Sunday, October 29, 2017

Walking With Kobo Daishi - A Visit To Okunoin

--Susan, every other Sunday

On both of my last two trips to Japan, I spent significant time beneath the towering ancient cedars of Okunoin - Japan's largest cemetery.

A map of Okunoin. Kobo Daishi's mausoleum is at the top, and the entrance at the bottom left.

The cemetery stretches over a mile from end to end, and has over 200,000 graves--some of which serve as the spiritual grave sites for multiple people rather than just one.

The Nissan Corporation tomb - erected on behalf of all employees, past and present.

The cemetery begins at Ichi-no-hashi (the first bridge), where a paved path leads visitors into the cedar-lined path that runs through Okunoin from end to end.

Visitors bow before crossing Ichi-no-hashi into Okunoin.

Lanterns along the side of the path illuminate the way on cloudy days and after dark. (The cemetery is open year round, 24 hours a day - and it is haunted, but not in a menacing way, as I've written about here before.)

Illuminating the way.

According to Shingon doctrine, anyone buried--in part or entirely--at Okunoin will return to life first at the time Miroku (the Buddha of the Future) returns to earth at the end of days. For that and other reasons, since the cemetery's founding in the 9th century, many adherents of the Shingon faith (and others -- anyone can be buried at Okunoin, if (s)he believes in the teachings of Kobo Daishi, Buddhist or not) have wanted to be buried on the mountain.

Buddhas in their kerchiefs and bibs

Kobo Daishi, the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China, is buried there too - though Shingon doctrine states he's actually still alive, in a state of eternal meditation that will continue until Miroku returns.

You can't photograph Kobo Daishi's mausoleum, so here's a buddha for you instead.

Visiting Okunoin, and seeing his mausoleum, is often referred to as "Visiting Kobo Daishi" - and he has many, many visitors. Okunoin is a popular tourist destination for Buddhists and non-Buddhists, Japanese people, and foreign visitors.

It doesn't hurt that the cemetery has glorious foliage displays each autumn, either.

Autumn blazing at Okunoin.

Or that its graves have incredible character:

The best Buddha anywhere.

Some monuments are built on behalf of companies for the benefit of their employees, like the Nissan tomb I posted above. There's even a tomb erected by a termite company--on behalf of the insects it kills in the course of business. (I don't have a picture of that one either, because despite three days of exploring, I haven't found it yet. Stay tuned. I haven't given up.)

Many side paths branch off from the main one.

Many famous Japanese people are buried (or have mausoleums or monuments) there, including several shoguns and numerous daimyō (medieval warlords).

The mausoleum of Uesugi Kenshin, erected during the 16th century.

Their monuments stand directly beside those of ordinary people, men and women whose names and achievements are now mostly lost to history.

Many tombs. Many lives.

In all my travels, I have never been to a place as silently peaceful as Okunoin. The cedars rise to the sky like protective sentinels, guarding the dead who lie beneath.

The graves don't ever seem to end.
The well-tended graves and kerchiefed Buddha statues speak of a place where the dead may not be visible, but remain as loved and remembered as any living person could ever hope to be.

Dead, but not forgotten.

It is a place where even the most troubled, stressed-out heart can find peace, and where anyone with reverence for the spirit and the residents of the place is not only welcome, but invited to walk and think and be.

It is a holy place, where real, lasting peace feels possible, tangible, and close.

These photos don't do justice to its beauty, so I hope, if you ever have the chance, you'll go and visit Kobo Daishi beneath the trees.

I can assure you, it will be a day well spent.


  1. Other GREAT destination for our list!! :))

    And there is a wonderful cemetery in Florence I want to show you!

  2. We're DEFINITELY heading there together, Annamaria. It's one of my favorite places on earth, and I cannot wait to experience it with you. :)

    Plus, the food on Koya is amazing - you will love it! (The priests don't use any "exciting vegetables" so there's no garlic, no hot pepper, and no other spice in the cuisine.)

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