Any visitor to Koyasan knows that this is one of the most sacred Buddhist areas in Japan. You know it when you see monks on the streets, when you take your shoes off to enter a temple, when you see Buddha statues with offerings placed carefully alongside them, situated anywhere and everywhere, like next to the bus stop or hidden in the gardens out the front of traditional inns.
But, despite being told, it’s hard to comprehend just how sacred, for how long, and to how many people. That is, until you visit Okunoin.
Worshipers of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism first settled in Mt. Koya in 816 under the guidance of Kobo Daishi, as mentioned in my previous post. Okunoin cemetery is where he was laid to rest, and followers believe that he is not dead, but rather is in eternal meditation in his tomb, awaiting for the arrival of Miroku Buddha (the future Buddha), as he is the only one who can interpret his message for mankind. The mausoleum surrounding his tomb is lit with hundreds of lamps, a couple of which have supposedly been alight since Kobo Daishi came to rest here.
As is relatively typical of me, I didn’t go searching out the mausoleum, but rather wandered on and off the cobblestone path, into the forest, among gravestones, around crypts. At around 2km long, and housing over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas ranging centuries, it is an overwhelming experience.
Being the largest and most sacred Buddhist cemetery in Japan, it’s where most followers of the religion wish to be buried. It’s therefore the resting place of all types of believers, who passed in many different ways, and at many different times of their lives. For this reason, you will see wooden plaques in the river to commemorate those who have drowned, as well as monuments for aborted babies and young children.
Which brings me to the bibs…
A bodhisattva called Jizo Bosatsu is believed to be the protector of the children of the afterlife. By placing a bib on a statue, you are asking for Jizo Bosatsu to watch over the deceased child and act as a surrogate parent, as well as protecting the life of living children. At least that is the original reason – it has become quite a popular gesture, so many other statues apart from children are also now wrapped in bibs.
Many guidebooks will suggest a visit to the cemetery at dusk, which seems to me a pretty good reason to go at other times. When I visited, albeit midweek and in June, there was barely another visitor in the cemetery, well, at least barely any I saw (2kms, remember?). Leave plenty of time to explore, to take in the towering forest above you, and try fathom the thousands of souls below.
Want more? Check out my Wanderlust on Bondi Beach Radio Japan Special featuring interviews from this trip as well as loads of great Japanese tunes!