Sunday, 27 December 2015

2) OSOREZAN 恐山 – Mount Fear

A Voyage to Aomori, Part 2 of 5

Eight mountains surround a lake at the centre of the Shimokita axe-blade. The wind ripples its surface, creating gentle waves which caress its sandy shore. It is a serene and separate space, suspended from the mortal realm. The top of the world. A paradise. A place of peace.

And a place of dread. There are no other sounds, because the lake has a pH of about 3.5, too acidic to support much animal life. Beyond the shore unfolds a charred and rugged hellscape of blasted rock piles, steaming fumaroles and brooks of bubbling yellow water. The earth looks either soon to crumble or freshly made anew, and the scent of sulphur hangs everywhere. Listen close and stranger sounds emerge: from below there wells the gurgle of the underworld, so close to the surface, and the caws of crows pierce the wind. A thousand pinwheels spin, their whirls converging into a singular neverending rattle. It is eerie – like you stand between the realms of the living and the dead but cannot tell which way is which.

This is Osorezan (恐山), an ancient volcanic caldera. Its landscape and soundscape is like no other, and the feelings it evokes defy description. 

Osore (恐れ) in Japanese translates broadly as 'fear', 'dread', 'horror', 'concern', or 'unease'. This gives the place's name various renderings in English, complicated by it being actually more than one mountain. My choice of 'Mount Fear' here reflects my first encounter with it – many ages ago, before I even knew it existed, in the days of the now rather venerable Nintendo 64 games console.

In the video game Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, the heroic party must ascend this Mount Fear late in the story. It is presented as a desolate if tranquil mountain wasteland, buried in snow and haunted by papery ghosts. At the top lives a witch who can summon the spirits of the dead. The party seeks her in order to consult with the spirit of a certain Wise Old Man, whom they believe to have died when his house was blown up by the bad guys, and who, being the Wise Old Man, is the only one who can tell them what to do next.

The witch was an itako – a traditional shaman, usually blind and female, now closely associated with Osorezan and one of the main things for which the place is known. During festivals in July and October people come and pay for the itako to summon the spirits of their deceased relatives or ancestors for conversation. It is a declining practice: today only a few very elderly itako remain, and their work has been called a sham and met with official disapproval. We may note in this connection that in Mystical Ninja, the party later run into the wise old man whose “spirit” they had got the itako to summon; he had not been at home when his house was destroyed and was still in fact quite alive. 

As I was there outside the festival season I did not come across any itako, and so have no more to say on that subject. I sought this place for reasons of my own. Amidst this hub of the heavens and hells stands Bodai-ji temple (菩提寺), one of the three most sacred sites in Japan and a place of respite, reflection and spiritual training for over one thousand years. It is one of the principal seats of the Bodhisattva Jizō (地蔵) whose red-garbed likeness is familiar all over Japan, especially where he watches over travellers on the country's mountain trails.

Bodai-ji (菩提寺).

I am not a religious person. Nonetheless, Osorezan beckoned as a place of natural and spiritual power that deeply precedes, and transcends, the frustrating politics and dogmas of human religion. Nor does the realm of the dead perturb me – I have approached its boundary before, and found nothing to fear in what I saw across it. And so I, too, decided to make the journey to the burning mountain, in hope of surfacing from the nightmare bubble-worlds our societies have become and their soul-devouring broken frameworks of thought and practice. It was my intent to pass a night in the temple, cleanse my spirit in ancient sulphur, and perhaps, just perhaps, like Goemon's party, to find a way to go.

The Beauty of Hell 
Osorezan is a forty-five-minute bus ride into the mountains from Shimokita station (下北駅) in Mutsu city. There are five buses a day, and the first thing to note is that the frozen wasteland depiction in Mystical Ninja is not an exaggeration. In the severe northern winter Osorezan is buried in snow. The temple closes between November and April, when the road is virtually impassable and all buses are suspended. 

If you want a peaceful experience at Osorezan, avoid the weekends or much more crowded festival periods. On the morning I made the journey there were about a dozen people on the bus, most of whom were visiting for the day. The only foreigners apart from myself were a couple of European tourists, who did not have a word of Japanese and had thus done quite bravely to come all the way out here.

Five minutes after setting off we stopped by the Mutsu bus depot, still in the middle of the city. At the bus's automated announcement the Europeans got suddenly desperate and rushed for the driver. 'Osorezan? Osorezan?' one of them asked in agitation, jabbing his finger downwards. 'Mada, mada' (“not yet, not yet”), the driver reassured them.

