If you know of any cemetery in Japan, it’s probably this one. Okunoin often features on the top 10 or 20 best/most beautiful cemeteries in the world to visit, and it definitely deserves a place on those lists. I first came here on New Years Eve 2001 with some friends, as they ring the temple bell here 108 times (one for every sin) in the half hour before the new year, as do many other temples in Japan. However, the temple ringing at Koyasan, one of the most holiest places in Japan, used to be shown on TV, although I don’t think it is anymore. We came on a bus tour (12 hours round trip from where I was living at the time) and I remember being excited at seeing snow on the mountain, something we don’t get much of in south and central Japan. Walking through the cemetery at night in the snow was so beautiful, it remains one of my strongest memories, as does remembering the bell-ringing ceremony held later that night. In any event, I always knew I would return there someday, and I did once in 2009, but have not made it back since, despite numerous attempts to do so (I’m often foiled by the weather). But with Golden Week I had some time off and was pretty sure it would not be as crazy busy as Kyoto, so off I went.
In theory it’s not that difficult to get out here, but I think I was just unlucky with the train connections, because what should have been a 2-2.5 hour trip ended up taking 4.5 hours, so by the I got there it was already late afternoon and the light was fading. Luckily for me, I was staying at the only hostel up in Koyasan, which is located right next to the cemetery, which meant two things – one, that I had easy access to the cemetery, since it is open 24 hours, and I didn’t have to worry about getting across town from my temple stay, and two, that because I wasn’t staying in a temple, I wasn’t under their rules, such as being back at the temple in time for dinner at 5 or 5:30. Which meant that after about 4:30, the cemetery grounds got real quiet real quick, since most people were off to their temples for the night. Then it became a lot easier to pull out the tripod without worrying about getting in anyone’s way.
Twilight is the worst time for a photographer. The vibrant colours of sunset are gone, but it’s not quite dark enough to get those beautiful blues of dusk. Normally when I’m out photographing, I just have to wait the light (nothing like long-exposure photography to teach you patience), but with my guesthouse so close I went back to have a bit of a rest before going out again to shoot the cemetery at night. All the major paths are lit up by stone lanterns, and there are a few people wandering through, plus the various cemetery tours that take place, so you aren’t completely alone in a huge cemetery in the middle of a forest. I don’t know how my photos will turn out, but it was fun being out there. I think Japanese cemeteries are the only cemeteries I’ve been to at night (the ones in Hagi are the others), but I guess it helps that they have stone lanterns as part of the funerary architecture. The ones in Hagi are lit by real candles, but the ones in Okunoin are electrically lit, as they are on from dusk till dawn. Still, it was very atmospheric.
The next day I was out at sunrise and stayed for most of the morning, exploring the cemetery at leisure. I was out particularly early because I wanted to get in most of my shooting before the big tour groups arrived, although I needn’t have worried too much, because even in high season it was still pretty laid back and relaxed.
The cemetery it self is quite long and fairly narrow (for its length), but there are plenty of paths going up the mountain for those wanting to explore a bit more. There are countless Jizo statues here, with their little bibs and hand-knitted caps. I had the idea when I was there to take up knitting so I could make some cute little caps for those statues. Surprisingly, there were a fair number of other statues, not just Buddha or Kannon, but much more individualistic ones as well, from pilgrims to mothers and children, statues clearly of the deceased. I’ve never really seen that anywhere else in Japan. Of course, there are plenty of stone torii gates within the cemetery itself, a reflection of the time when Buddhism and Shintoism co-existed quite peacefully. Tree roots and other nooks and crannies were favourites for piles of stones.
Of course, the real reason this cemetery exists is because it is the final resting place of Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the monk who established Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He has a mausoleum here, where he is apparently in eternal meditation. Once you pass the final eastern bridge (Gobyonobashi), you are in a very revered space, so there should be no drinking, eating, or photography in that area. So because of that, I don’t have any images from there. But the hall, and the statues behind it that people spray water on (to pray for their deceased family members) are all worth visiting. Some of the oldest monuments are here, really worn down, but of course I could not take any pictures of them.
Near the mausoleum, and fairly close to the shorter entrance, is the “Mound of the Nameless”, or muen-zuka. This is not an older part of the cemetery, in fact, it’s only about 40 years old, but it’s meant to be a place to honour spirits who have no one to look after their graves. While there I noticed certain abandoned articles as well, like an old brown (medicine?) bottle, glasses, and more.
There is so much more I could say about this place, and maybe I will in another post, but if you have any doubts about visiting Okunoin, or Koyasan in general, don’t. The cemetery itself is amazing, and if you have any interest in hiking, there are numerous paths along the mountain that circle Koyasan – the most famous being one of the women’s trails that used to exist, since until 1870 (or so) they were not allowed into Koyasan proper. I did one of those hikes and came across some beautiful old temples and shrines along the way, one of the highlights of my trip. This place is often a starting off point for those doing the 88-temple pilgrimmage in Shikoku (where Kukai was born), but also for people interested in doing the Kumano Kodo hikes a bit deeper into Wakayama.
Monuments: Unlike most Japanese cemeteries, there are a lot of statues in this one. All the little jizo statues with their bibs and caps are fun to capture, but there are much more individualistic statues here, clearly of the person deceased, than I have seen anywhere else in Japan. But even the traditional stone lanterns and torii gates, covered in moss, as well as the large trees with their stacked stones, are equally interesting. Quite a number of feudal lords are buried here, as seen by the larger tombs and fences that surround them.
Grounds: This is quite a long cemetery and there are stairs along the main pathway, as it’s not quite straight. In addition, if you are interested in exploring the bits to the side of the main path, there are more stairs that you can take. The cemetery is well-maintained but has a bit of the wabi-sabi neglect look to it, what with the moss and the damp that is not kind to anything made of wood. The towering trees are incredibly atmospheric, and mean for filtered light during the day, and a bit of rain cover too, should the weather turn.
Visitors: This is Japan’s most visited cemetery, but Koyasan is pretty much off the radar for the standard tourist in Japan (or if they do come, it may be for part of the afternoon, stay the night in a temple, and leave the next day), so if you spend a bit more time here you’ll definitely have more of the cemetery to yourself in the early morning and the late afternoon/evening/night.
Notes: Bring a tripod! It’s totally allowable here and you might need it due to the lower light levels with all the trees here. You’ll definitely need it at night if you decide to photograph the cemetery then. The paths are lit by the lanterns (electric lights) but the light levels are low so bring a head torch or something similar to be safe.
Cemetery: Okunoin Cemetery (奥の院)
Established: 835 (?), the year of Kobo Daishi’s death
Notable Internments: There are over 200,000 tombstones here, but Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, the founder of Shingo Buddhism in Japan, is probably the most famous resident, and he is believed to be in eternal meditation here. The closer you can be buried to him, the better, although really only large companies and very rich individuals could afford a plot here.
Location: Once you are in Koyasan, the easiest way to get there is to take one of the few buses that go to Okunoin-mae stop. It literally stops right at the (second) entrance for the cemetery, which is much closer to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum than the traditional entrance. This stop is pretty much the end of the line for the town.
Hours: Open 24 hours daily although the buildings on the grounds close around 17:00.