One of Japan’s most sacred spots, Okunoin cemetery lies within the boundaries of Koyasan, the spiritual home of Shingon Buddhism and final resting place for its founder Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai).
A steady rain was falling as we entered the cemetery. Mist drifted down from the hills surrounding the town, seeping along the pathways and through the graves. The earthy green was punctuated by the bright red hats and clothing that adorn the small stone Buddha statues scatted along the paths.
Home to the remains of over 200,000 people, stretching back to the 7th century. Believing that being closer to Kobo Daishi in death would bring them closer to the afterlife, many prominent monks, feudal lords and war heroes chose this as their final resting place. It is more a cemetery in a forest than the other way around. Soaring cedar trees dominate the sky, providing a dome for this most sacred spot.
The moss-covered gates, the broken steps, and the consistent drizzle created a magical shine to the world and set the scene for a spectral atmosphere. Some graves and Torri gates old and battered to the point the forest was in the process of reclaiming, others clean and modern as if they had been constructed yesterday.
Outside one mausoleum a tray of offerings sits and waits. A mixture of drinks, sweets, and coins. A short distance away the thick undergrowth wraps itself around a group of forgotten Torri gates. The difference in the upkeep of the graves is striking throughout the vast forest.
Several paths snake off the main thoroughfare and dive through the trees. The rain was steady but relentless, the tap tap on the tops of the umbrella often the only sound to be heard. A set of wooden sotoba stupas grouped closely together. Also known as Gorintos, these posts each represent a different member of the family who has passed away. The still shiny new stupas on the left and the old barely readable on the right.
Eventually, the old cemetery and its towering trees gives way to the newer cemetery. Open spaced and with a more western feel, the contrast couldn’t be greater. The autumn colors alight in the trees above, radiating with the heavy rain.
Leaving Okunoin and transitioning back into the real world is a strange experience. The cemetery gives the impression of not only being of a different time but maybe even of a different world. This is where ghosts of the past walk among the cedar trees. Nobel samurai and revered monks, each choosing this haunting forest as their final connection to this world.