Then we were off again, and soon we had left the city to climb a road that snaked through cypress forests. Along the way we stopped at this reisui (冷水, “cold water”) spot: a sacred spring at the border of the spirit world, where pilgrims to Osorezan have traditionally purified themselves before crossing. The bus waits for a few minutes so passengers can drink its refreshing mountain water and fill their flasks.

'Osorezan?' said the Europeans, again getting rather concerned. 'Mada', the driver told them once more.

We moved off, and in moments emerged in the sunlight of a new realm.

Lake Usori is the first thing you see, its name another reminder of this region's Ainu heritage. And straight away you come to the afterlife's frontier.

This is the Sanzu river (三途の川) or “river of three crossings”, said to be the river that everyone who has died must cross on the way to the next world. The “three crossings” concern the two characters above. The female figure, Datsueba (奪衣婆), relieves you of your clothes, then passes them to the male one, Keneō (懸衣翁), who weighs them on the tree branches to measure your life. If you were a good person you get to walk across the bridge, while individuals of mediocre moral calibre have to ford their way through the shallows. But the most villainous among you will be left to swim across the river, while chewed on by snakes and all manner of unnameable horrors which claw from the depths.

These two are not necessarily above-board at all times when it comes to their duties. If you are a dentist, for example, you might be able to come to an arrangement by which, in exchange for your services, any record of your life's misdeeds mysteriously goes missing.
One gets the sense this is not a bridge you are meant to just stand halfway on. But it is a good place to reflect, and I am not of the worlds on either bank. So I did.
The Japan Self-Defence Forces retreat after an unsuccessful attempt to invade the underworld.

Further along is the entrance to the Bodai-ji temple compound. At the gates sit six Jizōs. Each is concerned with one of the six realms of existence, and alleviating the suffering of everyone in it.

The temple itself is said to have been founded in 862 CE by a priest of the Tendai sect from Tochigi called Jikaku Daishi Ennin, although before that it is likely that the site's sulphurous hot springs and their medicinal properties were well-known to local people. Ennin studied Buddhism in China until he was deported in the great persecutions around 845 CE. Back in Japan, the story goes, he made an arduous journey east in accordance with instructions he had received in a dream to seek a sacred mountain. Eventually he arrived in Shimokita, and found a landscape that coincided to the letter with the description in his dream. Thus, as instructed, he hand-carved a great statue of the Bodhisattva Jizō and built a hall to enshrine it. 

Few reliable records about the temple before the Edo Period remain, though it is believed to have suffered from wars and fires until its revival in the 16th century. Most of the present structures are of much more recent construction, though some photographs on display offer glimpses into the temple's life over the last century.

The main temple hall. It enshrines a 2m-tall statue of Jizō dressed in monks' clothes, a very rare thing for Buddhist statues. It is said that he comes out and walks around at night to aid roaming spirits. The spirits cling to him desperately, hence his vestments' damaged condition.

Left of the main hall you step out into Osorezan proper. You have entered the Sai no Kawara (“riverbed of the netherworld” or “children's limbo”): the volcanic landscape surrounded by eight peaks, which in Ennin's eyes resembled the Buddhist symbol of a lotus flower with eight petals.

One of the eight mountains is Mt. Kamefuse, whose peak overlooks Mutsu city.
Another feature Ennin noted was the boiling pools, of which he counted exactly 108. These, he concluded, must be the 108 hells corresponding to the 108 unwholesome mental states in Buddhist philosophy. Around the grounds you will find markers identifying specific pools or rock formations as one or another hell, some of which are quite originally named.

Most noticeable are the piles of rocks which cover this landscape, many adorned with pinwheels. These reflect the concept of Sai no Kawara as the “children's limbo”: children who die unborn or very young are said to re-materialize here, unable to pass on. They build small towers out of pebbles on the riverbed in offering to the Buddhas, but demons come along and knock them down, condemning the children to pile up the stones all over again – hence the saying “piling pebbles at Sai no Kawara”, meaning a difficult or futile effort.

Sometimes people will add stones to the piles to help them. Needless to say, be careful not to knock them over.

The Bodhisattva Jizō comes to the children's rescue, hiding them with the wide sleeves of his robe, hence the many statues of him that stand on these grounds.

These are not mere fables, by the way. Enduring belief in these legends seems very strong, especially in the northern regions. Among people in Shimokita, I am told, especially the older generation, one still hears 'going to Osorezan' spoken as an idiom for passing away. The countless little Jizō figurines and pinwheels (representing fresh flowers) are offerings brought by people who have come to pay their respects to deceased relatives, in particular parents whose children departed young. This pond for example memorialises mizuko, that is, miscarried, aborted or stillborn babies, and most of the pinwheels were placed there by their parents. Food, drinks and soft toys are also common offerings.

