Grave Concerns

At night in Okunoin the chill of death is warmed by thousands of lanterns (Photo: Ward)
At night in Okunoin the chill of death is warmed by thousands of lanterns (Photo: Ward)

When making reservations for our first two nights in Japan, I found something rather odd.

We wanted to stay in a temple in the mountain town of Koyasan, but the one I liked best (because it was near Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most famous graveyard) had a curfew. You had to check in by 5pm—any later and they wouldn’t honour your reservation. Impossible for us as our flight to Osaka arrived at 3pm. With needing to pick up our luggage, our car, our WiFi Buddy and then driving 2½-hours to Koyasan, we’d never make it.

No concerns. Koyasan has 117 temples and 52 of them are shukubos, the ones that take overnight guests. Like the lovely Fukuchi-in with its 7pm check-in that I ended up booking.

We barely made the Fukuchi-in’s check-in curfew. The last four pair of red indoor slippers were lined up waiting for us at the entrance when we arrived, harried and road weary after a few wrong turns.

Soon after we arrived, a dinner of mountain vegetables and sesame tofu was served to us in our tatami-matted room not by monks, but by a young woman who spoke great English and wore a headset to connect her to the kitchen staff. Very soon after dinner, we laid ourselves down on the floor on our futons until a sonorous drumming from somewhere in the town woke us up in time to attend the monk’s hour-long morning prayers at dawn.

Seeing Koyasan in daylight was like stepping back in time a thousand years.

Koyasan is the spiritual gateway to the Kumano Kodo, a pilgrimage trail that Magellan, Lynn and Ward and I had come to hike. A UNESCO site since 2004, Koyasan has only 7,000 people but annually attracts more than a million pilgrims. Considered the country’s spiritual centre, Koyasan is very near the geographic centre of Japan. The best description I’ve heard is that “the entire town is consecrated to everything old and changeless and hushed.”

We spent the morning wandering through ancient temples and pagodas, monasteries and museums. But as I said earlier, it was Okunoin, the two-kilometre sacred area from Ichinohashi bridge to the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi—the country’s famous historical figure who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan—that had originally drawn me to Koyasan. We spent the entire afternoon at Okunoin.

“For the Japanese, the passage through the graveyard known as Okunoin (‘Innermost Sanctum‘) has something of the solemnity of a walk through the country’s history books,” I’d read. And so it was. A cobblestone walkway flanked by stone lanterns and shaded by ancient, towering conifers leads you among more than 200,000 gravestones, statues and memorial pagodas. There are majestic stone stupas (five-tiered graves representing earth, fire, water, air and wind). Thousands of little stone Jizos (protective shrines) wearing red bibs. Huge stone monuments honouring historical figures and those who died in wars. And on the eastern side, there’s a parallel pathway among more modern monuments.

“Where’s Ward?” was a common refrain we asked, as he wandered along the side paths to photograph a particularly old stupa or an unusual wooden torii gate.

It’s believed that since 835, the year of his death, Kōbō-Daishi has been sitting in eternal meditation in his shrine. No one can enter his mausoleum except for the monk who delivers fresh food for Kōbō-Daishi’s spirit twice every morning. “I wonder what happens to that tofu,” said Ward. In front of the mausoleum is Torodo, a hall of more than ten thousand lanterns—including one that’s been burning continuously for almost a thousand years.

“This place is great mom. I’ll buy us tickets for the evening tour,” said Lynn.

As dusk turned to darkness, we gathered at Eko-in Temple, making our way with about two dozen other English-speaking tourists to Okunoin, led by a young outgoing monk.

Hundreds of stone lanterns were casting faint beacons of light among the dark gravestones, creating a mystical atmosphere, more ethereal in the slight fog and the night’s chill.

“We’ll get pictures later,” said Magellan as we hurried to catch up with the group.

We learned that the red-bibbed Jizos protect the souls of children who died before their parents. It’s more complicated than that as these bald-pated deity statues (called Bosatsus) are also guardians for the long life of living children—and travellers. That a Japanese man from humble origins who became the president of Panasonic was very generous to Okunoin, and that the Company holds an annual prayer day here for all its employees. (Every shukubo in Koyasan must be full that day!). That anyone can have a tombstone in the graveyard. (It will cost you about two million Japanese yen, or around $24,000.) I heard our guide tell us that the Japanese who are buried at Okunoin traditionally arrange for half of their ashes to stay in their hometown while the other half are entombed here, along with a fruit bowl. The tour ended at Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum, the glow from the Hall of Lanterns illuminating the white gravel courtyard as everyone on the tour wandered back through Okunoin.

