The heart of spirituality in Japan.
Concealed atop the spiritual Mount Koya lies Okunoin, Japan’s largest cemetery and one of the most sacred locations in the country. The towering cedar trees – some more than 500 years old – ancient mossy tombstones and haunting atmosphere are all part of this eerie, otherworldly experience.
Mount Koya (or Koyasan) is a sacred Buddhist retreat and UNESCO World Heritage site in Wakayama Prefecture where travelers can stay overnight at a temple, experience prayer rituals and discover the area beyond. No visit to Koya is complete until you’ve had a chance to make your way around Okunoin.
The two-kilometer path that stretches back from the Ichi-no-hashi bridge, which marks the official cemetery entrance, is lined with over 300,000 gravestones. The styles of the tombstones range from ancient ones covered in moss to recent ones made out of refined granite. Walking down the stone path canopied by trees, you’ll feel the contrast in atmosphere between the old and new burial memorials. With crumbling and weathered stones that date back centuries, the path is dotted with graves of monks, lords and military commanders, including Date Masamune, who founded the city of Sendai.
Juxtapositioned with these are more modern additions, including company graves from corporations like Panasonic and Kubota. Some of the more unusual monuments include a memorial from a pest control company to all the termites that their products have killed!
At the end of the path, you’ll find the most important site of Koyasan: the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi – also known as Priest Kukai – who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan. It is believed that he rests here in eternal meditation, awaiting the Buddha of the Future.
The Gobyo-no-hashi Bridge separates this sacred inner area where the mausoleum is located from the rest of the cemetery. Once you cross the bridge, eating, drinking and taking photographs is forbidden. The bridge features 36 stone planks and represents all the Buddhist deities of the Diamond Realm Mandala. The significance of each one of them is marked with a Sanskrit letter carved on the planks.
Hall of Lanterns
In front of the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi is Torodo Hall (the Hall of Lanterns), which is the center of worship for Okunoin. The hall contains more than 10,000 lanterns which are kept eternally lit. Legend has it that some have been burning for more than 1,000 years. Journey beneath the hall, and you’ll find a room with surreal, maze-like walls composed of thousands of tiny Buddha statues.
Other sights at Okunoin
There are a number of other interesting features hidden among the moss-covered tombstones of Okunoin. One of these is the Miroku stone, located in a small wooden cage just over the Gobyo-no-hashi. This ordinary-looking rock is thought to be able to judge the virtue of those who try to lift it, feeling lighter to the virtuous and heavier to the sinful.
A slightly more unsettling feature is the Sugatami-no-Ido, or Well of Reflections. This tiny well can be found next to a shrine that houses a statue of Asekaki Jizo (Sweating Jizo), by the small Naka-no-hashi bridge in the middle of the cemetery. According to legend, if you look inside the well but don’t see your reflection then you are fated to die within the next three years…
At Okunoin, you’ll find yourself closer to the ancestors of Japan. A visit here is unlike anywhere on earth.