The sole purpose of my visit to Koyasan (Mount Koya) was to have a quiet retreat in a monastery for a few days. This sacred Buddhist mountain was an hour’s train ride from Osaka. I was on the shuttle bus from the train station to the monastery when a poster in English prints, sticking outside the Tourist Centre, caught my attention. ‘Cemetery Walk at Night’, it said. I had no idea at all that there was a cemetery in Koyasan.
Before noon, after dropping my bag at the monastery, I decided to stroll around the mountain area. The map marked ‘Okunoin Temple’ as the most important tourist attraction. So I decided to go there.
At the opening of a walking path was a stone slab chiselled with the calligraphy which said ‘Okunoin Temple’. All around beyond that opening was a dense forest of trees as tall as high-rises. The spreading lush green displayed various levels of depths. It looked peaceful, a feast for the eyes.
Once past the opening, I crossed a stone bridge. The sight turned into something I least expected, and it froze me immediately.
In front, a clear walkway cut through the forest, the ending led into the deep. At the interval of every few hundred metres, stumps of stone lampposts carved in ancient style neatly stood on both sides of the path. On the grounds that flanked the walkway, columns of cedar trees shot up like rockets. Stones dotted amidst the trees, tons of them, all over the place, brimming to the top of the slope. I soon realised that they were no natural stones; they were gravestones. They looked natural, though, for they looked as if they had been growing along with the surrounding habitat since the beginning of life. They blended in with the organism. Moss and fungi grew all over them. Vines climbed on them. They slanted in all directions or lied half-hidden beneath the earth, as if they aged, too. Years of erosion wiped out the sign of human work. Engravings on the some tombstones were hardly legible.
But human work was not wiped out altogether. Interspersed among the gravestones were platforms erected with simple monuments and torii gates. Little stone statues of Ojizo-sama scattered around. They stood at a dark corner of a sprawling tree root. They lined in a row on the roadside, or sat on a stand-alone stump out of nowhere. These childlike, timid-looking, round-faced statues had lost most of their facial features to age. Their bodies, in seated positions, were only roughly discernible. Moss and lichens crawled on them non-distinctively. Notwithstanding, the red bibs worn by these statues brought visual contrasts with the surroundings and made them unmissable in the wilderness.
These dashes of red, bright or faded, dangling on the faceless statues made the whole scene all the more creepy – the statues looked alive and lifeless all at once.
The Japanese tended these statues as if they had souls, and they did that for a reason – Ojizo-sama was a divinity guiding children who had died before their parents to the other world. By adorning these little guardians with bibs and fancy clothing, sad parents made humble wishes to ask Ojizo-sama to protect their lost children on the road to nirvana.
The reason behind the presence of these statues was beautiful, but it did not make me feel less hair-raising when they were spotted unexpectedly here and there. I felt a stream of chilled air circling around me even when I was standing in broad daylight.
Walking further into the deep, my calmness slowly returned. The view was more or less the same – ancient graveyards with tombstones falling into different degrees of disarray fanned out on both sides of the walkway that stretched impressively for two miles.
It was already noon. Sunlight seeped through the dense foliage and reached to the ground, sending kaleidoscopic patterns on the green vegetation and ground lichens. It was beautiful. The cool air had warmed up to a temperature pleasing to the body. Birds chirped from branches high above to create a forest symphony. Creepiness receded, replaced by an air of tranquility.
By now curiosity overtook me. For all I knew, Kōyasan was known to be the centre of the most important Buddhist sect in Japan, founded by the much revered monk, Kobo Daishi in 805 A.D. I wondered who these people were that were buried beneath the earth hundreds of years ago on this very sacred land. Despite their perishing state, judging from the scale and style of the tomb structures, it was not hard to conclude that the owners of these age-old tombs were no ordinary people. Where the inscriptions were less marred, I managed to draw clues from the Chinese characters that were comprehensible to me. I made out the names of some feudal lords and shoguns of the Warring States, and the family names of some powerful clans. That was no surprise. Privileged people continued to be privileged even when they broke down into ashes.
At the end of the walkway was the Okunoin Temple – the temple dedicated to the Master Monk Kobo Daishi. I walked around the temple, used the temple stationery to write a letter to the Master Monk and dropped it into the postbox hanging outside his mausoleum, where he was believed to sit in eternal meditation. I begged for his protection.