The Bodhisattva Jizō (地蔵) 
Jizō-san deserves a few more words here, if anything because he is probably the first figure in established human religion that I have ever felt something approaching a personal affinity for. His origin appears to be Kshitigarbha, one of the four principal Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism, and in the form of Jizō he is one of the most popular and beloved spiritual figures in Japan.

The characters in his name denote the earth (地 ji) and the womb (蔵 ), reflecting his reputation as a nurturer and protector of the highest compassion. The connection to the earth is significant: his power appears rooted in the natural world, especially in stone, that most ancient of protective materials and that from which most Jizō statues are carved. He is perhaps most famous for his vow to relieve the pain of all suffering beings in all of the six realms, taking on their suffering in person and never advancing to Buddhahood until all the hells have been emptied. As such he is seen as a guardian and patron deity of three groups in particular: children, travellers, and the restless dead.

There are nooks and crannies like this all over Osorezan, secreted away in the rocks or surrounding woods. Don't be surprised to find offerings of towels or straw sandals there too – they are for departed souls making the long, hot journey into the afterlife.
Another statue. Notice the sandals and spectacles.

If you have done even a bit of exploring in this country you will have likely seen Jizō's childlike image, perhaps clad in a red hood or bib, on a roadside or mountain trail somewhere. Sometimes he peeks from the grass, or out of some heavily-eroded nook in a cliffside – always silent and unthreatening, as though he only seeks to remind us of a love that whispers through the very land around us. His is the same magic, perhaps, by which the Totoros and teeming forest spirits of Hayao Miyazaki capture our hearts.

I do not subscribe to the religions of this world, and more often have quarrelled with them – even with Buddhism, with whose analysis of suffering I have fundamental differences. For Jizō however I have developed a profound respect. I identify in one way or another with his concern for each of those three groups – in particular travellers, in which capacity most of my encounters with him have taken place. It is a heartening feeling to come across his peaceful vigil in the wilds, especially up on the rougher mountains, and after so many such encounters it felt good to finally visit him at his primary abode in this land.

Most admirable of all though is his commitment to leave no-one behind. That is necessarily a political struggle in our world, need we remember. In the alienating and exclusionary societies we have crafted, leaving people behind is something we do not by accident but as a matter of course. Our scapegoats are nature itself – as in “life's unfair” – and each other, as when we blame people for their own suffering. To leave no-one behind means to challenge that vision: to defy the forces of ignorance, prejudice, materialism and cruel indifference that blight our world today.

Jizō seems to represent a long-shining beacon in that struggle. That no-one should be left behind is the core principle by which he is identified, and he roots it in a nature that precedes our propaganda of this world as a cruel and competitive place. He is characterised as a figure of unconditional love, who will never get impatient or loses his temper with those he seeks to help. He seems the sort who would see it as no problem if you and he disagree, and would accept you for who you are without attempting to make you change.

Perhaps we can all learn from his example. Would that all social, economic and political activity be carried out with such an ethic of love close to heart. It is why society exists in the first place, and the responsibility and right of us all. Even from a purely secular perspective, the very fact that Jizō was characterised like this since days of old may be inspiring, in that it suggests at least someone had the right idea.

The largest Jizō statue here, with a dais of his own at the rear of the grounds. He's a good listener too, it should be added.

This statue on the lakeside is Osorezan's most recent addition. It was placed here in March 2011 as a memorial to the victims of the Triple Disaster. You can ring the Bell of Requiem on the left to pay respects to them, and the Bell of Hope on the right to extend them wishes of happiness in their journeys on.

Some people also pay their respects by placing a hand on a matching handprint on the back.
The same memorial in the morning light, with a visitor on top.

The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster added a new layer of significance to Osorezan, as it did to most things. Many people who lost loved ones in it enshrined their remains here and come regularly to pray for them, while the temple's memorial service hall now contains many photographs and mementos associated with them.

And then you come once more to the shore of Lake Usori.

Whatever one's opinions on sulphuric acid, the lake is a place of genuine beauty. Its gorgeous shades of blue, high in the mountains, lapping on a beach of pure white sand surrounded by lush green woods – to the monk Ennin, there was no doubt that this was the way to the Pure Land, the Buddhist paradise (gokuraku), hence the beach's name of Gokuraku-hama (極楽浜). The blending of this marvellous scene with the volcanic hellscape right next to it may be the source of Osorezan's surreal atmosphere: it feels charged with the tension of life and death, heavenly beings and demons, water and fire, beauty and dread, somehow all bound together in a stable arrangement – as though held in union by Jizō's earth, and its quiet reminder that nature is a home for them all.

