Okunoin Cemetery & Koyasan

Having traveled to Japan many times, friends often ask about your most memorable experience. Mine was World Heritage listed Koyasan, as it’s a lively community of exquisite temples centred around an ancient forested cemetery.

Shingon Buddhist Temples at Koyasan complex

Koyasan is accessible from Osaka & Kyoto in a full day trip. Its quite different to the cities with temples in the Kansai region, as its a small community of monasteries, temples and little much else. Okunoin Cemetery is part of Koyasan – a most sublime experience, with a mix of ancient trees and ancient history.

Pathway through the cedar forest at Koyasan.

The Shingon Buddhist temples of Koyasan date back to the 816, with its founder being one of the most famous people in Japanese history: high priest Kukai or Kobo Daishi as he is now known in the afterlife. The complex of 117 temples is still central to the administration and spiritual activities of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Part of the Danjo Garan complex, the “Red Pagoda” temple at Koyasan was originally built in 816 and rebuilt in the 1930s.

The cemetery adjacent to the temple complexes, Okunoin, is said to have been the sacred area where Kukai entered into a supreme plane of meditation waiting for the arrival of the Buddha of the future. The walk through this huge area of over 300,000 tombstones is unlike anything else.

Atmospheric tombs and jizu statues take up most of the space between the huge cedar trees at Okunoin.

The atmosphere on this walk is unforgettable, as the cemetery has a history of many centuries, perched on a slope high in the hills. The founders of this cemetery had the foresight to plant tiny seedlings of Japanese cedar trees amongst the burial sites. Visitors to the cemetery now wander through majestic cedars that tower over the tombs and headstones, like an eerie shadowy city. I have never experienced such a wonderful place to contemplate the short existence of life. If you are lucky, sun rays will cast a luminescent glow, flowing down to the forest floor. It’s surreal, silent and peaceful – silent headstones in a magnificent sea of green foliage.

Hundreds of jiku statues lie under the trees in Okuoin cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

This experience seems to be timeless. I found an old newspaper article from 1906, where a European resident of Japan shares her feelings of this remarkable place. This description could have been written yesterday:

Imagine, if you can this avenue of a mile and a quarter long, with a space of about an acre in width right and left between the hill on one side and the valley on the other planted with the grand cryptomerias common to all Temple grounds, and thickly interspersed with these large stone memorials of antique Japanese design, erected hundreds of years ago, some 26 or 30 feet high, made of enormous stones, that had to be carried up the mountain good-ness only knows how…. These solemn old monuments are of various designs, and now are decorated by Nature with all manner of climbing, plants, ferns and mosses. In most cases they do not mark the actual burial place of the high Daimyos to whom they belong sometimes, if the body had been cremated, the bone of the Adam’s apple only was sent here for internment – in most cases, not even these were burled here— but the monuments are simply records of the high families to whom they belong.

Sun streaming through the tall canopy of the forest at Okunoin.

When I arrived at the entrance to Okunoin, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the huge trees that extended as far as the eye can see in a deep green-blue canopy. The tree trunks looked like huge concrete girders from a major construction project, but these pillars extended up to a shady green canopy that offered

Part of a pilgram’s pathway through the forest of Okunoin, Koyasan.

In addition to being very spiritual, the cemetery is also very quirky in a modern way. Senior executives of huge Japanese corporations get honourable memorial headstones amongst the ancient trees. The 20th century saw the rise of Japanese companies that delivered cars and coffee to the ordinary Japanese citizen, as well as worldwide. Many tombs are adorned with the symbols of companies where these executives worked. They are honoured in eternity with a big coffee cup over their grave, or perhaps a statue of a car or truck. It is simultaneously sublime and tacky. I’m not sure that I would like to be immortalised as part of a company that I worked for.

Memorial for Nissan executives at Okunoin.

At the end of the forested cemetery is a temple with 10,000 lanterns or Torodo Hall, which is a memorial mausoleum for Kobo Daishi. Some of the lanterns are said to have been lit for over 1,000 years, while the basement of the temple contains hundreds of small buddha statues within the confines of dark tunnels.

We didn’t stay overnight on the mountain complex, although this is possible. It was a long but comfortable day from Osaka, even though the cable car was not working in 2018. (It has been subsequently fixed, so travel time from Osaka Namba station to Koyasan on the Koya Line and cable car is under tow hours each way.) We had ample time to walk through the entire area, visit a couple of temples and spend a lot of quiet time resting and ambling through the cemetery, before heading back to the neon lit streets of Namba, Osaka. The temples are very impressive, but our attention span on any particular day of temple trekking tends to wane after the third temple. The walk through the cemetery, however, is constantly engaging.

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