In a peaceful wooded area of Wakayama Prefecture, south of Kyoto and Osaka, lies the ancient village of Koyasan or Mount Koya, known as the epicenter of the Shingon school of Buddhism. Shingon Buddhism was introduced in Japan in the early 9th century by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. Kobo Daishi built a temple on the secluded mountaintop of Koyasun as a place where he could meditate. Since then over one hundred temples and monasteries have sprung up around the sect’s headquarters.
Koyasan is also the location of Japan’s largest cemetery, Okunoin, that stretches for over 2 kilometers and is home to more than 200,000 graves of mostly Buddhist monks. Kobo Daishi himself remains buried here, but as the belief goes, he is not dead — just in eternal meditation waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha. Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries. According to the Shingon Buddhist school of thought, there are no dead in Okunoin, but only waiting spirits.
The graves at Okunoin cemetery lies on either side of a long mystical path that winds through tall cedar trees for a distance of 2 kilometers and ends at the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Before the mausoleum is Toro-do or Torondo, the Lantern pavilion, where 10,000 donated lanterns hang. Two of these lanterns is said have been burning continuously since 1088 AD, one from a former emperor and the other from a peasant woman who sold her hair for a lantern to pray for her deceased parents.
Behind Torodo Hall is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, the Gobyo, the site of his eternal meditation. Ritualistic meals are deposited before him each day, while monks and laymen reflect in silence and recite sutras in a low voice.
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Mount Koya is a very holy place for the Japanese, so care should be taken when visiting the cemetery. It’s important to behave respectfully, and photography, food and drink are prohibited. This entire region in Kii Mountain, along with two more sacred sites —Yoshino and Omine, and Kumano Sanzan— was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
This feature originally appeared in Amusing Planet.