Our bus wove up the winding road on the side of Koya-san, the mountain in Japan that is home to the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and the Kongobuji, its main temple. I gazed out the window through the warm, hazy Japanese air and watched as we passed sweaty mountain bikers and groups of walking pilgrims. The occasional motorcycle zipped by, topped by a young Japanese man clung to by his frightened-looking girlfriend. All of these people were going to visit Koya-san and walk through its expansive grounds. It is home to a university, dozens of temples and even a small but thriving town.
The road flattened and the buildings lining the narrow streets shortened my views to a few feet. We pulled into a parking lot among many other tour buses and clambered into the open air, glad to finally stretch our legs. The place was abuzz with Japanese tourists – taking pictures, following their guides, and looking confused. We stood out as the only foreigners and more than a few Japanese added us to their photo albums between pictures of monks and stupas.
Kurt Genso, a Swiss-born Koya-san monk, rushed up to us excitedly, eager to lead us through his haunts for the day. He is loud and old-fashioned, making remarks that only a 60-year-old European man would find appropriate. The women in our group were quickly made uncomfortable by his lack of boundaries and eagerness to startlingly drag unsuspecting individuals to the front of the group. But he has an undeniable charisma, and we listened intently as he gamboled about, gesturing excitedly this way and that.
We arrived at a nondescript stone marker that looked like a small child’s pile of building blocks – they are stacked unappealingly but the child is so earnest in his efforts that one doesn’t want to change his work. Genso-san explained to us that we were looking at the body of Kobo Daishi Kukai, the founder and ‘patron saint’ of esoteric Shingon. Snatching one of the women to the head of our procession, he asked her with wild eyes if she knew what he meant. Leaning so far from his grinning face that she looked as though she would topple to the dusty ground, she frantically shook her head and said not a word. Genso-san cackled and told us we were looking at a gorinto – a five-element stupa. It represented the five elements – earth, wind, water, fire, and void – and Dainichi Nyorai and his four guardians. I felt obligated to gassho and bow to this pile of rocks because I did not want Dainichi to think I was disrespectful and send Fudo-myo-o after me with his sword and whip. Glancing over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t rushing up behind me, I hustled to catch up to everyone else.
Eventually we arrived at the okunoin, Koya-san’s cemetery and the largest in Japan. Kobo Daishi is entombed at its center, at the end of a two-kilometer cobble path through huge moss-covered trees and past thousands of gravesites. We washed our hands, carefully scooping cold water from the carved granite basin, and respectfully bowed. Genso-san pointed to a nondescript bridge ahead of us and asked pointedly if we knew what it was. Again, there was only silence (as I think he expected) and he explained that it was the ichinohashi (literally ‘the first bridge’), a crossing into a liminal realm between life and death. We bowed toward Kobo Daishi and tentatively stepped across into the okunoin.
I was struck immediately by a shortness of breath as I slowly turned in a circle, gazing about the world I had emerged into. Indeed the cemetery felt like an in-between place, like C.S. Lewis’ unsettling Wood Between the Worlds, and I felt conflicting urges to closely examine the individual graves and turn tail and flee. Thankfully, Genso-san broke the awestricken silence as he began to animatedly point out famous graves. We passed the resting places of Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, and eventually Oda Nobunaga – my favorite characters of Japanese history, the warring daimyo of the medieval period. I was held totally rapt in this sacred place, home to centuries of Japanese culture and legend.
We crossed the nakanohashi, the second bridge, and stepped further from the realm of the living. The okunoin was dark and gloomy even though it was the early afternoon and the sun was high. The trees stretched upward and outward, determined to let only the smallest amounts of sunlight through their broad canopies. Green moss clung desperately to everything out of love or fear and I could hear nothing through the thick air apart from slowly trickling water. Even the birds could feel the presence of the spirits in the air. I felt uneasy but was not worried – they were simply curious as to why I, a living being, was present in their cold world.
I stared wide-eyed as we passed monuments to Basho and the Forty-Seven Ronin – as we got closer to Kobo Daishi, the graves represented more and more powerful people. To be close to Kobo Daishi in death can only bring good fortune and merit and a fortunate rebirth. The presence of such powerful beings quieted even the insuppressible Genso-san and the appearance of the massive Toro-do only served to silence even the very sounds of our breath.
Padding across the last bridge, we were confronted with the calmly flickering light from within the Toro-do, the Lantern Hall. It is filled with lanterns and candles donated by patrons of the okunoinand contains the Everlasting Candlelight that has supposedly burned for a thousand years. Craning my neck upward to look at the beautifully-patterned paper lanterns, I nearly forgot that Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum was right around the corner. I had to resist gaping foolishly and hold my composure out of respect for the dead and the feelings of their living relatives, but the overwhelming wonder of the Toro-do made it more difficult than ever.
In the back of the Toro-Do we walked along the creaking floorboards of a small balcony and peered into the woods behind it. There, unassuming, was a small cave, covered by a temple roof and lit around the door with candles. Within the cave was Kobo Daishi in eternal meditation, awaiting the coming of Maitreya, the future Buddha. My voice was gone and I had to whisper the Hannya shingyo hoarsely as I shakily held my candle in front of my face. Bowing deeply, I placed it alongside the hundreds of other pilgrims’ candles and quietly walked away.
I am not easily unset from my rational core but the presence within the okunoin was powerful enough to shake my foundations. I had walked both backward and forward in time, into the infinitely mysterious land of the dead, and brushed past resting spirits as I walked toward Kobo Daishi. I emerged from the short pilgrimage journey with a harrowing sense of the fickle nature of breath and the long journey of death, yet I was at peace with my fear – all I had to do was live while I had the chance and Kobo Daishi would take care of the rest.