KOYA-SAN, JAPAN: HOLY TOWN WITH 1200-YEAR-OLD OKUNOIN CEMETERY

Koya-san, Japan, or Mount Koya, is one of the holiest places in Japan. The town was founded in early 800 CE. Eventually, the complex grew to encompass over 120 temples. The adherents of Shingon Buddhism regard Koya-san as sacred because it houses the mausoleum of the religion’s founder, Kobo Daishi in Okunoin Cemetery. It is a city everyone should see when visiting Japan.

HOLY CITY OF KOYA-SAN, JAPAN

Koya-san temple in JapanThe Okunoin Cemetery in Koya-san is the country’s largest cemetery. It is the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of souls. No one knows the exact quantity because the cemetery is over 1,200 years old! Kobo Daishi’s tomb lies at the center of the cemetery, surrounded by thousands of stupas or gravestones and tall cedars. The interior of the elaborate tomb is lit by thousands of lanterns which, according to legend, have been burning ever since the spiritual leader began meditating there over 1,000 years ago. The followers of Shingon believe Kobo Daishi is still in the tomb in a state of deep meditation. Meals are lovingly and ritually prepared for him every day.

It is important for the religion’s followers to be within close proximity to their Kobo Daishi. Adherents don’t necessarily have to be buried in Okunoin cemetery. As long as there is even a lock of hair in the cemetery, that will be enough to have a meaningful connection to Kobo Daishi and be among the first to greet the future Buddha upon his return to earth. The complex is so meaningful to Shingon adherents that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Okunoin in Koya-san, JapanBeyond the religious significance and sheer size of Okunoin cemetery, it is the headstones that stand out as especially fascinating. In keeping with the tenants of Shingdon Buddhism, which values all creatures, there are monuments to insects erected by the pesticide company that exterminated them. There is a monument dedicated to the enemies of Japan that were killed in wars over the years. Japanese companies maintain monuments for their employees as a corporate benefit. There are monuments representing spaceships, eating utensils and pyramids.

KOYA-SAN AND THE LEGENDS OF OKUNOIN CEMETERY

The place is interesting enough during the day. But at night this vast necropolis becomes ghostly yet somehow beautiful, making it the best time to visit. The lights from the stone lanterns begin to flicker on at dusk, emitting a ghostly yellow light that casts shadows among the moss-covered tombstones. Eerie sounds from screeching flying squirrels and night owls add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

The local monks sponsor night tours where they talk about the history of the cemetery itself and aspects of the Shingon Buddhism religion they practice. They also answer questions from the tour groups. There is one question that the monks will tell you everyone asks, and that concerns the little statues with red woven hats and aprons that can be seen all over the cemetery. These are the Jizo Bosatsu, stone figurines that represent spiritual beings who strive for the enlightenment of all creatures, not just themselves. They may appear cute and quaint, but they have a sad story to tell.

These small, child-like figurines represent the Jizo Bosatsu that protect the souls of children who left the earth before their time.

It is heart-rending to imagine parents coming to Okunoin and presenting offerings to these little spirits in return for peaceful passage of their children to the afterlife. Most of the offerings consist of an odd collection of incense, coffee cans, small coins, candy, candles, and sometimes food. To ensure the spirits are warm and cozy in the chilly, mountain nights, most are given simple woolen hats and bibs or aprons. Others can sport elaborate capes, makeup and lipstick. The sight of hundreds of these stone figurines clad in children’s clothing in a cemetery setting at dusk is downright gripping.

Night tours to Okunoin can be booked at tourist information desks around town or online at about 1800 yen. This makes the tour one of the best things to do in Japan that won’t break the bank.  The tours begin at the entrance to the cemetery and end at the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi where the monk leaves the tour. Since the tour terminates deep in the cemetery in the middle of the night, you need to walk back to the entrance alone. You would think this midnight walk through an unfamiliar cemetery without the tour guide could be a little disconcerting. But it’s not too bad. There is enough light from the stone lanterns to help you find your way. Admission to Okunoin is free.

GETTING TO OKUNOIN CEMETERY IN KOYA-SAN, JAPAN

Getting to Koya-san does take a bit of time and effort since it is on a mountaintop in a fairly remote location. However, it is almost impossible to get lost in Japan. Instructions are also in English and the Japanese people are very helpful.

To get to Koya-san and the cemetery:

  • Take the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka. This will take you to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain.
  • In Gokurakubashi you must take the cable car up the mountain for about another 10 minutes. Get a window seat because it is a beautiful ride. The cable car will deposit you at the cable car station where you can catch the bus to Okunoin.
  • The bus ride takes 20 minutes and costs 410 yen from the cable car station. The bus stop is at the entrance of the cemetery.

If you visit Japan, a visit to Okunoin Cemetery in Koya-san is a unique experience that will stay with you for a long time.

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