Japan’s Okunoin Cemetery, Est. 816 AD: Graveyard for 200,000 Monks
Nestled in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture a couple of hours southeast of Osaka, Japan by car lies a world-famous cemetery that is home to the graves of over 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha. Nearly 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) long, Okunoin cemetery is the biggest in Japan. It has been in existence since 816 AD and every inch of it is sacred. During the day Okunoin cemetery appears relatively normal. At night, however, Okunoin is said to be a very mysterious and sometimes creepy personal experience. Here’s why.
Shingon Buddhist monks in their saffron colored robes strolling through Koyasan's Okunoin cemetery in the daytime. ( caroline75005 / Adobe Stock)
How or Who is Behind the Beginnings of Okunoin Cemetery?
Okunoin cemetery is in Koyasan, an ancient village in the Kii mountain range of Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. It is one of many sacred places located in this mountainous, deeply-forested region that have collectively been added to Unesco’s World Heritage list . Collectively known as the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. These sites include Yoshino and Omine, Koyasan, and the Shinto Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route that linked the area to imperial Kyoto (ending at Kumano Grand Shrine).
However, Okunoin isn’t a Shinto cemetery, though Shinto elements can be found all over the cemetery. The town of Koyasan is the epicenter of Shingon Buddhism. This Buddhist sect was introduced to Japan in 805 AD by Buddhist master Kūkai, also known as Kōbō-Daishi. Kōbō-Daishi studied with the monks of Xi’an, China during the Tang dynasty before returning to Japan where he became one of the country’s most important Buddhist religious figures.
Kukai’s legacy is one of the few remaining living examples of Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. This Japanese Buddhist sect is focused on mikkyō, a Japanese term for the Vajrayana practices of Shingon Buddhism and the related practices that also make up part of the Tendai and Kegon schools of Buddhism in Japan.
Kōbō-Daishi built a temple on the secluded mountaintop of Mount Koya as a place he could meditate. Little did he know that his tiny little temple would expand into over one hundred temples and monasteries as well as being the reason the village of Koyasan began.
Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum is located at the center of the Okunoin cemetery surrounded by tall cedar trees and stupas or gravestones. Here, the monks offer him ritualistic meals twice a day. The monks believe he is in eternal meditation here, concentrating on liberating all beings.
The interior of the mausoleum shines brightly thanks to thousands of lanterns. According to legend two of these lanterns have been burning since 1088 AD. One of these is from a former emperor and the other is from a peasant woman who sold her hair for a lantern to pray for her deceased parents.
It is this mausoleum that makes the cemetery so sacred for Shingon Buddhists. Being close to their religious leader means they will be among the first to welcome the future Buddha upon his return to Earth. They don’t necessarily have to be buried there either. A physical representation such as a lock of hair is enough.
Moss-encrusted stone graves in Koyasan’s famous and mysterious Shingon Buddhist Okunoin cemetery, about two hours southeast of Osaka, Japan by car. ( jerdozain / Adobe Stock)
Why is Okunoin So Creepy at Night?
What makes Okunoin cemetery so creepy at night, however, is the Jizo Bosatsu. These are stone-carved figurines that are cute by day and then just a little scary at night. These figurines represent spiritual beings who strive for the enlightenment of all creatures, not just themselves. The Jizo Bosatsu are commonly decorated with little red woven aprons and hats. These tell a tragic story. The small, child-like statues represent the Jizo Bosatsu that protects the souls of children.
Many of these small Jizo Bosatsu are surrounded by offerings of small coins, candles, coffee cans, incense and sometimes food. Unfortunately, these offerings have been made by parents in the hope that these little spirits can provide safe passage to their children to the afterlife.
This is also the reason many people adorn them with red hats and aprons to keep the spirits warm, hoping for protection for themselves and the peaceful passage of their loved ones to the afterlife. Locals will also pray to these statues, throwing water and bowing their heads and offering respect and prayer. During the day, these figurines look somewhat normal. At night, however, the sight of hundreds of these figurines clad in children’s clothing in a cemetery is downright terrifying.
The Tokugawa Mausoleum is within the precinct of Okunoin cemetery and dates to the 17th century. (Daderot / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Other monuments and graves at Okunoin
These are not the only monuments present at Okunoin Cemetery either. Since Shingon Buddhism values all creatures, monuments of different types can be found there. Even monuments to insects have been erected by the pesticide company that exterminated them. There is also a monument dedicated to the enemies of Japan that were killed during wars throughout the ages. Some Japanese companies will even maintain monuments in the cemetery for their employees as a corporate benefit. There are other monuments representing some bizarre and unexpected things such as spaceships, eating utensils and pyramids.
The graves at Okunoin cemetery lie on either side of a long, mystical path that winds its way through the tall cedar trees for a distance of 2 kilometers (1.24 miles). Many important people including prominent monks and feudal lords have been buried here throughout the years. In fact, there is a 17th-century Edo-era mausoleum here for the all-powerful Tokugawa shogun family , who ruled Japan from Edo (Tokyo).
The number of graves continues to increase as people are still buried at the cemetery to this day. Since every living thing is sacred in Shingon Buddhism, even pets are buried here. Followers of Shingon Buddhism also believe there are no dead people at the cemetery, only spirits waiting for the return of the Buddha.
While Okunoin cemetery and the surrounding area is still home to monks who meditate in the temples, it is also an incredibly popular tourist attraction. Thousands of people pour in each year to experience Okunoin and the temples dotted across the town of Koyasan.
Top image: At night Okunoin cemetery becomes an eerie experience with dim lighting, deep shadows, and the awareness of all the dead people interred around you. Source: Willy / Adobe Stock
By Mark Brophy
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