“I thought it was odd that people are buried with a fruit bowl,” I said. Lynn and Ward were collapsing with laughter. “The guide said ‘throat bone,’ not fruit bowl,” said Lynn.

Their laughter probably made it easier for the guide to find us, as by then we were the only ones on the dark stone pathway, taking our time to admire the cemetery in the darkness and trying to capture its beauty with our cameras. “You’re staying at the Fukuchi-in, right?” he asked, looking at his watch. “I believe they have a nine-thirty curfew.”

Entranced by the diffused light from the half-moons carved on the sides of the stone lanterns, we set up a tripod to try and capture the otherworldliness of Okunoin at night—for us and for you, dear readers. “We better get going,” said Magellan. “It’s just not working and it’s still a half-hour’s walk back to Fukuchi-in.”

Leaving the cold silence of Okunoin we noticed an eeriness. The town was silent. No one else was on the main street. It was Saturday night but the restaurants and coffee shops, few as they are, were shuttered.

So was the Fukuchi-in. Dark. “Closed” read the sign on the temple’s wooden gate.

We walked around the sign onto the stepping stones toward the entrance. And there, we found another sign. A permanent one, one that none of us had noticed before. It read “Curfew: 9pm.” It was now 9:23.

We knocked repeatedly. And waited. No one came.

“I’ve got their phone number,” I said. Lynn pulled out her cell. We could hear the phone ringing inside, a few feet away. Nobody picked up.

“Where’s dad?” asked Lynn.

“Hey, there are two people on the street,” said Ward. “Sumimasen, hello, can you help us?” Lynn called out.

Lucky for us, they were employees leaving the Fukuchi-in for the night. A few minutes later, a monk, one who had led the morning’s prayer, opened the front door.

Thankfully, the Japanese word for “I’m sorry” was one of the few we’d learned. We felt terrible about the inconvenience we’d caused, so we kept repeating “gomennasai” and “arigato” (thank you) as we bowed in apology again and again to the monk.

“We were so lucky,” I said when the four of us were back inside. “What would we have done?” “I’d have gotten in,” said Magellan. While we were phoning, he’d been in the courtyard looking for a ladder or a lighted window that he could toss a small stone at to catch the attention of a monk inside, the engineer’s approach. Hmmmm…

Luck-Sure-Be Travel, the name Magellan and I had given ourselves as Lynn and Ward’s tour arrangers, was proving apt. Maybe one of those Jizo Bosatsus in a vermilion bib that we photographed was watching out for us.


The 13th century Fukuchi-in Temple (22 rooms) is a wonderful place to stay in Koyasan.

Iyer, Pico. “The Magic Mountain.” Condé Nast Traveler: March 9, 2007. A superb guide to Koyasan written by one of the world’s best travel writers who is now living in Japan.

Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being. New York: Viking, 2013. As serendipity would have it, my request for Ruth’s novel was fulfilled by the VPL soon after we arrived home from Japan and in it, she explains the throat bone. The Japanese name for it is nodobotoke or Throat Buddha, so called because it looks like a person sitting zazen. Here, we call it the Adam’s Apple. It is believed good fortune will come to the person who finds a loved one’s nodobotoke among the ashes after cremation.

4 Responses

  1. If Koyasan wasn’t on my list of must sees, it is now. The photos and writing are magical and transporting. When I lived in Tokyo I often sought out the neighbourhood cemeteries for a place to reflect and meditate – they are so serene. Thank you for sharing your adventure so eloquently.

    1. “The entire town of Koyasan is consecrated to everything old and changeless and hushed” is the best description I’ve read of this mystical place. We’ll have another post about the temples, museums and the fascinating story of Kōbō-Daishi, but in the meantime have a look at Pico Iyer’s article.

  2. Really enjoyed reading about your time in Koyasan, the temple accommodation, tours, etc and also your travel stories. I knew you would find a way to get into the temple…where there is a will, there’s a way.

    Great pictures too!!

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