Okunoin temple, located in Mount Koya, is the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Instead of having died, Kobo Daishi is believed to rest in eternal meditation as he awaits Miroku Nyorai, the Buddha of the Future, and provides relief to those who ask for salvation in the meantime. Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in Japan and it is so important that UNESCO named Mt. Koya a World Heritage Site in 2004.
To access the temple, where photography is not permitted, visitors should pass trough Okunoin cemetery, the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the almost two kilometer long approach to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries. The beliefs of Shingon Buddhism are fascinating: there are no dead in Okunoin, only waiting spirits and it is belived that when Kobo Dashi rises up to meet the Buddha of the Future so too will all those resting in the cemetery.
The figure of Jizo is leading along the cemetery. The reason is dual. Jizo is protector of travelers: Jizo is found peeking out among the grasses along the road, standing at intersections, overseeing borders, or sitting in a wooden shelter built especially for him. Jizo is found at boundaries between places both physical and spiritual, between life and death. The second reason is that Jizo is protector of children: Jizo takes care of the souls of unborn children and those who die at a young age.
Children in limbo in Japan are said to go to a place called sai no kawara, where they must create piles of stones into small towers. But every night the stone towers are destroyed by demons, so the next day the children must make new piles of stones. The making of these towers is to help their parents accrue merit for their own afterlife. This is why you sometimes see stray stones that have been made into little towers alongside Jizo statues. People make them for the souls of these children, to help them achieve their goals. People also leave toys, candy or fruit as offerings at the base of Jizo statues.
Jizo statues are usually dressed with a simple small red bib around their necks; some Jizo are dressed with hats, robes, or anything one wishes to adorn his figure with. Local women usually take care of Jizo statues and provide them with hand-knitted hats and hand-sewn bibs. The practice of dressing Jizo statues is related to accruing merit for the afterlife, a common theme in Buddhism. Jizo represents a monk, and when people dress a monk statue, they accrue merit. Dressing Jizo gives people a chance to interact with him.
The best way to immerse in this magic place is the stop overnight in a local temple and to visit the cemetery during the night.
(credits: www.japantimes.co.jp, www.japan-guide.com)