Strolling with the Spirits: Okunoin Cemetery

“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.

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost....

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost….

27882656570_c8ce23b86d_bI 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.

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

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.

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

27548767373_602d8d1b0c_bThe 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).


28109931581_ec74da80b2_bAnd 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).

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs!

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs (Thailand)!

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).

Sorry, Couldn't Find a Good English Map....

Sorry, Couldn’t Find a Good English Map….

28129834416_23d80c1afd_bThe 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.


28083984472_5a00a5e330_bOnce 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.


28164150725_4469ec55db_bThe 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.


28085563811_9b3ae63336_bLeaving 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.


The Miroku Stone…which made me a saint…of sorts….

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.

Torodo, the Hall of Lamps/Laterns

28059896532_15b162f49d_bThis “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.


27572325303_5945aebc52_bBut 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.


28085560281_0883df3543_bWe 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.




The Last Banzai

Banzai:  a traditional Japanese exclamation meaning “ten thousand years,” shortened from a more involved cry to the Emperor of Japan, Tenno Heika Banzai” (天皇陛下萬歲, “Long live the Emperor”).

Emperor Hirohito, World War II Era

Emperor Hirohito, World War II Era

“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

These last two weeks have been very spiritual in atmosphere and experience for me.  The untimely passing of a close friend and brother skydiver, necessitating such a permanent goodbye on top of an already tough sayonara to my friends and family, has had me reaching both inside and out for a reconnection with a more spiritual dimension of life.  While I cannot attest (nor do I want to) that I am a man of any particular denominational faith, I remain a being of faith…that there is something more that binds us in our shared human experience, which allows us to live on in some form or fashion across epoch and cosmos.  Crudely stated, for me personally, perhaps the best evidence for any god can be found in the unpretentious and pure love of a cat.  Love, in fact, may be the only evidence of a higher power that remains tangible for most, visible to all.

Cleo Loves Me.  Or at Least My Feet.

Cleo Loves Me. Or at Least My Feet.

I was struck at my friend Jimmy’s memorial how much the service, at the Church and at the graveside, centered on the Christian God and in assisting Jimmy in finding salvation through his system of beliefs.  Jim was a devout Catholic, and no matter what is stated here, I wish to take nothing from his faith, something he held so dear.  But the lack of focus, comment, or even celebration of “Jimmy” left me feeling empty and at odds with myself – and the services.  The goodbye that most Western faiths offer is too final, or only offers a “see ya on the other side” where one is expected to wait until their own demise to once again be reunited with departed loved-ones.

I used to think that funerals were quite pedestrian, almost unnecessary.  Until I started to lose friends and shipmates in the Navy, and over time I realized that such services really do not serve the dead any purpose whatsoever, but are for the living.  What “the living” want and need out of such rituals varies, but I believe at a common denominator, they all should assist those still in the realm of life to connect, even if for a moment, with the ether of the dead.

Prayer and Spirituality

Prayer and Spirituality

But what is wrong with conversing with the spiritual world now?  If there is such a dimension, ought there be something more between it and us than simply outwaiting time for death to arrive and reunify?  Certainly I’m not the only one to think so; why else would we visit graves, leave mementos, and converse with the dead so often and for so long?  However, such facets of western faith are not formally recognized (in my experienced) nor practiced (well), and certainly not embraced as a public holiday or part and parcel of American culture.

Then Jody and I relocate to Okinawa.  Amidst the bustle and hustle of our international move, fraught with having to secure off-base housing on the economy, purchasing, registering and insuring two vehicles, and getting Jody checked into work and me checked into the military’s machine here on-island, we arrive exactly at one of the most spiritual times for the Okinawans:  Obon.

Obon in Japan, an Ancestral Family Reunion

Obon in Japan, an Ancestral Family Reunion

Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors.  There to be two main types of religion or spiritual tradition in Japan:  Shinto and Buddhism.  While mainland (Honshu) Japan is more Shinto in many areas, Okinawa retains a large Buddhist community, reflecting roots which run deep and long with Korea and China.  This Buddhist-Confucian custom here has evolved into a family-reunion of sorts, and is now a Prefecture (a geographical region akin to a state) holiday during which Okinawans return to ancestral family dwellings after visiting and cleaning family gravesites, after which whose spirits are invited to revisit “home” and reunite with the living.  It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori, which in (and only in) Okinawa is more specifically called Eisa.

Eisa Dance, a Uniquely Okinawan Spiritual Tradition

Eisa Dance, a Uniquely Okinawan Spiritual Tradition

The festival of Obon lasts for three days, but is celebrated at differing times in Japan depending upon where one resides.  When the lunar calendar, used by the Japanese in more ancient times, was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era (early 20th century), some localities refused to change their spiritual observances, resulting in three different times of Obon. “Shichigatsu Bon” (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of July in eastern Japan, such as the Kantō region, including Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku areas.  “Hachigatsu Bon” (Bon in August), the most common observance of Bon, is based on the lunar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of August.  “Kyu Bon” (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so this observance differs each year.  “Kyu Bon” is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kantō region, Chūgoku region, Shikoku, and the Okinawa Prefecture.  In Okinawa, the third day of Bon is a holiday and most businesses are closed mid-week.

