In the autumn of 2007 Martin and I travelled to Japan. It was a country both of us always wanted to visit, and it was a memorable trip.
My favourite part was our short seclusion in the Buddhist village of Kôyasan, which is located high in the mountains south of Osaka. It was founded twelve centuries ago, and is the centre for the study and practice of Shingon Buddhism. It is difficult to describe the majesty of its surroundings or the serenity that permeates the area. If you wish to stay overnight you must take lodgings in one of its 120 beautiful monasteries.
In 2004 UNESCO named the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” as part of its World Heritage List.
There are many wonderful places to visit, but one of them that lingers long in my memory is the town’s necropolis called Okunoin. Before Okunoin necropolis was just a flowery word I knew from overblown horror stories to describe a large graveyard.
Okunoin is massive: lanes lined by enormous cedars thread between the stone statues, grave markings and mausoleums which are built on several levels. When it’s hot if you venture off the path you risk attracting the attention of the clouds of buzzing mosquitoes which guard the graves. A thick layer of moss carpets many of the buildings and headstones. When mist or rain slides into the cemetery you can almost see the stir of dozy spirits by their graves.
At certain times of the day you hear the loud clatter of a phalanx of monks, wearing yellow robes, and wooden geta on their feet, as they march through Okunoin to chant daily prayers at the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Before that is Torodo Hall – the Hall of Lanterns. It is a place where thousands of bronze lanterns are lit, each one signifying an individual who has died. At least two of them are supposed to have been lit continuously for a millennium.
There, the dead are remembered and honoured.
I’ve been watching events unfold in Japan after last weekend’s devastating earthquake with horror, as well as admiration for the Japanese people’s calm, tenacity and community spirit. As much as my thoughts and good wishes will help, they have them in abundance (as well as donations).
I can only hope that peace will return to their land and people soon.