Despite having an aversion to resting places of the dead, I found myself enjoying walks through a couple of cemeteries on a recent visit that I made to Japan with a few friends. One did have the distinction of being the largest cemetery in the country. Located on Mount Koya (高野山 Koya-san) in Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山県), that cemetery does not just contain an estimated 200,000 graves, but a site which is sacred to the Shingon School of Buddhism, being where the mausoleum of the sect’s founder, Kukai or Kobo-Daishi, is located and where he is said to lie in eternal meditation. The cemetery, together with the mausoleum at the end of a 2 kilometre walk through the cemetery is in fact a pilgrimage site for Shingon Buddhism, one of the mainstream schools of Buddhism in Japan. It part of the larger Koyasan area which again makes up part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
Set in what does seem like an enchanted forest of ancient towering cedar trees, the cemetery is one of the must visit sites in the Koyasan area, which lies at the heart of Shingon Buddhism, having been where Kukai established his monastery in the 9th century – the 900m altitude valley was said to have been chosen as a retreat as its layout resembled a eight petal lotus flower with it being surrounded by eight peaks. At its height during the Edo period, it is thought that there were some 2,000 temples in Koyasan, of which only 123 exist today.
The walk through the cemetery starts with the crossing of Ichino-hashi (一の橋), a bridge which marks the entrance to the sacred site. From the bridge, a pleasant 2 kilometre walk through the air of calm provided by the cedar trees which line the well paved cobblestone path surrounded by the ordered disorder of the cemetery’s moss covered gravestones, is what it takes to reach Okunoin (奥の院). Okunoin is the inner sanctuary where Gobyo (御廟), the mausoleum of Kūkai is located and where lights of a thousand years are said to burn in some of the 10,000 lanterns found in the Toro-do (燈籠堂) or Lantern Hall which stands in front of Gobyo.
The walk, does provide for many fascinating discoveries – if one has the time to look for them. There are the graves of many religious leaders, feudal lords, military commanders and more recent ones where business leaders find rest – some which do go back to 12th century. There also are several other interesting finds – one that will not be hard to locate would be the Sugatami-no-ido (姿見の井戸) or the Well of Reflections. Found immediately after the second bridge, Nakano-hashi (中の橋), legend has it that if one looks into the well and does not see his or her reflection, death will come to that person within three years.
There are also several others discoveries to be made beyond the Nakano-hashi. These include the Zenni-jochi (禅尼上智碑) – a 90 cm memorial to a Buddhist nun. It is said that one would be able to hear the cries in hell by placing one’s ear on the stone. Another one which would not be missed is a memorial to soldiers who perished in North Borneo during the second world war. That is immediately identifiable from the three flags – that of Japan, Malaysia and Australia, which hang on a flag pole at the memorial.
It is not long before one comes to the Gobyo-bashi (御廟橋), the bridge over the Tamagawa – the stream which separates the most sacred inner sanctuary, Okunoin, from the rest of the cemetery. Looking beyond the bridge, the Toro-do is seen at the end of the path up a flight of steps. It is with the sacred waters of the Tamagawa that pilgrims, many dressed in white robes, cleanse themselves before entering the sanctuary. The inner sanctuary is also where the Miroku-ishi (弥勒石) or Miroku stone can be found – a short distance from the bridge. It is said that the stone feels light to the good and heavy to the sinful.
Crossing the Gobyo-bashi, after which photography is not permitted, one does feel a sense of inner peace. This is heightened stepping into the Toro-do where the chanting of the rows of saffron robed monks somehow adds to the peaceful atmosphere. Having found a semblance of the peace that many seek in making a pilgrimage to Okunoin, it was then time to head back. The walk towards Ichino-hashi, made longer than it might have been by the shower of hail and by the biting wind, was in no way less enjoyable (although my companions would probably disagree with me) than the walk in to Okunoin. As we cross over the Ichino-hashi we see more heading into the cemetery – the cemetery does in all probability draw a substantial portion of the 1.2 million visitors that come to Mount Koya annually, many on a spiritual journey, and some like us, just to discover the peace and beauty that only a cemetery such as this is able offer.
Mount Koya (高野山 Koya-san) is quite easily accessible from Osaka via the Nankai Electric Railway’s Koya Line. Trains leave regularly from Osaka’s Namba Station and all it takes is an hour and a half by express train to Gokurakubashi, 5 minutes by funicular up to Koyasan. From Kōyasan, there are public buses to Ichino-bashi. A round trip ticket that includes the train, funicular and a two day bus ticket can be purchased at Osaka Namba station for ¥2780.
Visitors to Mount Koya have the option of a unique experience an overnight stay at one of 53 temples, such as the Shojoshin-in Temple which is just by the Ichino-hashi which my friends and I put up at. Included in the cost of accommodation is two vegetarian meals (breakfast and dinner). More information on this can be found at Japanese Guest Houses.
Resources on Koyasan / Okunoin:
Koyasan Shingon Buddhism
Kukai / Kobo-Daishi
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (UNESCO)
Okunoin (奥の院), the inner sanctuary
Gobyo (御廟), the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi
Toro-do (燈籠堂) or Lantern Hall
Nankai Electric Railway Koya Line
Koyasan/Gokurakubashi Station information
Nankai Electric Railway Guide on Koyasan
Japanese Guest Houses (Koyasan)