The sea of the old world lay barren. No land impinged on the restless oceans. Izanagi and Izanami, two great deities, graced the world with their presence. They came to create land.
Gazing down onto the rolling seas Izanagi thrust his spear – Ame-no-nuboko – into the water and as he withdrew the fine silver blade droplets fell from the tip and formed the first land. Japan.
As you tip over the edge of the tabletop mountain where the small town of Koya-San sits, the myth of Japan’s creation feels almost a reality. It is tangible.
The mountain is a spell binding, mystical place. Cryptomeria trees vie for space against their neighbours. Lanterns sway in the fresh autumnal breeze. Light sprinkles through between densely packed leaves and sparkles on the quickly evaporating morning dew.
Koya-san has every right to exude a spiritual soul and hold you in its grasp. The founder of Shingon Buddhism – Kukai (known now as Kobo Daishi) – established a religious community amongst these trees. He is one of Japan’s most famous religious figures.
It is said, that he is not even dead; merely meditating in his tomb within Oku-no-in awaiting Maitreya (the future Buddha). It is believed that only Kobo Daishi will be able to interpret the heavenly message and convey it to humanity.
And so, within Oku-no-in thousands of souls wait – interred – for the heavenly message. The celestial calling. The divine direction.
Oku-no-in is the epicentre of spiritual life in Koya-San. It is a mass cemetery and ‘mausoleum estate’ of highly regarded Japanese figures. Within the confines of its meandering paths lie between 200,000 to 400,000 graves.
From quickly fading stone plaques to Buddha statues being reclaimed by the ever creeping forest.
From grand tombs, both old and new, of marble and stone to wooden stakes proclaiming who lies beneath and messages of glorious lives left behind and buried.
As day turns to night Oku-no-in shows another side of its own spirit. Its grounds take on a more sinister atmosphere. Statues that minutes before smiled out from beneath knitted hats and shone in the sun turn to cold stares from faces peering from shaded cowls.
Occasional lanterns light your path, showing you the way to freedom, the way to sanctuary. And at the same time cast an eerie light, creating shadows that leap from the dark to confront the steps you dare to take. You may not leave.
Animals cry from the darkness. Trees creak over head. All sights and sounds remind you: This is the place of the dead now.
Yet, As light returns once more from the East, Koya-san is again bathed in glory. A different world from night to day.
To spend but a few days, and nights, in Koya-san is to see only a small slice of magic, which belies the true – immutable – beauty.
Koya-San is constantly changing, showing a new face of nature; of spirituality; of Buddhism.
From the sun that allows a glance into an otherwise forgotten past.
To forest mists that shroud spirits secrets.
To the rain that refreshes and brings something new.
To the still night that calms transient souls and fatigued minds.
To autumn, where rich contrasts of colours show the beauty in chaos.
And what of Spring?
And what of Summer?
And what of Winter?