Mist and clouds shrouded the surrounding hills. Snow was gently falling. The wind was cold and biting. Still, when we visited, an extraordinary energy pervaded Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery and one of its most holy places.
The Shingon Buddhist religion and Koyasan, as its base, were founded in 816 by the monk priest, Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi). Today Kukai’s mausoleum is the focal point of Okunoin, an eerie collection of over 200,000 tombstones, memorials and moss covered pagodas set amongst an ancient cedar forest – recalling all social levels from members of the Imperial court to paupers and speaking of the cemetery’s 1,200 years of history.
Okunoin is, without doubt, why most people visit Koyasan. For pilgrims and believers, Kukai isn’t dead but rather in a state of eternal meditation, able to hear their prayers. For others, the beauty and atmosphere of Okunoin draws.
Not only do Shingon Buddhists from all over visit here, many dream of being buried here, close to Kobo Daishi such that they may share in salvation and enter Nirvana when Miroku Nyorai (Maihreya), the Buddha of the Future, visits and Kobo Diashi’s meditation comes to an end and his work is finished.
If a full interment is not possible, and it isn’t for most, the dearly departed’s desire to be with Kobo Daishi can be fulfilled through having as little as a lock of hair or some of their ashes interred. Indeed, it is possible to be here in absentia and one need not even be human to be memorialised here – as evidenced by the White Ant Memorial, erected by a pesticide company to pay its respects to the insects it has destroyed over the years. This simple single stone memorial reads (in Japanese) – ‘White Ants – Rest In Peace’.
While we visited the cemetery mid morning, it is open 24/7 and many visit it after dark, guided by flickering light from ornate stone lanterns located though-out. I wish my schedule had allowed for a night-time visit too but that wasn’t to be.
Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum is located in upper part of the cemetery as are the Torodo and associated temple buildings. The Torodo or Lantern Hall is a sight to behold and should not be missed (see my Inner Sanctum review) and likewise the temple – one of the most atmospheric and reverent I have ever been in. It is important to note that the Torodo and temple buildings are generally only open from 6.30am to 5.30pm. Keep this in mind if you were otherwise planning only a night-time visit.
From a visitor perspective, there are two main entrances, Ichinohashi Bridge and Okunoin-mae, both easily accessible from the town centre by bus or on foot. Access and departure via Okunoin-mae means less walking for those just wishing to visit Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (accessible by wheelchair using this entrance only) as it takes one directly there through the newer part of the cemetery. The downside of using just this entrance is that you will miss out on most of the older part of the cemetery – a great shame unless your time is very limited or you are not up to a 3-4 km walk.
As most visitors do, we entered via the Ichinohashi Bridge and followed the most beautiful winding path for its 2km length through the tombstones and towering cedars – inter-spaced with an abundance of Jizo bodhisattvas, many covered in blankets and hand-knitted hats – until we reached Gobyonohashi Bridge and made our way into the inner sanctum to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (Gobyo). We later exited via Okunoin-mae, through the newer part of the cemetery, and caught a bus back into town. Had the weather been more clement we would have walked back into town.
I have no doubt, Okunoin will leave you with a long lasting impression. While we had to limit our visit to a couple of hours, I could easily have spent a day here. Out short time was sufficient though to cover the highlights of the cemetery and other reviews to follow delve into some of these in more detail. I trust you will join me for a deeper look, finding it enjoyable or useful or, better still, both.
The cemetery (leaving aside the inner sanctum where photography is prohibited) is a photographer’s delight and choosing which photos to display here was a significant challenge. Hopefully, between this review and my additional Okunoin reviews I have managed to pictorially capture the essence of this very special place.
Okunoin Cemetery is open at all hours though the Torodo and temple buildings are generally only open from 6.30am to 5.30pm.
The main cemetery entrance, via Ichinohashi bridge, is about 15 minutes walk from the town centre (tourist office) or a short bus ride (during daytime only). From here it is a 2km walk to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. I suggest you return via the Okunoin-mae exit from which it is around a 20 minutes walk or a short bus ride to the town centre.