Scrapbook of a Future Nobleman

Okunoin: The Cemetery and the Cypresses

Okunoin Cemetery, Koysasan, Japan

By far one of the most fascinating places we visited in Japan was Koyasan, a small mountain town with tons of temples centering around the cemetery and shrine to Kobo-daishi at Okunoin. Apparently, some consider Okunoin to be the holiest place in all of Japan. I don’t know about that, but it is remarkable and a very special place I doubt I will be able to do it justice in words or even pictures…

The story of Koyasan is all about Kobo-daishi, who brought Shingon, or Esoteric, Buddhism to Japan. The legend goes like this: While he was away in China on a diplomatic trip, he discovered the teachings of this type of buddhism and studied it extensively, then decided to bring it back and establish a school in Japan. He set out to find a perfect spot, ideally a mountain of power similar to the one where he had studied, and was wandering the mountains outside Nara when he encountered two goddesses in the forms of a red and white fox on Mount Koya. They told him to build his temple there, in the center of a plateau surrounded by peaks that was similar to a lotus blossom. So he built his school at Kongobu-ji and began to evangelize. When it came time for him to pass away, he went off into the forest by himself, lay down, and died. His followers believe that he didn’t die, but has been in a deep trance, meditating and praying for his followers for the past 1250 years. They built a shrine around him and temple nearby and bring him meals twice a day. Kongubu-ji si still there, and several other temples have sprung up in the town since. Believers in Esoteric Buddhism are buried in the spectacular graveyard at Okunoin, close to Kobo-daishi.

Okunoin Cemetery itself is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2.5km of paths through a forest of Japanese Cypress trees with mausolea and graves wherever you look. The main path crosses three streams, the last of which marks the entrance to the most sacred district. The culmination of the path is the shrine, a temple where monks pray day and night, with a place near the back where you can light incense, pray, and pay your respects to Kobo-daishi himself. The basement of the main temple and a nearby treasury are filled with lanterns large and small, which are lit 24 hours a day, donated by Kobo-daishi’s followers.

You are asked not to take photographs within the sacred district of Okunoin itself, so I tried to respect that and unfortunately don’t have any pictures of the lanterns or the main temple and shrine. You’ll have to visit it yourself. But I took plenty of the rest of the cemetery, which ought to convey at least some of the spectacular sense of place. Enjoy!

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Nissan Grave, Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan

Okunoin Cemetery, Koyasan, Japan