the day was devoted to sightseeing, from the impressive Konpon Daito pagoda and Daimon to Okunoin, a gorgeous cemetery flanked by towering ancient cedars. There's a reverent silence that envelops the cemetery, which is even more gorgeous at night.
Meals on Koyasan are vegan temple cuisine, shojin ryori. Each meal contains five colors, flavors, and cooking styles.