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Exploring Japan's Oldest Cemetery, Okuno-in.

In the spring of 2023, we were traveling in Japan and we came across this incredible destination that I want to talk to you about. I'll leave you with some scattered travel tips within the blog. If you find yourself in Wakayama Prefecture or more generally in the Kansai region, this stop is truly unmissable.

The Okuno-in cemetery is located on the sacred mountain of Koyasan, its significance derives from:

"Oku" (奥) which can be translated as "inner" or "deep",

"No" (の): a grammatical particle in the Japanese language used to indicate possession or belonging (in this context, "no" suggests that the cemetery is somehow connected or belongs to something),

and "In" (院): this term can be translated as "monastery" or "temple" (in religious or spiritual contexts, "in" often indicates a sacred place).

So, if we put these parts together, "Okuno-in" can be interpreted as "the deepest sanctuary" or "the temple in the depths of the cemetery".

And, to be honest, once you cross the initial bridge, you get the feeling of truly stepping into a different dimension from the ordinary one. With its thousands of stone lanterns, ancient trees, and historic tombs, this site is Japan's largest Buddhist cemetery and represents a unique destination that attracts visitors from all over the world. Behind its serene beauty lies an intricate network of stories and legends that envelop this ancient place.

This cemetery is the final resting place of Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon Buddhist school. Kukai is a revered figure in Japanese Buddhism, and his presence in the cemetery adds profound spiritual significance to the site; it is believed that Kukai did not die but rather entered a deep state of meditation called "shojo," awaiting the return of Buddha Maitreya to lead humanity to enlightenment. For this reason, every morning of the year, you will find a procession of monks bringing "breakfast" to Kobo Daishi, despite him having been "formally" deceased for hundreds of years.

One of the most distinctive features of the Okuno-in cemetery is the thousands of stone lanterns called "toro" that line the pathways. These lanterns, donated by devotees and Buddhist organizations, illuminate the path through the cemetery and represent the souls of the deceased.

According to local legends, the lanterns come to life at night, and wandering monks, clad in traditional white robes, walk among the graves in an eternal pilgrimage. It is said that those who have the courage to visit the cemetery during the darkest hours may encounter these wandering spirits, their presence evidenced by the sound of their wooden sandals echoing on the stone pathways.

Jizo statue adorned with offerings of all kinds, from sodas to lip gloss.

Among the most significant tombs is that of Taira no Kiyomori, a powerful general and political figure of the Heian era. Kiyomori is known for establishing the first military government in feudal Japan. However, his rise to power was marked by injustices and violence, and it is said that his tomb is shrouded in a curse.

According to legend, those who dare to disturb Kiyomori's tomb will be plagued by misfortunes and tragedies. This belief has dissuaded many people from attempting to desecrate the tomb, fueling the dark fascination and mysterious aura surrounding this place. To avoid further curses, be aware that along the entire path, there are numerous statues of deities and sacred figures.

However, it is said that some of these statues have been damaged over the centuries, by weather events or vandalized, losing their heads. According to legend, those who dare to approach these headless statues too closely risk suffering a curse or attracting the wrath of spirits. Consequently, many visitors prefer to keep their distance from these damaged statues to avoid problems.

There are many stories like these that surround this place steeped in history and magic; for example, on your journey, you will encounter the Sugatami-no-Ido, or Well of Reflections. This small well is located next to a shrine that houses a statue of Asekaki Jizo (Sweating Jizo), near the small Naka-no-hashi bridge in the middle of the cemetery.

According to legend, if you look into the well but do not see your reflection, then you are destined to die within the next three years... I admit I haven't done it; I prefer a bit of suspense.

If, on the other hand, upon reaching this pilgrimage, you are still searching for your soulmate according to local legend, in the Okuno-in cemetery, there is a stone called "Ai no Ishi," or "the love stone." It is said that those who touch this stone and recite a specific spell can ensure eternal love for themselves. However, there is a warning: the spell must be recited with a pure heart and without any selfish intention, otherwise, you risk facing a curse instead of obtaining the desired love.

If you want to have some extra chances, do not despair; near the cemetery, there is an ancient tree known as the "Miroku no ki," or "Maitreya's tree." It is said that this tree is particularly sacred and can grant wishes to those who pray to it with sincerity.

However, legend has it that the tree also has a mysterious aura at night when it is said to come to life with spirits and supernatural presences. Some visitors claim to have seen strange lights dancing around the tree during the darkest hours, but no negative incidents have ever been reported regarding it.

After the story of this incredible place, let's move on to the travel tips section. First of all, we recommend spending at least one night on Mount Koyasan; it's essential to be able to visit Okuno-in in the right atmosphere. There are various evening tours, but we preferred to join the procession of monks, who depart at 5 a.m. from the Kongobu-ji bridge (the first bridge) for their daily offering to Kobo Daishi.

The cemetery at that hour is still shrouded in darkness and only faintly illuminated by lanterns scattered along the path, offering a truly magical atmosphere. Despite Mount Koyasan and specifically the cemetery being well-known tourist destinations, we hardly found anyone there. It could be a stroke of luck, but I believe that most tourists are deterred by the early wake-up call.

For accommodation, there are various options. If you're traveling on a budget, there are two guesthouses available. If, instead, you're looking for a more immersive experience, many monasteries in the area offer shukubo, or monastery lodgings. Many temples also offer Ajikan meditation experiences and various rituals related to the Shingon tradition.

Before entering the cemetery, I recommend picking up the audio guides at the tourist center on Mount Koyasan. You won't need them for the walk there, as it will be in total silence, listening to the monks' chants, but you'll find them useful for the return journey. The route is explained and developed very clearly with spots where you can further immerse yourself in the stories of this magical place. Don't be daunted by the length of the walk; despite it being the long way to reach the mausoleum, it is accessible to every type of visitor. It's a long walk (about an hour) that will pass by quickly due to the rapid succession of emotions and impressions you'll experience along the way. Comfortable shoes, phones turned off, allowed photos to try to capture those emotions, but they will inevitably fade compared to the memories of that day.

Following the procession, you will finally arrive at the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. From the last bridge, it will no longer be possible to take videos or photos, so you have no choice, friends; to see it, you must take some flights and explore it.

Here, a ritual will begin, which includes the chanting of mantras by the monks. You can follow it for free and optionally leave a donation at the end. However, don't rush away immediately; if you walk around the temple, you will find an underground entrance. Take off your shoes, descend the steps, but I don't want to spoil the magic by explaining everything in detail. When you go, let me know how your experience went.

Before leaving Koyasan, in addition to visiting all the other sites of interest, I also recommend squeezing in a traditional monastery meal, Shojin Ryori. These are delicious compositions of vegan food commonly consumed by monks, made with ingredients designed to nourish both body and soul.

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