Mount Koya: A New Lease on Life…from the Grave

August 8th, 2012By Category: Travel

At 5:30 in the morning, I woke up to get ready for a trip outside of the city… to yet another World Heritage Site. I met my friend at the train station and we started to look for our group- yes, we were tagging along on a tour, and yes, it was only going to be in Japanese.

We boarded the bus and found our seats. It would be a 5-hour journey to our destination. A woman got on the mic- she was a guide for the tour company- and affecting an overly energetic, high-pitched accent, started to narrate our voyage… in increasingly agonizing detail. I later had to describe to my friend the meaning of “like nails on a chalkboard.”

The ride was made even more terrible once we got into the mountains- I’m not always the hardiest when it comes to evading motion sickness in the back of land transport vehicles, so the winding mountain roads- not to mention the previous night’s festivities at a bar- combined to drive me into a general state of misery.

Finally, we arrived, after several unfortunate detours to souvenir shops (gotta love package tours!) We had a delicious vegan lunch of generous portions, the lack of animal products being necessitated by the values held at this sacred site. The weather was perfect and greatly improved my spirits- sun shining brightly overhead; crisp, cool mountain air drifting past carrying the scents of the forest… a great cure for a hangover. Our first stop on the tour was the one I was most looking forward to seeing: an ancient graveyard.

Okuno-in is the largest cemetery in Japan. It’s located on Mt. Koya, where a particular sect of Buddhists founded a town in the year 819. The entire town is now owned by the government so no one can own property there, but the population carries on daily life- its residents can attend school even up through university there.

We wandered into the site, first passing some of the newer tombstones. I had recently learned the two Japanese phonetic alphabets, so I practiced reading the engravings and asked my friend to interpret.

“What does shi ro a ri mean?”
“Oh like aunt and uncle.”
“No, ant like the insect.”

Apparently, a pesticide company had purchased the grave to try to make amends to the six-legged creatures that they make a living by killing. This information thrilled me, as I positively love discovering things about other cultures that mine makes me consider quirky.

I was now nearly giddy to be off the bus, out of town, and far away from the stress of work. We passed through some massive cedar trees into the old part of the cemetery. The effect was like sticking your head underwater. It seemed like all the air, including our breath, had been sucked out of the place. Not even birds were chirping. The scene felt as though it would evaporate if touched. (The phrase “silent as the grave” comes to mind.)

Moss-covered gravestones, some more than a thousand years old, stood staggered uphill amongst the foliage. Ethereal shades of green and grey blurred together to obscure the path ahead- a composition of exquisite decay. Dashes of red-brown cedars, whose nettle-laden branches didn’t protrude until more than 20 feet up, were spread around to liven up the picture. All of the trees were several feet wide in diameter, some of them having fused together to become giant monoliths.

We passed around the back of a big temple. Here, we were instructed to be silent. The scented smoke of incense wafted around us. We filed down a crowded walkway where some Shinto priests were chanting. Golden statues of lotus flowers rose in the garden, twisting around themselves as if moved by an invisible current. A small bird lit on one of the rafters overhead and began to sing. It was a true picture of peace.

We walked on, down into to the temple. The darkness was alleviated only by some small hanging lanterns. Thin shelves supporting tens of thousands of small Buddha statues formed a maze for us to pass through. This was said to be the place nearest to the meditation space of a certain priest-in-residence who had dedicated his life to absorbing visitors’ problems for them. People stood quietly, inwardly asking what they would of this altruist. We then went back up into the light of day.

On the way out, we were given a chance to purchase omamori- silk talismans as sacred mementos of having visited a shrine, which would continue to provide a particular function for the visitor long after leaving. In this case, they acted as “substitutes” similar to the prayerful priest, siphoning away your problems and relocating them elsewhere. My friend suggested we get them.

We visited several other temples and listened to some short talks from priests explaining… who knows what- there was no translation! One of the temples even had its mascot (?) come out to wave to us. My friend explained that it was a way to promote tourism at the temple (??) We shopped around a bit for omiyage, souvenirs that are generally edible- I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I had last time I traveled by not bringing something back for my co-workers.

Too soon it was time to get back on the dreaded vehicle. Having a break was just what I needed though. The atmosphere made me feel more calm and happy than I have yet felt since I’ve been here in Japan. It was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. I wouldn’t mind someday going back to this graveyard of rejuvenation… provided that I do not have to take a tour bus!

Author of this article

Nicole Sauer

Nicole is a traveler, teaching to pay the bills and because she enjoys it! She loves discovering and taking photos of hilarious English fails on public signage ("Please use a toilet finely!") She currently lives in Nagoya. Check out her other site at

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