Japan’s Sacred Okunoin Cemetery

Walking in Okunoin Cemetery
Moss covered statues in Japan

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into Okunoin Cemetery was the smell of moss. We visited the cemetery on a rainy day – everything we did was accompanied by a light drizzle. The towering cedars protected us from the rain and filtered speckled light onto the forest floor. A beautiful, damp green coated the fallen tree branches and crumbling tombstones.

Under Shingon Buddhist beliefs, there are no dead here. Only waiting spirits. This knowledge adds to the eeriness of the cemetery.

Lines of tombstones in Okunoin Cemetery, Japan

Every once in a while, we came across a headstone with a small sign, explaining the historical significance. A notable monk here, a feudal lord over there. These graves were worn by time, on their way to rejoining the earth. 

Those buried here want to be close to Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddism. Kobo Daishi rests in his mausoleum at the heart of the Cemetery, in a state of eternal meditation. 

Mossy green cemetery headstone
Red bib statues, Japan cemetery

It’s best to start your walk through Okunoin Cemetery at Ichinohashi bridge, the main entrance. At the start of the bridge, it is customary to bow before crossing this threshold. 

Ichinohashi bridge is the more traditional pathway to the mausoleum. There is another entrance (which will be your exit), with modern tombstones and memorials. Many of the memorials here are very modern looking; some are owned by corporations. Although this section looks less historical than the rest, it still holds great significance to those resting there. 

Cemetery archway, japan
Walking through the forested cemetery

After walking through the cemetry, the Gobyo no Hashi Bridge marks the entrance to Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum. Again, visitors should bow in respect before crossing the bridge. 

The gateway to the Mausoleum, Torodo Hall (the Hall of Lamps), contains over 10,000 lanterns donated by worshippers. Walking through is a beautiful experience. A warm glow and tendrils of smoke fill the hall. The lanterns line the walls from floor to ceiling, and the hall smells strongly of incense.  

Beyond the Hall is Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum. Visitors come from around the country to pray here, and there are often pilgrims chanting sutras nearby. 

okunoin cemetery statue, japan

Visit during the day, and it’s lush and green. At night, there’s an eerie but serene glow to the area, as the path is lit up with lanterns. 

The most beautiful part of the cemetery is the moss that blankets its 200,000 grave times and tombs. It’s a outwardly symbolic representation of where we go after death: back to the earth. 

The history of Okunoin cemetery fascinates me. There’s something sacred about visiting cemeteries. It’s a privilege to bear witness to a life lived and ended, and acknowledge that each headstone is a real person. Each person here, over centuries, lived a lifetime of decisions and beliefs and choose their burial place here. And here they rest, in sacred Okunoin Cemetery. 

Want to visit another off-the-beaten-path destination in Japan? Here’s 6 reasons to visit nearby Mie prefecture