Visiting Koyasan’s Okunoin Graveyard

It sounds odd when I tell someone I spend a full afternoon at a graveyard taking photos, more strange when I say that I went to a remote place mostly because of that same graveyard, but yeah, that’s what happened!

What is so special about this graveyard?

Not just that it is a graveyard with a few centuries old, but also that is where are buried several Japanese feudal lords, monks and some lesser people. But even more important than all of that, it is in that same graveyard where the Okunoin Temple is, where Kobo Daishi rests, the founder of the Shingon Buddhism. And again, I am really glad I met Katsumi, otherwise I would read most of these information afterwards and I wouldn’t appreciate properly the site.

Note that I said that Kobo Daishi rests, the monks and the other believers believe that he is not dead, he is in eternal meditation waiting for a future Buddha. And to pray there next to the monks, one has to pay a good amount of money, or should just pray a bit further. It is odd that even Buddhist temples charge big amounts of money for these things, until then I wrongly assumed that Buddhism is a very non materialistic religion. The same applies for the accommodation, which was overpriced for what got, I like to think I paid for the experience instead…

Katsumi, the japanese man we met, was the perfect guy and at some point I felt closer to his opinions, he gave us a very detailed tour and with a bit of irony on what regards religion, as an atheist I noticed that and I ended up asking his opinion, he is agnostic and he agrees that over charging the way they do it is almost like a sin. Yes, they need fundings, but Koyasan is a very touristic place and that’s almost pornographic values.

Okunoin Graveyard at night
Okunoin Graveyard at night

I think we can “divide” the graveyard in two parts, the old and the new. The new part shows a lot about corporate Japanese culture, at first was odd to see several corporative graves, some very well-known companies. In Japan an employee is not just a number for the paycheck, an employee is part of the big family that the company is hence the graves. They are buried as family. Still, I wouldn’t like to see a corporate logo on my grave…

Back to town

When I say that the graveyard is indeed very beautiful, I mean it and not as a creepy way, it is indeed a very mystical place totally worth seeing. Several guides also recommend to do a tour at night, which I also tried… Well, it was time to go back to town, and to say goodbye to Katsumi that was going back home.

We walked a bit trying to find a restaurant and we ended up eating at a very cozy place, since Jorge had to take the last cable car and train back to Osaka, we just went for a small walk around the graveyard after sunset. But the rain didn’t help much, also the typhoon alert for that night was not much encouraging to be there alone, and adding to all of that, several signs warning about bears at night…

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I have to say, it was really cool at night, though for night shootings I like to take my time and even if no one rushes me, I always have that awful feeling that someone is getting bored because of me, so we did a not so long walk back to the bus stop. After that I considered going back alone to the graveyard, but the rain was getting stronger, so I decided not to take a chance in forgetting the time and being left outside the temple and I went back.

At the temple / hotel

Checking-in, and the first thing I noticed was that my room was the number four, which is odd considering the japanese superstition for the number four. Probably that’s why the assigned an european to that room… After unpacking some of my stuff, I went for a relaxing bath at the onsen, and again, very disappointed. The name of the temple is advertised as Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin, I got really disappointed. The onsen is nothing special at all, quite small, smaller than the one I tried in Kurashiki, and I was expecting an exterior onsen, but nope… Well, it was very relaxing after a full day walking, so, I am not complaining (much).

Visiting Koyasan’s Okunoin Graveyard
Visiting Koyasan’s Okunoin Graveyard

After my relaxing bath, I went back to my bedroom and I found the futon already placed. Another detail about the temple, you can’t close your bedroom’s door from outside… I had to trust no one would take any of my stuff. So, after reading I went to sleep, I had my breakfast scheduled in advance for 7:30, so, another early wake up.

I honestly meant to wake up to see the monks praying, but instead I went to the onsen again and I spent way too long there, I walked a bit through the small gardens, which are really beautiful, and it was time to pack again. They were nice and they kept my stuff for a few hours, so I could go for another walk around Koyasan before going to Osaka, and getting lost somewhere already outside Koyasan (and with a lot of signs warning about the bears…). I really liked that place, a shame I didn’t stay longer…

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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