Sunday, November 8, 2020

In Memoriam, on Koyasan

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Two years ago, I had the honor to accompany my dear friend Annamaria Alfieri on a pilgrimage to Kōyasan--a trip which, although planned in one sense, ended up becoming far more important than either of us anticipated. (Annamaria described that trip in her own words here.)

Autumn Foliage on Koyasan

As fate, or any divinity you prefer to ascribe it to, would have it, I returned to Kōyasan two weeks ago, almost two years to the day after Annamaria and I visited the sacred mountain. (While this trip was also planned, the significance of the date did not occur to me until just days before I arrived.) This time, the trip represented the culmination of a week-long hike along the ancient Kumano Kodo Nakahechi, a thousand year-old pilgrim trail through the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. 

The day I arrived, the trees were once again painted in the brilliant reds and golds of autumn.

Autumn at Okunoin

The temples stood like patient sentinels beneath the giant trees--precisely as they stood on each of my dozen prior visits, and for more than a dozen centuries before I even knew of their existence. 

The smaller stupa at Danjo Garan, the main temple complex on Kōyasan

As I walked down a path lined with flaming maples, a large bronze bell began to toll.  The bell, Rokuji-no-kane, hangs in a tower constructed in 1618, to commemorate the life and death of the mother of samurai lord Fukushima Masanori (1561-1624). The bell itself was re-cast in 1630, by Masanori's son Masatoshi. It still rings nine times each day, on the even hours, in her memory.

The bell tower of Rokuji-no-Kane

After leaving Danjo Garan, I walked through Japan's largest cemetery, Ōkunoin, to visit the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi (774-835) the founder of Kōyasan and the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan. According to Shingon belief, he remains alive, in eternal meditation, and will remain so until every being in the world achieves enlightenment and peace.

Kannon, the Buddhist avatar of mercy

Each of the more than 250,000 grave monuments at Ōkunoin represents at least one life (and some, entire families)--people with hopes and loves and dreams, now physically gone but not forgotten. Visitors still clear and sweep the graves as a sign of love and respect, whether or not they knew the person whose remains lie underneath the stone. I cleared some graves myself, to honor the dead who lie here and those--like my father and Annamaria's David--who lie elsewhere, but whose memories I hold close.


Monuments at Ōkunoin

At Kōbō Daishi's tomb, I lit incense and candles, and stopped to pray. For my father. For David. For those who died in 2020, especially those I did not know, but who no one else remembered.

Around me, other people stood and prayed.  I did not know what god(s) they prayed to, or the content of their prayers. I did not know the names and faces of their dead. But it did not matter. United in prayer, we shared a deep connection, not only to one another, but to the spirits of the people we came to remember.

Because the dead are only truly gone when we forget them. As long as we remember, they endure. 



  1. How perfectly gorgeous, Susan, in every way. All my memories of David's passing are bound to those profound and comforting experiences with you in Koyasan and Okunion! What a gift to have been there with you. Thank your for your remembrances.

  2. What beautiful tribute, filled with history and perspective. Thanks, Susan.