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Okuno-in Cemetery

  • There are no dead in Okunoin cemetery, only spirits awaiting the arrival of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Or so local legend would have it.

    At 2km long and housing well over 200,000 graves, Okunoin is easily Japan’s largest cemetery. It is also one of the oldest, dating back to the early 9th century, when a monk named Kukai returned from China with the teachings of what became known as Shingon Buddhism. Kukai, or Kobo Daishi as he is often called, went on to establish a mountain retreat at Koyasan (Mt. Koya) that today is the ecclesiastical headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon School.

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Upon his death in 835, Kukai’s body was entombed on the mountain, where, it is said, he remains in a state of meditative consciousness awaiting the appearance of Maitreya. The 200,000 monks whose gravestones line the route to Kukai’s mausoleum are also believed to be biding their time.

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okunoin cemetery is just one area within the huge Koyasan temple complex, which contains 117 temples and monasteries and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The cemetery can be visited as a day trip from Osaka but is best appreciated as part of an overnight stay. There are more than 50 shukubo, or temple lodgings, on the mountain that provide a range of accommodation. Okunoin is a 15-minute walk or a short bus ride from the town center.

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Ichinohashi marks the traditional entrance to Okunoin, and traversing this is like passing into a different world. As a mark of respect, it is best to mimic the faithful and bow deeply before crossing the bridge. On either side of the 2km-long approach to the mausoleum are thousands of moss-covered tombstones and ancient cenotaphs, some erected by prominent monks and feudal lords. Imposing cedars cast long shadows across the graves, adding to the sense of otherworldliness. The forest, which encroaches on all sides, is said to be 1,200 years old.

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    A shorter and more popular route to the mausoleum begins at the Okunoin-mae bus stop and cuts the distance in half. Lining this approach are more recent gravestones, many put up by well-known corporations, including a memorial by carmaker Nissan.

    Both paths meet at Gokusho Offering Hall. Close by is a row of Jizo statues, a common sight in Japan. The little Bodhisattvas, many clothed in vermillion bibs and wooly hats, are believed to look out for children, especially the unborn, and travelers.

    Beyond the statues is Gobyonohashi, a small bridge and the entrance to the inner sanctum. You should again bow before crossing. From this point food, drink and photography are prohibited. Look to the left of the bridge and you may see a clutch of wooden markers in the stream below. These are known as sotoba, a derivation of the Sanskrit stupa, and have been placed as memorials to the unborn.

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    The gateway to Kukai’s mausoleum is Torodo, the hall of lanterns. Contained within are some 10,000 lanterns, all donated by worshipers and all kept alight year-round. Two of them are said to have been burning continuously since 1088.

    Kukai’s mausoleum, or Gobyo, marks the conclusion of this fascinating and at times ghoulish journey through twelve hundred years of death and Buddhism. Unless, of course, you choose to return after dark, when the eeriness of Okunoin provides a fitting end to this cemetery visit.

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Okuno-in Cemetery

    Koyasan Station can be reached by cable car from Gokurakubashi Station on the Koya Line (Koyasen), which terminates in Osaka.

    Okunoin Temple
    Address
    Wakayama Pref. Itogunkouyachou Kouyasan
    Phone
    0736562011
    Koyasan
    Address
    Wakayama Pref. Itogunkouyachou Nishigou
    Phone
    Gokurakubashi
    Address
    Wakayama Pref. Itogunkouyachou Kouyasan
    Phone
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