Okunoin (奥の院) is Kōya-san’s vast cemetery. Stretching away to either side, the forest floor is scattered with more than 200,000 stone stupas of all shapes and sizes. Here and there you’ll also find Jizō statues and the occasional war memorial. A large number of historical characters are also buried here, among them the great general Oda Nobunaga.
It’s best to walk through Okunoin in the early morning or around dusk, when lamps light up the path; at these times the only other people you’re likely to meet are the occasional white-garbed pilgrims with their tinkling bells. Wandering slowly along the mystical 2km path, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the cemetery’s spiritual centre, beyond the little Tama-gawa River.
Across the bridge you begin the approach to the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi. First comes the Hall of Lanterns, where ten thousand oil lamps donated by the faithful are kept constantly alight. Two of them are said to have been burning since the eleventh century, one donated by the former Emperor Shirakawa and another by an anonymous poor woman. After this blaze of light and colour, the tomb itself is surprisingly restrained. Indeed, it’s only just visible within a gated enclosure behind the hall, sheltered by lofty cryptomeria trees and clouds of incense.
According to Shingon tradition, the Great Master, Daishi, did not die in 835 but rather entered “eternal meditation”. He’s now waiting to return as Miroku, the Future Buddha, when he will help lead the faithful to salvation – which is one reason why so many Japanese wish to have their ashes buried on Kōya-san. Next to the Daishi’s tomb you’ll see the octagonal ossuary where ashes are collected. Many of these are destined for the modern cemetery, which lies south of the Tama-gawa bridge on a short cut back to the main road. Large companies maintain plots on Kōya-san for past employees – the space rocket and UCC’s coffee cup are probably the most famous memorials. And note also the “letter boxes” on some monuments for company employees to leave their meishi (business cards).