SYNOPSIS:  About a knockout cemetery and a hike with Glen along the pilgrimage route which here reaches its climax: the place where Kobo Daishi did not die, but is believed to live in eternal meditation until the day of universal enlightenment.  


This cemetery literally took my breath away.  I have never been in any place like this.  I hope that the images can convey some of the mystic quality of this graveyard, since I will have a hard time doing it with words.

Mature trees hundreds of years old, some believed to be older than 1000 years, line a 2 km path from the Ichinohashi Bridge to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.  Moss covered stones, pagodas, and stupas of about 200,000 or more graves are arranged left and right, above and below the path.  Every serious Buddhist will at least dream of  being buried here since at the day of enlightenment, if I get this right — there will be a final sutra revealed which conveys ultimate truth and enlightenment.   Since we are talking Shingon Buddhism here — an esoteric sect — ordinary people like us will not understand its meaning.  But Kobo Daishi will.  It follows that if you are striving to be among the first to reach enlightenment you need to be close to Kobo Daishi.

People even place just a lock of hair or something in this graveyard, just to have a presence there.  Unfortunately, I had no scissors at hand…  Every Buddhist worth anything should of course at least come here once during his or her life to pay respect to the master.  Until 1872 however, only men were allowed on the mountain.  The women had to make do with seven lodgings outside of the city gates — one of which, the Nyonindo, still exists.

The graveyard is dark due to the tall trees.  In the rain, at a misty morning, or at moonlight, I think it’s even more mystical.   But it was plenty enchanting when I went.  The sun broke through the clouds only a few seconds at a time, illuminating certain moss-covered areas ever so briefly.  The shapes created by the pagoda-style tombs, the shinto gates, and the various sculptures, offer new views and geometric interplays at every step.  This in the most literal sense was breath-taking!

Five-tiered stupas using circle, square and triangular format are known as gorinto and are the most prevailing shape of the tomb stones.  They have Sanskrit letters inscribed on them from the bottom up, representing five elements which play a role in Buddhist teachings: earth, water, fire, wind and space.  They come large and small, old and new, single and in family clusters.  A few very realistic sculptures can be found of people who seem to be sitting or standing here quite literally ready for Kobo Daishi’s appearance.  When they come weathered and moss-covered, they are quite a haunting site.

Some of the trees are so magnificent and old, big, contorted and majestic, that they are venerated in their own right — statues or food are placed inside the roots for the tree spirit, or the kami.

Jizo statues, one of the most popular Bodhisattvas of Japanese Buddhism — I have always wondered if the name of this figure was not heavily inspired by Christianity and the “savior” figure of Jesus — can be found everywhere.  Jizo especially watches over deceased children but his realm of influence is much bigger and closely related to the final days of salvation.  A folk tradition has it that parents of deceased children or parents who seek protection or attention for their children place bibs on the statues.  At times, this custom seems quite silly but it makes in part for the unique character of this cemetery.

A touching spot is where the road crosses a small river shortly before one reaches the actual mausoleum: a cluster of wooden sticks is placed in the river bed which represents prayers for all aborted children…

A unique custom for the visitor of the graveyard is to pass along a line of Buddhist bronze sculptures which are placed behind a river-fed basin of water.  The visitor scoops out water with a ladle and pours it over each statue and associates a wish and a prayer with each scoop.

And finally, one reaches the area of the mausoleum, the Gobyo in which over 10,000 lanterns, all donations, are burning.  Behind the mausoleum there is the actual hall in which Kobo Daishi is believed to sit in meditation — it was covered up by a construction tarp.  Twice a day he is offered food and as it happens (I planned that, of course) it would be his birthday in two days, which represents one of the two main festivals in town.  I hope I will be able to catch some of it.

Pilgrims who want to go above and beyond the 88-temple pilgrimage route on the island of Shikoku will add the trip to Koyasan to report the completion of the trip to Kobo Daishi himself.  Two groups of  “package pilgrims” (those on the bus-style pilgrimage) arrived while I was there.  The loud tour guide ruined the entire atmosphere of the cemetery.  I am glad they came late in my visit.  The pilgrims don’t come to be enchanted.  They take the short-cut right to the mausoleum and there they congregated and recite sutras.  That was quite touching.

I was so overwhelmed that I really did not know what to do with the afternoon — I could not see myself adding anything to this experience that would not ultimately spoil it. But then I ran into Glen, whom I had met once before in Matsuyama.  He suggested one thing which I would most likely not have done on my own: walk a stretch of the age-old pilgrimage route, which has been recognized as part of this UNESCO monument (yes, this was another one of the multi-part UNESCO monuments, seven parts in fact).  And so we went for that hike. It was perfect.  It relived the weight of the cemetery, yet it added a quite and contemplative walk where I could recover from the impact of facing life and death in such a loaded spot.  One can’t help but contemplate life and death in an environment such as Oku-no-in.  Along the path there are various spots where folk legend adds to this: there is a well — if you look in and can’t see your reflection you will die within three years — should I look in?!  There is a tombstone by a nun which has a crack in it.  If you press your ear to it and if you are doomed you will hear the cries from hell — should I listen in?!  And there is a stone which you can try to lift, grabbing it through a hole.  According to your amount of sins, it will be heavy or light.  Do I dare try?!  And just think about how many of the graves of these eager souls will fall into oblivion or obscurity despite all their efforts, and money spent.  It is all quite profound and I have to admit, it took its toll on me.

And after that walk I had quite easily done 10km again.  Plenty for me.  And so I bid farewell to Glen and headed for the hot, Japanese public bath which is available even at a monastery as high up the mountain as Koyasan.   The perfect ending for any day.

Good night.

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