Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Kansai Diaries, Days 1.75~2: Okunoin, Three Times

Okunoin (奥の院) is Japan's largest cemetery, with about 200,000 tombstones along a 2-kilometer stretch. At the end of this stretch is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the father of Shingon Buddhism.

My trips (abroad or anywhere for that matter) usually do not involve a visit to a cemetery (except, maybe, when the trip is to one's hometown during All Souls Day). Sure, I read about Okunoin—it didn't look too interesting—but because it is one of Koyasan's two most sacred sites (the other one is Garan), I added it to my itinerary. To be visited if time permits.

The end result? I visited Okunoin three times.

November 23, 2016
6PM? I dunno, but a few minutes into the walk it sure got really dark.

It never crossed my mind to visit a cemetery at night. By myself, at that. But why in the world did I go? Because the guesthouse staff suggested so. And I never questioned why.

In the gloaming, I put on my jacket and started my journey to the unknown cemetery. I entered Okunoin at the newer approach, which is just a few minutes' walk from the guesthouse, near the last bus stop. This approach would cut the distance to the mausoleum in half.

The newer approach

The newer approach in the morning

The pathway was lit by stone lanterns. For the first hundred meters or so. After that, the lanterns were few and far between and I had to use my smartphone's flashlight app to light the way. I encountered three or four people (were they really people? Or ghosts? Haha!) but they were going in the opposite direction, towards the cemetery exit.

Around the halfway point, I heard some movement somewhere ahead of me and to the left, but it was so dark, all I could see were silhouettes of tombstones. I moved slowly towards the noise but stuck to the path's rightmost edge. As I neared, a shadow of a man rose from behind the tombstones and it turned and looked my way, and I walked away as quickly as I could. (What was the man doing there, in the dark?!) It gave me the heebie jeebies.

The next morning I took a closer look at the area where the noise had come from.
It was at the tombstones around the bend.

I reached the point where the newer path connects with the traditional path. It was dimly lit with stone lanterns. The rest of the way was uneventful and all I could hear were the soft whisper of leaves of the towering ancient cedar trees, invisible creatures lurking in the dark, my heartbeat, and my footsteps on the stone path.

I arrived at Gobyo no hashi (bridge to the mausoleum), which marks the entrance to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Beyond the bridge was Torodo (Lantern Hall, the main hall of worship) and, behind that, Kobo Daishi Gobyo (Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi).

Gobyo no hashi

I hurried across the bridge, towards Torodo. It was closed (it is only open from 6AM to 530PM) but the thousands of lanterns hanging from the ceiling were all aglow and it was simply magical. I was very glad to have taken the guesthouse staff's suggestion without question. (I have no photo of Torodo and the mausoleum as it is forbidden to take photos beyond the bridge.)

November 24, 2016
Temperature: 2°C

My alarm rang at 5AM. I hoped no else woke up to it. The guesthouse was quiet and dimly lit; only one other person was up and he was on his way out. I could hear the pitter patter of rain on the roof. It's going to be very cold out there.

I dressed up in a layer of long-sleeved shirt and fleece jacket, and I made sure to wear my thermal long johns underneath my denim pants. I grabbed my camera (though, like last night, I knew won't be able to take photos in the dark and beyond the bridge), my phone, and my umbrella, and stepped out onto the cold, wet dawn.

Why go again, in the not-so-dark? To hear the monks chant at Torodo. Like the chanting of the monks I heard yesterday afternoon in front of Konpon Daito in Garan, this too was enchanting. But, unlike yesterday, there were only a handful of monks chanting in an enclosed and beautifully lit Lantern Hall, a solemn and captivating atmosphere. This definitely made getting up very early and walking in the 2-degree-centigrade morning rain worth all the trouble.

I stepped out of Torodo after the monks had left. The sun had already risen. I went back to the guesthouse to have breakfast. After eating my bread, egg, ham, fruit, and yogurt, I decided to go back to Okunoin a third time! This time I would begin at the traditional approach and walk the entire 2-kilometer path while listening to the tidbits that my audio guide had to share about the tombs around Okunoin.


I walked off the morning cold from the guesthouse to Icho no Hashi (first bridge), the traditional approach to Okunoin. I switched on my audio guide and my OC mode: my goal was to see all the tombstones and important stuff (like the stone upon which Kobo Daishi sat) listed down in the audio guide's pamphlet.

It was interesting to see the tombstones, especially the really ancient ones all covered in moss, and to hear about the important people these tombstones were for.


