Regular readers of my reviews will know that I enjoy visiting old cemeteries for the fascinating insight they provide in terms of social history and, for the more famous cemeteries, the opportunity to visit the graves of well known people from history.
Okunoin Cemetery parallels Japanese history down the years from the early ninth century and it is full of famous (with a smattering of infamous) people from that history. Alas, this was all pretty much lost on me given my lack of knowledge of Japanese history and the fact that, apart from a few interpretative plaques in English, the inscriptions on the tombstones and memorials are in Japanese, a language of which, sadly, I have no knowledge.
My sense of immense fulfilment from visiting Okunoin came from a combination of its beauty – its stunning mountain setting with around 200,000 plus tombstones and memorials wedged between ancient cedar trees and atmospheric temples – and its links with Shingon Buddhism and the religion’s founder, Kobo Diashi, who has rested here in meditation since 835.
It is not surprising that a place of this age is also steeped in folklore and legend. The purpose of this review is to share three folkloric stories, notwithstanding that my photos are somewhat lacking in terms of illustration.
My first picture above depicts a shrine housing the black stone statue of Asekaki Jizo (Sweating Jizo) which is often moist due to climatic conditions. This moistness gives the bodhisattva its ‘Sweating’ appellation. It is said to be sweating because it takes on the sufferings of others, for their wrongdoings or misadventures.
To the right of this shrine, and being inspected by the lady in my picture, is a well called Sugatami no ido. According to folklore, if you look into this well and cannot see your reflection in the water you will die within three years. ‘Charming’, I hear you say.
I do not know if the good lady depicted saw her reflection or not but given the inclement weather and my assessment that I may, as a result, not see my reflection I decided not to risk looking in. Additionally, I was still on somewhat of a high from a few minutes earlier when I took on the ‘Miroku-ishi challenge’ and didn’t want to spoil that feeling just yet by potentially learning of my imminent demise.
Should you look into the well and not see your reflection may I suggest an immediate and substantial offering to the adjacent Asekaki Jizo!
The Miroko-ishi is a largish smooth stone named after Buddha Maitreya – the future Buddha on whom Kobo Diashi has awaited a visit since 835. The stone is housed in a small wooden building located between the Gobyonohashi Bridge and the Torodo. As this is within the most sacred, no photography, part of the cemetery I do not have a picture to share.
The challenge here, referred to above, is to insert one hand though a hole in the wall and lift the stone onto a higher shelf. The weight of the stone is said to change according to the weight of your sin – the heavier the stone the more sinful you are. I didn’t find it particularly heavy, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.
My third brush with folklore in the cemetery resulted in my taking the second picture attached, a picture totally unrelated to what I was looking for and a case of mistaken identity – taken as I was in a hurry and didn’t correctly read the plaque which would have made it clear I was after a much older memorial.
What I was looking for was the rather unassuming Zenni Jochi memorial. This memorial, dating from 1375, is for a Buddhist nun and legend has it that if you place your ear on the stone and listen you can hear the cries in hell. My attached picture (3) of the correct memorial is courtesy of https://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Japan/Wakayama/Koyasan/blog-901913.html.
My mistaken photo does afford me the opportunity to make reference to the stupa depicted. It is a modern version of the numerous similar and much older five tiered stupas in Okunoin (examples in pictures 4 and 5 below). Each tier represents one of the five natural elements. Working from the top down these are space, wind, fire, water and earth. Ignore levels below this, where they exist, as these are ornamental bases only.
Okinoun is free to enter and open at all hours. 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).