On the way back to the walkway, I routed to the other side of the temple. A mound of about one story high made up of stones was piled up in a distance. By now I knew they were no ordinary stones – I saw red bibs amongst some of them. Getting closer, I saw hundreds of little Ojizo-sama statues arranged in a heap like a little pyramid. They were old, as again the work of nature had eaten away the chubby faces and bodies and turned them into rough boulders. I stood in front of the mound. I felt intimidated by its enormity and perplexed by its form. Adding to the mystery was the flimsy wooden slab stuck into the ground next to it – ‘Mound for the Ill-fated’ was its name. For some reason I could not explain, a pang of sadness rushed up in me. Whoever they were, I felt bad for them. I considered the tombs I saw on the sides of the walkway. Dilapidated as they had become, it was not hard to imagine the grandeur they used to be, with the owner of each beneath was buried in an honoured, respected and important way. Here, the Ojizo-sama statues, and the dead lives they represented, were crammed in a mass, being nameless, insignificant and pitiful. Who were they? Were they abandoned by someone? Why were they called the ‘ill-fated’? The mystery of this solitary mound of Ojizo-sama statues troubled me.
The evening meal at the monastery finished early. I returned to the opening of the walkway at 6:50 p.m. Graves and tombstones were in front of me once again. It was not dark yet. The temporal dimension was transitory – it was the vacuum between day and night; it was the muddy blend of brightness and darkness; it was the connecting point between yin and yang; it was a revolving door for access to either the known or the unknown.
Once crossed the bridge, I stepped into a world ruled by the dead. I retraced the same path I took in the day. There was no more sunlight transposing through the foliage. Gloom loomed over, until darkness finally descended and swallowed the space. Led only by the dim light from the short lampposts, I gingerly walked forward.
My eyes adjusted to the bleakness. I saw a few other visitors along the way. A group of people who probably joined the tour group I saw on the poster in the Tourist Centre in the morning gathered not far away. A while later, they merged into darkness and disappeared. Even their sound died out in an instant. Not a trace of their existence remained. Later, a few people crossed paths with me towards another direction. But no one made any sign of acknowledging the sight of the other. The only solid proof of my own being in this secular world was the sound of my brisk pace.
‘There is nothing to fear’, I told myself, and walked on.
Soon I was at the end of the walkway, the landing connecting to the Okunoin Temple. I did not stay and turned back immediately.
It was pitch dark now. I did not meet any people anymore. The air was starting to chill. Fear crept in through the cold air. ‘There is nothing to fear’, I braced, repeating to myself. ‘This is a place charged with positive energy under the protection of a great Buddhist Master. And I am a person with good vibes. I always strive to live with conscience and kindness. The evil can never get near people abound with good energy.’ As a way to distract myself, I kept my mind busy. And it suddenly dawned on me that, instead of scaring of the dead, sometimes it is the evil side of the living that scared me. Thinking that way, I felt more strengths in my strides. That said, something out of the subconscious worked on me. I could not help minding my hair – I kept stroking my bang back so as to lay bare my forehead. It was the old belief: by making sure that the yang energy radiating from the forehead let out without blockage, one could keep the evil ghosts at bay.
With my heart beating fast, I raced back to the monastery where I stayed, feeling relieved when I reached its gate at last. Holding a cup of hot tea in my hands, my mind slowly soaked into a pool of tranquility. A deep sleep ensued.
Early next morning, I woke up remembering the mystery that remained unsettling – the story behind the ‘Mound of the Ill-fated’. I looked up and found the answer. Ever since Koyasan was founded, people believed that it was a most blessed thing to be buried on this sacred land under the guardian of Kobo Daishi. For the ordinary people who led modest lives in the secular world, it was a wish not granted. As the next best thing to do, family members of the dead would find a clear landing close to the cemetery and secretly bury slabs inscribing the names of the deceased in the soil of Kōyasan. Monks who found these slabs years later felt pity for them, and decided to build a mound to give these wild souls a permanent resting place.
At the end of the day, these ordinary people were not too ‘ill-fated’ afterall. They had their posthumous honour to be put under the Master’s protective wings on Kōyasan amongst the 200,000 souls who had been buried there.
As for the no-ordinary ones, especially those legendary figures during the Warring States, there was speculation that they earned their privilege of getting buried in Koyasan not simply because of their fame. Some people believed that, with the bountiful desires of these power-hungry warriors unfulfilled by the time they died, their restless souls would not sleep and would turn into evil spirits. Only the boundless mercy of a Master Monk such as Kobo Daishi could suppress the evil force and put them to rest.
In the quiet enclave of Koyasan, so they rested eternally.