We took a walk through one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s final resting places.
Okunoin is the largest cemetery in Japan; depending on who you ask it, it contains anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000 gravestones and memorials for Japanese individuals of historic importance. Okunoin is also home to the tombstones of most of the major Japanese Buddhist figures.
One such figure is Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. His mausoleum is the centerpiece of Okunoin. Within its walls, he is believed to remain alive in eternal meditation, waiting for the arrival of Miroku Nyorai, the Buddha of the Future.
The normal entrance to Okunoin is by crossing the Ichinohashi bridge, but per usual we inadvertently defied convention and entered some other way.
Okunoin is a beautiful, calm, yet haunting necropolis. We were surrounded by 1,000 years’ worth of lives memorialized in a sea of stone tablets. Surrounded by thousand-year old cedars and cypress trees, we found ourselves in an alcove that had a few graves, though we don’t know why these were segregated from the rest. Maybe a private family plot?
It did not take long before we started encountering Jizo statues. Not knowing anything about them, something about them set her off; they gave us a bad vibe.
Jizo is the Japanese name for the Buddhist Ksitigarbha. Jizo is an especially appreciated divinity who is believed to protect children, especially those who pass away before their parents. Such passings include natural causes/illness, stillbirths and abortions.
Children who die prematurely are punished in the afterlife for having lived too short a life to accumulate many good deeds and for having caused their parents grief. To atone for their transgressions, children are made to spend eternity piling stones on the bank of the mythical Sanzu River.
Parents of said children may pray to Jizo to relieve their children and guide them to heaven. In exchange, articles of their children’s clothing are wrapped around the Jizo statues as an offering. Red bibs have become a common substitute for clothing.
One of the most memorable things about Okunoin was how much of the total surface area of the place moss had claimed. Moss grows at an extremely slow rate. To date we have visited many locations in Japan that have been standing for thousands of years, but when we consider the natural weathering of the stonework and the amount of moss that carpeted it, it truly feels like a place that comes pretty close to transcending time itself.
“Metal Gear Solid 3,” a stealth/action game for the Playstation 2 that originated in Japan, contains a certain battle sequence that is often cited as the most epic in gaming history. The battle in question is a prolonged sniper duel that takes place in the Russian woods between protagonist Solid Snake and a centenarian sniper named “The End” who waits for death to claim him via the ultimate showdown.
Chasing down and killing a 100-year old man in the woods doesn’t sound like a fight that should take more than a minute, but the guy has the side ability of being able to put himself into stasis, conserving his energy and allowing him to weather the passage of time. His choice of camoflauge is a ghillie suit made of moss.
He is everywhere, ageless, timeless, lying in wait behind every tree, under every rock. If you stand in one place too long, he’ll sneak up on you and envelop you. The man is moss incarnate. In regards to Okunoin, totems that stand in place for years inevitably find themselves one with nature as the lush green carpet slowly encroaches on and consumes them.
We thought it was going to be empty and silent, but Okunoin was surprisingly crowded. It is a mecca of sorts, and attracts many pilgrims of Buddhism who come to pay homage to Kobo Daishi.
One thing about Japan that we had perceived as kind of gross is the Japanese total lack of hand-washing after using the restrooms. At best, there would be a quick rinse with water only. Soap is not found in most public restrooms. It’s especially baffling given how germ-phobic the Japanese are.
After a while though, we got used to it and came to the realization that it doesn’t really matter if one washes their hands or not after using the restroom. The first thing one touches outside of the restroom is going to be covered in more bacteria than anything found inside it. You may have washed your hands, but you’re still touching the same door handle as someone who just picked their nose.
We assume hand-washing before food preparation and consumption is a big deal, because hand-washing before entering a shrine or temple seems to be. The purification fountains exist to (spiritually) wash one’s hands of the filth accumulated outside. They are also used to clean one internally; you may use the ladle to pour water into your hand, then rinse your mouth with the water and spit it back out. You’re not supposed to swallow the water, but frankly we’ve never seen anybody doing the mouth-rinsing part.
These little papers contain fortunes. Typically visitors to shrines or temples can pay a nominal donation and receive a fortune, called an omikuji. Unlike stereotypical fortune cookie fodder, you can receive a fortune ranging from “great good luck” to “great bad luck.” Either way, tying it to a tree cements your positive luck or attempts to negate your projected bad luck.
Pilgrims may use these fountains to wash their hands, say prayers and use ladles from the fountains to scoop and throw water to the statues, known as Mizumuke Jizo, as an offering to the dead.
Beyond the Mizumuke Jizo is the Gobyonohashi Bridge. Visitors are expected to bow before crossing, and photographs are not permitted past this point.
Across the bridge is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.
There were many graves at Okunoin, in all shapes and sizes, and dedicated to all manner of designee. At Okunoin you’ll find the graves of famed warlords like Nobunaga Oda next to a low-level priest or other government official. In Buddhist death, perhaps everybody is equal?
There are some pretty bizarre plots to be found. We passed a rocket-shaped tombstone on the way in. Nissan, Panasonic and other corporations had dedicated plots for honored employees. Supposedly there is a plot sponsored by an extermination company that is dedicated to the souls of all the insects their products have killed.
On that note, there is another character in Metal Gear Solid 3, “The Sorrow,” who is a literal ghost. Solid Snake never truly battles this character. Instead, Snake has to wade up a river, down which the souls of every enemy in the game he has killed thus far lunges at him. If you play the game as a pacifist, the battle consists of a peaceful walk up an empty river.
I can’t help but feel there were some Buddhist principles behind this character concept.
We noticed quite a few other statues throughout the cemetery grounds. I’ve got a thing for statues.
There were a few, but the one that stood out the most to us was the mausoleum of Hideyasu.
I think we ended up exiting Okunoin over the Ichinohashi bridge. Right alongside the bridge is a beautiful canal.
We considered staying at a ryokan in Koyasan but they were rather pricey and seemed to be populated exclusively by foreigners. We didn’t travel halfway around the world to eat vegetarian meals and share a bathroom with teenaged backpackers.