Eisa Dancers Guide Spirits in Okinawa

Eisa Dancers Guide Spirits in Okinawa

We arrived on-island on the 16th of August, and just this past week Bon was celebrated here from the 19th through the 21st of August.  At night, just after sundown, you could hear throughout the adjoining neighborhoods the traditional music, drums, and whistling which accompany the celebration of Bon and the performance of Eisa.  During the day gravesites were refreshed and traffic was heavy as families traveled the island to share this special time at childhood homes.

Eisā (エイサー) is a form of Okinawan folk dance originally derived from Bon celebrations.  This dance is performed by the younger people of each community during the Bon festival to honor the spirits of their ancestors, but it certainly doesn’t exclude the older generations, usually seen playing the traditional Okinawa instruments.  It is a vital part both of Bon on Okinawan, being intricately woven into the very cultural fabric here, designed to embrace and guide good spirits, while keeping unmentionables at bay.

Traditional Okinawan Family Tombs

Traditional Okinawan Family Tombs

Days before Obon begins, many families gather to clean their ancestors’ graves to help demonstrate to the spiritual world that all will soon be able to share time in the land of the living.

More Modern Okinawan Tomb Equivalents

More Modern Okinawan Tomb Equivalents

On the first day of Obon known as “unkeh,” chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family’s grave to call their ancestors’ spirits back home (“mukae-bon”).  In some regions, fires called “mukae-bi” are lit at the entrances of houses to help guide the spirits home, brightening up doorways across the island as the living stand in front of their homes to help greet spirits as darkness descends.  Homes are cleaned, and a variety of food offerings are placed at a butsudan

Obon Ancestral Alter

Obon Ancestral Alter

(Buddhist altar) along with the chochin lanterns and colorful and fresh flower arrangements.  In Okinawa, a bundle of 13 short pieces of sugar cane and a long, uncut cane are also placed on the side of the altar; while most offerings of food are made in pairs or in a package, the countable foods like the sugar cane are always given in odd-number increments.  The long piece is said to be used as a walking stick by the spirits as they leave the house and return to their tombs.  That evening, families dine on a porridge-like meal known as “jushi,” offered to and shared with the spirits of their deceased relatives.

Spiritual Nightlight:  Chochin Lantern with Family Crest

Spiritual Nightlight: Chochin Lantern with Family Crest

During the second night (“nakabi”), ancestors are offered three meals.  The day is dedicated to family members visiting with relatives and apologizing to their ancestors for not communicating for so long (read:  CALL YOUR MOMMA).  They pray for forgiveness and offer additional gifts to the spirits.

Okinawan Spiritual Connection:  Prayer & Thanks

Okinawan Spiritual Connection: Prayer & Thanks

The third and final day of Bon (“ukui”), the climax of the family reunification, centers on a farewell dinner which is carefully prepared and placed before the butsudan into a special box called the “jyubako” as a final offering for the spirits, along with sake, tea and other special foods.  The family also prepares the “minnuku,” a special meal made of grass or scraps of

Jyubako Box, Sustainment for the Dead

Jyubako Box, Sustainment for the Dead

food that can be offered to any bad spirits or homeless, wandering spirits which the ancestors might meet on their journey back to the tomb.  To ensure that the spirits will have no needs as they cross back over into the spiritual world, “uchikabi,” money made of paper and stamped with the shape of a coin by a hammer and iron mold is placed on the jyubako.  The entire family – living and dead – comes together in front of the butsudan as the meal is prepared, and incense is burned while the family gives thanks for their good health and prays for the safety, happiness, and prosperity of the family in the year to come.

Spiritual Debt:  Paying the Ferryman

Spiritual Debt: Paying the Ferryman

After the meal, men sing and play a banjo-like instrument made of snakeskin, called the “samisen.”  Just before midnight the ancestral spirits are bid a fond farewell and the paper money is burned by the head of the family and his sons.  They douse the ashes with tea and sake, and place the souvenir foods and the minnuku.  A final pray is made to help ensure the spirits’ safe return to their tomb, and that they will again come back again and visit in the following year.  Family members help return their ancestor’s spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits back to their resting places (“okuri-bon”).  In some regions, fires called okuri-bi are lit at entrances of houses to assist in sending back their ancestors’ spirits.  During Obon, the smell of senko incense fills Japanese houses and cemeteries.

Spiritual Flight:  Japanese Crane with Obon Banner

Spiritual Flight: Japanese Crane with Obon Banner

The idea of formal, celebrated, and embraced spiritual reunifications with ancestral familial members has refreshed my feelings about death, loss, and my own spirituality.  I believe we all could do well by taking part of a week each year to not just lament loss in our families or of our friends, or even to celebrate their lives past, but rather take three days to invite those we love back into not just our homes, but into our lives, in celebration of all that was, is, and remains to be.  It is in embracing and inviting such spirituality into our ordinary lives that connects us through time and space, not simply via funerary mass.

Party On:  Spiritual Honor & Celebration

Party On: Spiritual Honor & Celebration

While Jimmy got the sendoff he expected and deserved, and most were able to say a tearful “goodbye,” I choose not to idly wait to “see” him again.  Rather, during Bon next year here in Okinawa, Jimmy, along with my own ancestry, will be welcomed into my life again to be reacquainted and celebrated.  Just don’t tell Jody; most shishi dogs already freak her out (wink)!

Banzai, Jimmy!!

Banzai, Uncle Bob!!

Banzai, Mom!!

It is in this way we all may live for ten thousand years!

What Many Americans Probably Think of Banzai!

What Many Americans Probably Think of Banzai!

PS – thanks to a fellow blogger Maki Photography for use of some wonderful images!