The life and death, visiting the Japanese mountain of fear

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are special days for the most of the Polish people. We all follow the traditions that are important in our lives. There are many theories about the origins of these rituals. Most of them say that the holidays come from Christian traditions when ages ago people prayed for martyrs and souls. Probably the All Souls’ Day comes from pre-Christian and pagan beliefs. One thing does not change, regardless of the theories, that the days are connected to the death.

Life and death are interlaced but everyone knows what life is like, whereas no one really knows what the death is. Every nation around the world has its own vision of leaving ‘this’ world and entering the last human’s route towards another dimension. I guess every religion believs in life after death. And what about Japan? It has different forms, especially in the Japanese Buddhism, existing along with Shinto religion.

Being in Japan, we could observe how people prepare for Urabon or O-bon, called Bon Festival or Lantern Festival. O-bon is like All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, lasting for a few days in July and August, it depends of the country region. It is one of the most important days in the year. The light lanterns by their houses, decorate small altars, they ‘feed’ souls of their ancestors and visit cementaries. The Japanese believe that during these days their relatives’ souls come back to the Earth to meet their families.
O-bon has become a big festival culture, when the Japanese light small lanterns and put them on lakes and rivers. Bon-odori dance can be seen as well, the tradition that comes from Buddha’s student, who started to dance once he learned that his mother died and ended her agony and pain.

Główny budynek świątyni Bodai-ji / Main building of the Bodai-ji temple

In Japan, there is a place that doesn’t associate fun, festival nor dancing. The place which can take you to the dead’s world. For the Buddhists it is one of the most sacred places in the country. Osorezan means „the mountain of fear”, this is the place described here, together with its Bodai-ji temple. According to the Japanese Buddhism, there are two lands: jodo, sort of heaven and jigoku representing hell, ruled by Emma-o.

According to the legends, in 892, Buddhist monk Ennin tried to find a perfect place that would reflect two lands of Buddha. In Osorezan he has built the temple, that is seen as a gate to hell by most of the Japanese.

Why is it there? Osorezan is said to be placed in one of the most inaccessible place in Japan, at Shimokita peninsula, shaped in a form of an axe. Almost in the middle of the mountains, it is hard to get there without your own transport. Cycling there wasn’t easy as well. The closest city Mutsu lies 10 km away at the bottom of the Osorezan mountain. We were there at the end of July, with the growing heat making us even more tired. The atmosphere on the way to the Japanese hell was really mysterious, the road led through the forest with stone statues, small shrines and memorial plaques.

Reaching the highest point of the road we felt the relief, but not for long. The sulphur smell soon started to overwhelming us. The volcanic lake Usori is the one ‘to blame’, and right by its side the temple was built. Osorezan itself is mountain range with 8 sacred peaks. The volcanic landscape has become an inspiration for the Buddhist monk, for whom the sulphur volcanic area together with bright sand and clear water depicted two lands of Buddha.

There is something else between the two lands. The river Sanzu no Kawa (the river of three transitions), just as Styx in Greek mythology , has become a boarder between two lives. Similarly, everyone has to cross this boarder, what is not easy of course. According to the legends, there are three ways to do that: crossing the bridge (if you led good life), wander through shallows (with mild good life) and swimming in the deepest place (with a bad life). After crossing the river, one reach two persons by the bridge: Datsueba – an old lady stealing clothes and Keneo – an old man hanging clothes on the tree. The woman rippes the clothes off a sinner, gives them to Keneo, who weighs them by the bend level of the tree branch, the more sins a person commited, the more tree bends. It’s easy to guess after which way the clothes were the heaviest. What happen when a person came with no clothes? Ruthless Datsueba rippes the skin off a sinner…

Jizo statue

Children were not in a better situation, they had no life experience to cross the river. They were not left alone, though. The temple Bodai-ji is devoted to Jizo, the Japanese deity, patron of unborn children and those who died early. Jizo is also a patron of travellers, maybe of those who travel to different world? Everywhere in Japan the statues of stone Jizo can be seen; most of them wear red knitted bonnet. The red colour symolises safety and protection. Jizo itself has a protective role over small children, helping them to cross the way to the other world. Children waiting to enter the other side, place stone mounds, and when they almost done it, the bad demons ruin them. In Bodai-ji temple the stone mounds are everywhere. Visiting people make them and parents who lost their children. They arrive to Osorezan, especially at O-bon time to pray for the souls and even try to contact them.

Here we can find analogy to pre-christian traditions, that also existed in Poland, such as dziady, the tradition that connects the dead souls. During O-bon by Osorezan temple you can meet itako, blind women who connect the dead and transfer messages to the souls. Young girls have become psychic, send by their parents to the temple for special practices and learning. That was a sort of distinction and life opportunity. Today, the tradition is slowly vanishing, although still, in Osorezan people queue to meet itako.

People make offerings and bring rice, sweets, toys or even alcohol for the souls. We have seen it all over Japan. By the statues, stone mounds and at the beach there are plenty of clothes, food, shoes and scarfs so children won’t get cold on their way to the other world. People take care of Jizo as well, most of them wear scarfs and bonnets.

That all contrasts with raw, volcanic landscape. The soil coloured yellow and black with no plants, hot fumes melting the coins and the sulphur smell. Osorezan is kind of a touching place, brings memories of the people who passed away. We cannot call it another tourist attraction, it is mainly dedicated to those who pray and to those who wonder about the day when they will have to cross the river themselves.



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