Aside from the tombs, other interesting things around the cemetery were the towering ancient trees, the sugatami no ido (Reflection Well),  Zeni Jocchi Memorial, the Jizo statues adorned in red bibs and hats, and the Miroku-ishi (Miroku Stone).

Ohayo gozaimasu, said he

When you find the sugitami no ido (Reflection Well), look down and check if you can see your face reflected in the water. But only if you're brave. Because if you don't see your reflection, it means you will die within three years! (I did see my reflection, so woe to all my friends and family: I will be here for at least three more years to bug you all!)

Sugatami no ido (Reflection Well)

The Zeni Jocchi Memorial is a small unassuming stone post. This is a memorial for a Buddhist nun with the year 1375 inscribed on it. Doesn't look anything out of the ordinary, but go down on your knees, put your ear on the stone, and listen. You will hear the cries in hell! So they say. I didn't want to hear those cries (true or not), so I just took a photo of the memorial.

Zeni Jocchi Memorial 

There were many Jizo statues of different sizes around the cemetery. Jizo is the guardian of children and travelers. Many of the Jizo statues were adorned with bibs and hats in the hopes that Jizo will keep the deceased children warm in the afterlife.

Jizo statues

This Jizo statue is warm and toasty in its black down jacket. Guess that's why it's smiling.

Beyond the Gobyo no bashi (no photo zone!) is the Miroku-ishi (Miroku Stone) housed in a small cage with a hole where one can fit an arm. Inside is a lower and upper platform with the Miroku Stone on the lower platform. It is believed that if one can lift the Miroku Stone from the lower to the upper platform, then he is one of the good people. (The more your sins are, the heavier the stone is.) I  guess I have a long confession to make: I couldn't transfer the stone to the upper platform.

Gorinto, each shape represents an element (from bottom to top): earth, water, fire, air, energy

If you do decide to go to Koyasan, a visit to Okunoin with an audio guide is highly recommended (without an audio guide all the tombstones will eventually look and feel the same). If you can stay a night in Koyasan, take time to visit Okunoin at dawn and at night. Just leave Sadako your imagination behind especially when you go exploring in the dark.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger
An Ignoramus in Japan: Vending Machines
An Ignoramus in Japan: Bathrooms and Toilets
An Ignoramus in Japan: Manhole Covers
I Spy With My Little Eye: Japan's Fashion Contradictions
I Spy With My Little Eye: On the Go in Japan

Kansai Diaries (2016)
9D/9N | Wakayama, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kansai Region
Osaka: Day 0: Arrival
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado
Wakayama: Day 1: Going to, Sleeping in, and Eating in Koyasan
Wakayama: Day 1.5: West Side of Koya Town
Wakayama: Koyasan Sidewalk Shorts
Wakayama: Days 1.75~2: Okunoin, Three Times (you're here!)
Nara: Sleep, Eat, and Explore Nara City
Nara: Day 3: Horyuji, Hokkiji, and Some Japanecdotes in Ikaruga Town
Nara: Day 3.5: Yakushiji, Toshodaiji, and Heijo Palace Site in Nara City
Nara: Day 4: Early Morning at Nara Park
Nara: Day 4.25: Naramachi Walking Tour
Nara: Day 4.5: Todaiji, Yoshiki-en, and Kofukuji in Nara Park
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado
Kyoto: Day 5: Rainy Day in Uji City
Kyoto: Day 5.5: Tofukuji, Kawai Jinja, Shimogamo Jinja
Kyoto: Day 6: Ginkakuji, Ryoanji, Ninnaji
Kyoto: Day 6.75: Gion Night Walking Tour
Kyoto: Day 7: All Day in Arashiyama
Kyoto: Day 8: Last Day in Kyoto
Osaka: Day 8.75: Dizzying Dotonbori
Osaka: Day 9: Osaka, Over and Out


  1. I'm curious why taking photos beyond the bridge is forbidden. And were you brave enough to look down at the Reflection Well?

    1. Hi ayisharu! It's a sacred site where they believe Kobo Daishi lives on in eternal meditation so no photos (and food and drink) allowed. (I guess similar to some temples and shrines, where one is not allowed to take photos inside.)

      Re: reflection well. Sorry, kalimot ko mention, ako na gi update. Oo, ni tanaw ko. To my relief, nakit-an ra nako akong nawng sa tubig. Haha! But to the bad luck of everyone who knows me...hahaha!!!


    2. Hahahaha kuyaw ug ang mugawas na reflection kai nkabali ka XD