“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ~ Stephen King
“Spirit, are you there?” I find myself tentatively whispering in my mind not wanting to ignore the screaming silence as Jody and I stroll the depths of the massive and picturesque cemetery in Japan called Okunoin. I have always wanted to experience a “ghost.” Not a poltergeist or the terrifying experiences as depicted in TV’s A Haunting, or like those in the book The Amityville Horror, but an interaction that could easily and with some certainty confirm that there is something more to this life than the here and now….
My inclination was no different when Jody and I visited Okunoin, one of Japan’s most popular and largest of cemeteries located in the sacred mountaintop town of Koyasan (see Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan for more). Along a meandering cobblestoned-path surrounded by immense and enchanted ancient rustling cedar forest, I hoped for an encounter with souls of those departed long ago.
I have always been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural. I was the kid that would take the creepy shortcut at college through the cemetery in the rolling hills not far away from campus. I am that guy that seeks out the reportedly most haunted places in New Orleans, and then goes to them, taunting spirits to appear. But my intrigue didn’t stop there; while flying and at sea with the US Navy during my 20-year military career, I was constantly scanning the skies and heavens for something not of this world. I guess you can say that I want to believe. But I remain doubtful.
According to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, there are no dead in Okunoin, only spirits. Spirits awaiting the arrival of Miroku, the proclaimed “Buddha of the Future,” at which time Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon religious community will arise from his eternal meditation and raise all those around him in order to realize enlightenment. The number of graves in Okunoin, well in excess of 200,000, continues to increase, making it the largest cemetery in Japan.
The idea of spirits and the spiritual world is very different in the Far East. I first was drawn to the Thai Buddhist idea of “spirit homes,” structures one can find place property lines of domiciles and businesses alike. Literally, the edifice is a “house” in which spirits can live, and to which offerings are brought to appease those spirits. In other words, spirits are everywhere, so might as well live peacefully and respectfully among them. This resonated so well with me that I purchased one that has stood in every home I’ve lived in since 2000 (except for my time in Japan).
And at the highest point within the graveyard is found Okunoin (奥の院) Temple, the most sacred site for followers of the revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, the central pillar of their faith. His mausoleum is located here, but the monk is said to not have died but instead entered a deep and eternal mediation, praying for collective salvation, awaiting the Buddha of the Future. Eons ago, Okunoin was a gathering place for samurai warriors. Today it is one of the region’s primary tourist attractions and as one of the most sacred places in Japan it is a very popular religious pilgrimage origin and destination (see Pilgrimage of Eat, Pray, Bathe for more).
In other areas of the Far East, specifically China, Japan, Okinawa and to some extent Korea, the idea of protective lion-dogs is ubiquitous. These are referred to by various names, including Shi-shi, Shisa, and Foo depending on the region; see Guardian Shisa for more. While in Japan, my spirit house is replaced by shisa (see Intimidation for my latest set of protectors).
The walk through the cemetery starts with the crossing of the Ichino-hashi (一の橋) bridge (first bridge), the historic and traditional entrance to the site. Prior to crossing, visitors should join their hands together and bow to show their respect to Kobe Daishi. This bridge marks the entrance and the start of a pleasant two kilometer walk through the enchanted cedar forest found here which lines the well paved cobblestone path. The neatness of the trail however is surrounded by the ordered disorder of the cemetery’s vast and varied collection of moss-covered gravestones.
Across the bridge starts Okunoin‘s cemetery, where a quarter of a million tombstones line the winding approach to Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum. Wishing to be close to their religious leader in death to receive early and constant salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.
Once across, the atmosphere changes dramatically. The dizzyingly-tall cedars on either side of the cemetery’s main twisting pathway blot out much of the sky and obscures what lays ahead. The almost countless graves, tombs and memorials vary tremendously in style, creating a scenic sensory overload in every direction. While the finer details of the graves can be easily lost to the sheer size of the place, the most spectacular cenotaphs do demand attention. Massive monuments and tall memorial pagodas of famous and powerful feudal lords and samurai warriors from across the ages are sprinkled here for those who wish to seek them out. But then there are also the unexpectedly interesting ones, such as a monument one insecticide company dedicated to all its termite victims.
Innumerable excursions can be taken from the main path via trails left and right, where visitors can venture among seemingly forgotten tombs, constructed of now eroded stones, covered with thick, moist green moss. At their furthest recesses, nature is well on her way to reclaiming what remains ultimately hers.
