“There are no dead in Okunoin, but only waiting spirits.”
Spending a night on Mount Koya is filled with many beautiful must-see sights but none more so than Okunoin Cemetery, Japan’s largest graveyard. It was early afternoon when we set out, but we were immediately blessed with gorgeous dappled light, showcasing the Autumn leaves in all their magnificence.
We had an indefinable sense of entering another world in this silent and dark place. The smell of incense and cedars is intense and fresh. Small offerings of fragrant pine twigs lie at the feet of some of the statues.
Okunoin is an amazing Buddhist cemetery, located in the Mount Koya, or Koyasan, mountains of Japan. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also designated as one of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Koyasan was the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism in Japan over 1200 years ago and is widely regarded as one of the most spiritual places in the country.
A delightful path meanders through the cemetery. Sometimes there is an enticing fork that circles back to the main path, and at regular intervals are little paths and stony steps leading deeper into the shaded graveyard.
There are literally thousands of grave markers. Some commemorate famous samurai and warlords from the Sengoku Period (16th century). There are mass graves for clans like the Mōri, who conquered the Chugoku and Sanyo regions in 1600. Elaborate mausoleums stand for the wealthy, the famous, the brave, and the spiritual. Powerfully beautiful statues of Japanese deities abound.
The guide books reveal that the graveyard contains over 250,000 unique gravestones and monuments which dominate the forest. Those resting here want to be close to Kobo Dashi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, in death. The tombstones denote individuals as well as families and companies. Since every living thing is sacred in Shingon Buddhism, even pets are buried here.
Okunoin lies deep in the densely forested mountains. Entering the ancient graveyard is exquisitely atmospheric. The staggeringly tall and centuries-old cedar trees, create a unique experience with their leafy tops serving as a canopy and the sturdy trunks providing a temple-like structure, flanking the pathways. Geoff stands 6ft tall and was completely dwarfed!
Even a couple of steps off the stone path and we were immersed in eerie silence and a sense of spirituality that makes one understand why the Shingon Buddhists believe that “there are no dead in Okunoin, only waiting spirits.” The founder of this sect, Kobo Daishi, is believed to rest here, in eternal meditation as he awaits the Buddha of the Future. When Kobo Dashi rises up to meet the Buddha of the Future, so too will all those resting in the cemetery.
A Japanese man from humble origins became the president of Panasonic and was very generous to Okunoin. The Company holds an annual prayer day here for all its employees.
The earliest graves date back to around 816AD. There are also more modern tombstones for not only individuals, but also for associations and companies, like Nissan, who purchase plots of land for employees who die during their service to the company to lie in eternal rest in this holy space. There is even a pest control company’s memorial to all the termites that their products have been exterminating, and one to honour all the puffer fish that lost their lives to a chef’s knife.
But in this gentle holy place, it is startling to suddenly come across a rocket ship placed for an aeronautical company. Definitely a double-take moment! Afterwards I discovered that the shrine was initially disallowed by the Koyasan authorities, but then the resourceful aeronautical company assured the graveyard’s keepers that the rocket was built in five stages to represent the five tiers of a classic gorinto.
Every so often we were enticed off the main route by intriguing stone staircases or mossy paths winding towards lesser frequented areas. I had the sense we could spend hours getting loss in the magic of the past. We felt the urge to lower our voices to a whisper in these parts, less we disturb the resting spirits.
“For the Japanese, the passage through the graveyard known as Okunoin (‘Innermost Sanctum‘) has something of the solemnity of a walk through the country’s history books.”
This place is so photogenic. We’ve taken hundreds of photos of tombstones, and haven’t even arrived at the mausoleum. I hold back the urge to take more photos and pick up my pace.
According to legend, Beto-Beto-San is a harmless ghost. The spirit follows people along deserted streets or pathways, making a sound like wooden geta (Japanese traditional wooden sandals) that get closer and closer to you until you panic and run. Even then, Beto-Beto-San supposedly follows you until you turn and greet him by saying, “After you, Beto-Beto-San,” at which point the spirit goes away. I read American author Susan Spann’s personal encounter with the forest trickster when she lingered to take some photographs and became separated from her group during a night visit to Okunoin. She no longer believes it’s only legend. 😱
Breathing in the cool damp air I become aware only of the sound of my heart beat, while surrounded by the silent silhouettes of the thousands of moss-covered headstones looming endlessly through the shadows and around every bend. I did not linger alone, wary of an encounter with Beto-Beto-San. 👻
There is a famous well in an obscure corner of the cemetery. When you look into the well, if you see your reflection, you will live to a ripe old age. If you cannot see your reflection, this means you will die in a year.
We briefly debated the sense in doing this, decided it was a probably a bad idea and then did it anyway. Fortunately it was not entirely dark yet and we were relieved (after a minor heart-stopping moment) to see our wavy images staring back at us.
Before crossing the final bridge to the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi–the focal point of the cemetery, it is tradition to bathe yourself in the river flowing beneath The Gobyonohashi Bridge, the bridge that leads to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Fortunately tourists are not expected to bathe, although some monks still follow this practice.
The Mizumuke Jizo are Buddhist statues that the line the entrance to the Mauseleum. In lieu of entering the river to bathe themselves, visitors and pilgrims are directed to throw water at these statues using a wooden ladle. This is a symbolic cleansing or bathing and an offering of prayer for loved ones before crossing to the most sacred point of the cemetery. The statues were particularly lovely, framed by the rich autumn leaves and the glow of the setting sun.
The final bridge you cross before coming to the mausoleum is called the Bridge of Ignorance, because it is believed that when you issue forth into the vicinity of Kobo Daishi, you are in a world of illumination.
According to legend, Kobo Daishi announced the moment of his imminent death. He stopped taking food and water, and spent his final moments in meditation. At that precise date and time, he fell into deep meditation. Believing that he still continues to meditate today, monks have been providing food for him twice a day for over 1,000 years. Kobo Daishi also announced that he would awaken in 567 million years’ time, when he would no longer need to pray for world peace.
Many of the memorials are draped with red hats, bibs or gowns. These red clothed Mizuko Jizos figures represent the babies and children who have passed by and are placed by parents to protect their children en route to the afterlife. Such a special sentiment. In Western culture if you miscarry a child, there is no ritual to support the grieving parents.
Fairly close to the mausoleum is the “Mound of the Nameless”. It was created in the past 40 years, to honour the spirits who have no one to look after their graves.
Effectively a giant stupa has been built from all the small gravestones that have been found discarded or abandoned along the ground here over the years. The statues are gradually being dressed in bibs over time and it is a visually powerful way to remember those that would otherwise be forgotten.
The magical Torodo hall is the main place of worship in the graveyard and contains over 10,000 lanterns which were donated by worshippers. The lanterns line the walls of the Torodo Hall from its floor to its ceiling and are said to have been illuminated for over 900 years and will remain eternally lit.
The stone path became increasingly dim and moody as the shadows lengthened and the dappled sunlight began to vanish. The lanterns set discreetly in carved stone pillars began to cast a glow. The centuries-old trees embraced us more closely, shading the moss-covered tombstones below. Hulking mausoleums and crumbling gravestones line the cobbled path.
Bursting with mystery, intrigue and superstition, there’s an overwhelming sense of peace and sacredness that has been preserved here amongst the towering ancient trees that have stood for thousands of years and seen so many people come and go, empires rise and fall. We had an understanding of what it means to step outside of time and enter a place where the world seems to stand still.
Okunoin creates one of those very special and incredibly rare travel moments: the kind that leave you stunned and completely in awe, the kind that stay cocooned in your memory and that never fail to draw a smile when your mind returns to the experience on a random afternoon.