Okunoin cemetery

Traveling to Japan, you visit many Shinto and Buddhist temples. For a person from a totally different cultural and religious background, not even counting in the language barrier, the artifacts one founds or rituals one sees there are barely understandable.

When I decided to take a trip to Japan, my knowledge of this country was limited. Neither I had time for any preparation. As the trip was organized by two colleagues of mine, one of which was a graduate in Japanese culture, I entirely relied on them. Only after coming back home, having in mind the observations and hundreds of photos I made in Japan, I started to dig the internet on additional information. Today, a bit longer than a year after we came back, with more than twenty posts on Japan, including a more extended summary on shrines and temples >>>) I finally got to the memories and pictures from Koyasan. While on the spot, I knew only we are on some kind of a sanctuary mountain and came there to spend a night in a temple.

The Okunoin temple is, in fact, the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi, also known as Kūkai (774–835), the revered Japanese monk and founder of the Shingon sect. Kōbō-Daishi, or Kukai, played a pivotal role in the establishment of Shingon Buddhism. He was born on 27th July 774 in what is now Zentsuji City, Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. In 804, at the age of 30, he embarked on a profound journey to China to study Buddhism and esoteric practices. Upon his return to Japan in 806, Kōbō Daishi introduced the profound teachings of esoteric Shingon Buddhism. He founded the first Shingon monastery at Toji in Kyoto, which soon became the epicentre for the propagation of Shingon Buddhism throughout Japan. In 816, Kōbō Daishi established the mountain retreat of Koyasan (Mount Koya) as the esteemed headquarters of the Shingon sect. It was Kōbō Daishi himself who chose Mount Koya as the main seat of the sect.

For over a millennium, individuals from all corners of Japan have selected the vicinity of Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum as their final resting place. Today, with more than 200,000 graves and tombstones, it stands as the largest cemetery in Japan. The enduring legacy of Kōbō-Daishi, combined with the spiritual aura surrounding his mausoleum, continues to attract reverence and pilgrimage from countless individuals. The Okunoin temple and cemetery hold great historical and cultural significance, exemplifying a place of profound spiritual devotion and remembrance.

One of the entrances to the cemetery. Going at a slow pace, taking short rounds, and making photos took us around forty minutes to reach the mausoleum. If taken straight, the one km route can be, of course, done in a shorter time. But it is better to plan in more time to sightsee the cemetery.

A couple of times, we met monks dressed in the traditional way that was, of course, not that unusual in the whole Koyasan area, for there are more than two hundred small temples located on the mountain.

On the way to the mausoleum, we crossed some newer parts of the cemetery with tombs often decorated with names of famous Japanese corporations. Because of the language barrier, I did not understand whether this was tombs of people important to those companies or the tombs played some other role. Maybe the companies simply sponsored the graves. Still, from the European perspective, it was a bit unusual.

Sometime later, we got to the older parts of the cemetery. The most tombstones and graveyards were left as they were for years (or hundred years) with moss all around them. The views are complemented by the very tall and imposing old cedar trees.

Some statues were covered with vermilion (red/orange) clothing to protect them and the dead. Bottles of water or soda cans to provide for the dead were left on some graves, as well.

Below some photo impressions from the Okunoin cemetery oldest parts.

And finally, we got to a place with plenty of statues and water sinks where you can perform the purifying rituals. From this place on, behind a small bridge, and photography was forbidden. We were supposed to enter the sacred ground of the Kūkai mausoleum.

This was not the first time for us as in a Buddhist sanctuary, we had to obey strict rules. In fact, in all cores of a Buddhist temple, the photography is forbidden. So I can rely only on my memory. The interior of the wooden structure was huge. Besides of candlelight, it was dark inside. In fact, you saw it when each time somebody opened the entrance doors. You felt incense. The interior was full of figures, some of them were golden ones. There were many flowers all around. And a couple of monks were either tidying up or performing rituals.

Okunoin cemetery