Towering Pines & Tombs: Mt. Koya’s “Oku no In”

The mists around the base of Mt. Koya float in gray-blue herds, coating the canopies in dew.

Mt Koya Japan

It is the dead of summer, that is, during August in Japan. As the sun melts down the archipelago, everything swelters between glass windows and concrete, except for the region of Koya, which recedes into the mountain cool. It is wet and cold. I wrap myself in jeans and a sweater. The mists around the base of Mt. Koya float in gray-blue herds, coating the canopies in dew, and I realize that I have never seen forests in such shades of green.

The seemingly peaceful forest draws one in like a current. A friend of mine nearly looses his life that day, having been misled by a poorly marked path and then into the rushing stream in the pouring rain for hours until, by the grace of an obliging kami, finds his way to Gokurakubashi station at the base of the mountain. Though greatly shaken and famished, a soak in the onsen (hot springs) is all he needs.

Mt. Koya Japan

Mt. Koya is famous not only for its forests of towering pines, black bears, mountain goats, and concealed shrines, but also for housing the largest graveyard in all of Japan—Oku no In. Here the mist gathers into spiritual density upon the forest floor, shrouding the sprouting tombs in eternal sleep. But what might have been the gray of mist, the gray of tombstone, or the gray of death, is not. Mourners have strewn the resting places of their loved ones and ancestors with various bits of color: orange puffs winter cherry, spindles beaded with purple petals, and pine-green rush to bedeck the graves. Every now and then, visitors encounter the red-bibbed statuettes of Jizo, the bodhisattva that protects lost babies.

There are tens of thousands of people buried here, and as a result, Oku no In draws on an ancient past. Since the dawn of the 9th century, Mt. Koya has been the center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect initiated by Kobo Daishi, whose following believes that he never truly died, but instead lives on in Mt. Koya in a state of eternal meditation. It is believed that he alone can interpret the messages of the new Buddha.

Mt. Koya Japan

Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum rises in the center of the wooded mountaintop of Oku no In, where his tens of thousands of followers sleep at his feet. I cannot help but wonder at this man’s wealth, power, and influence such that he draws masses and masses of souls in this way. But is this befitting of a monk?

There are spirits in the trees. In their girth, they recount the history laid down by the dead before us, as do the man-carved slabs of tombstone. Indeed, the world we walk on is carved from the lives of those who walked before. As we progress towards Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, we feel the density of stone beneath the flesh of our feet and how we may shred ourselves upon its timeless crags.

Middle and bottom photos are taken by Cameron Rotblat.

Drisana Misra

Originally from Mountain Brook, AL, Drisana can't travel without a compilation of short stories. Her secret travel tip is, "Write down every reflection, no matter how stupid and even if you think you’ll remember it later."

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