Conversely, the site’s more modern entrance, located across from the Okunoin-mae bus stop, not only shortens the journey through the place by about half, but also transverses the more recent additions of the dead, complete with refined granite polished to mirror finish, quite incongruous with the feel of the more ancient aspects of the graveyard.
There are various accessories which adorn the almost incalculable number of Buddha statues found here. Most often found is a vermilion bib, an offering left by mothers to help protect their living children in this life, and to bring them luck in whatever comes next.
The two paths through the cemetery both lead the to the Gokusho Offering Hall where a row of Jizo statues called Mizumuke (water-covered) Jizo are found. Jizo is a popular Bodhisattva (enlightened being) that looks after children, travelers, and the souls of the deceased. Pilgrims and the faithful leave paper and wood offerings here at their feet and then throw water upon the effigies while praying for departed family members and loved ones.
The Gobyo no Hashi Bridge crosses a stream which runs immediately behind the Mizumuke Jizo, and serves as not only the cleansing waters used at the temple, but as a physical separation between the innermost grounds of the temple from the rest of Okunoin. In a very real sense, it is a break between the spiritual realm of the dead from the sacred dominion of Kobo Daishi. Visitors should again clasp their hands and bow before crossing, and photography, food and drink are strictly forbidden beyond this point. To the left of the bridge are a group of wooden markers placed in the stream as a touching memorial to unborn children and those lost to drowning.
Leaving the bridge, a short way down the path, visitors will find on the left a small wooden cage-like structure that houses the Miroku Stone. Legend has it that this stone, when lifted, weighs the sins of the person lifting. Through small gaps in the walls, the stone can be manipulated; it is customary to lift it with one hand only and move it from the lower platform to the upper shelf. The stone is said to be much heavier to those who sins bear burden, and much lighter to those who remain more saint-like. In what I will consider a good omen and not a testament to either my American heft and strength or any pretense of sainthood, the stone was, for me, relatively easy to move.
Leaving that test behind and continuing up the path, the temple’s Toro-do Hall (燈籠堂), the main area for worship, emerges through the trees. Originally built by the second generation successor of Koyasan, Shinzen Daitoku, it was further enlarged and refurbished in 1023 to its present-day appearance and size by Fujiwara no Michinaga.
This “Hall of Lamps” houses tens of thousands of luminous lanterns, some of which are said to have been burning continuously for almost 1,000 years. Many if not all of the lanterns found here were donated by worshippers, some which include past Emperors and members of the Royal Family of generations past. Such lamps include the Kishinto, a lantern offered by Kishin, the Shirakawato, one offered by Emperor Shirakawa, and also the Showato, a lantern dedicated by the Emperor and Royal Family during the Showa period.
But perhaps the most moving involves Hinnyo-no-Itto, a poor Japanese woman of age-old times who cut and sold her precious long black hair to purchase a lantern to donate to the temple; it remains proudly and prominently displayed to this day. The lanterns all remain lighted 24/7, and together the lamps create a sacred shimmering space, the last area visited before visitors reach the holy heart of the complex, the ultimate destination of one of Japan’s most famous pilgrimages, the mausoleum and eternal dwelling of Kukai, the Kobo Dashi.
Behind the Toro-do is the mausoleum called the Gobyo (御廟), which houses the famous monk in deep and eternal meditation. Each day, meals are deposited at the Gobyo’s door to provide sustenance for the monk within, while living monks and laymen reflect in silent support while chanting sutras in a low voice. It is not uncommon to see pilgrims in deep reflection here.
We found that one visit wasn’t enough to grasp the extent and discover even a handful of its secrets. That and our first visit was at night, a time I would highly recommend if you want to wander among the spirits completely alone! I found the nocturnal tranquility of the complex very soothing, for not just me and the residents alike. In the day expect to find many visitors; at night after about 2100, expect no one to be visiting (we were there in July). A night time visit indeed provides a special atmosphere that is quite different from that of a day time visit, but note that some parts of the path are poorly lit. It is possible to venture all the way to the mausoleum during the night none of the temple halls are open.
Although there was no paranormal activity noted at Okunoin, I need look no further than inside to find all the ghosts I ever need to worry, and sometimes indeed they do win. However, here there is a spiritual energy collecting from wishes and prayers that has the power to cleanse souls. A stroll through this Garden of Stone is a must if you visit Koyasan, and a stop I would make even if you find yourself visiting only this region of Japan.