This, too, is a place where the bereaved place pinwheels and other offerings for their deceased loved ones. When they pray, they face the mountains on the western shore opposite, beyond which the Pure Land was said to be. It is a common practice to call out the deceased's names, to let them know you have come.

A Night at the Temple 
Most visitors to Osorezan stay only a few hours. For a more immersive experience, however, the temple offers the facility to stay overnight in its lodgings (shukubō, 宿坊). This is not cheap – 12,000 yen for one night – but comes with two meals of authentic temple cuisine with accompanying rituals; participation in the morning services; and unhindered access across the grounds, including use of the hot spring baths.

The shukubō itself has evidently had a lot of work done on it of late. The present building is a spacious and shiny affair, with well-organised administration, a fresh, clean feel, and private rooms for everyone.

Staying the night also means you get much more time to explore the area. From around 4-5pm the final buses and day visitors leave, leaving you with most of this perplexing realm to yourself. It is a good time to look around for its subtler or more concealed treasures, of which there are many.

A small Shinto shrine to Inari stands on a hill beside the lodgings. Though Jizō-san is the main object of worship at Bodai-ji, he is not the only one; other figures, such as the Shakyamuni, Amida and Yakushi Buddhas are also present.
Up some steep stairs behind the compound is a grove in the woods, where Fudō Myōō stands guard over the temple grounds.
The Jizō in the Octagonal Hall, at the far end of the Sai no Kawara, is believed to be the oldest statue in Osorezan. This hall is packed with many mementos of those who have passed away, left as offerings by their loved ones. The sign on the door reminds you to leave it closed so the crows do not enter.

Atop a hill five statues sit in a row: the Gochi Nyorai, or Five Buddhas of Wisdom. This seemed a good place to experience the sunset.

The by now almost empty car park.

Dinner is taken at 6pm in the shukubō dining hall. This is shōjin ryōri, or “devotion cuisine”: traditional temple fare with deep roots in Buddhist philosophy. The food and the manner in which it is consumed is designed to produce a state of mind best suited for spiritual contemplation. The meal itself is vegetarian, but includes a variety of seasonally appropriate foods with a full spectrum of tastes and nutrients – not only vegetables but also miso, tofu, mushrooms and various seaweeds. This make it very tasty, on top of its reputed extreme health benefits.

Before the meal, the presiding priest offers greetings, a few explanations, and some context about the temple's history and the significance of shōjin cuisine. The meal is preceded with a recitation of the Verse of Five Contemplations, which you can recite off the back of the envelope they give you your chopsticks in (the chopsticks themselves are rather nice and you get to keep them afterwards). The contemplations seem like an extended itadakimasu (the standard customary pre-meal words in Japan): a call to consider the sacrifices of life and labour that brought the food to your table, the purposes for which you eat, and so on.

All this of course is in Japanese, although the temple does have English materials available for foreign guests. The meal is then taken in silence, without distractions, in order that you can focus on the food itself and attune your thoughts to the rhythms it embodies.

Afterwards, we were shown a short and rather touching TV documentary about Osorezan that NHK put together a few months back. It had a number of interviews with bereaved individuals or families coming from all over Japan to pay their respects here, including those who lost relatives in the March 2011 disaster.

By then it was dark outside and the onsen beckoned. There are four bath houses on the compound, of which you can just make out one to the right in the photo above. Three are male- or female-only, while the fourth is for both sexes at once (that is, kon'yoku, or mixed bathing) in the traditional style. To have all these options available is perhaps the best arrangement these days, so long may it continue. 

These hot springs gush straight from Osorezan's infernal earth. It is their reported medicinal properties that have drawn people to this caldera since long before the temple's establishment, and you still get people who come here specially for a soak in them. It goes without saying that their sulphur content is exceptionally high, so it is best to avoid sitting in them for too long and to be prepared for possible health complications.

After that, if you are feeling up to it, you can put on your yukata, pick up your torch, and go out for a walk in the dark.

Some people might not be so keen on the idea of wandering after dark in a landscape that has been not only compared to hell but literally taken for it, and which is almost certainly haunted by the spirits of the dead amidst the howling wind, sizzling fumaroles and rattling of ten thousand pinwheels. That, however, was not my analysis. Unusual, Osorezan certainly is. If not haunted, then definitely haunting. But whatever the references to dread, death and demons attached to this place, my prevailing impression by this point was that Osorezan is, whatever else, a good place.

A place of peace. A place where the earth is strong, and will not exclude you no matter who you are. If there were spirits there that night, then they were good spirits; it was a good hauntedness. It felt mentally and spiritually one of the safest places I have ever been to, certainly safer than Tokyo, and no less physically safe so long as you watch your step.

It is also a place where the day starts early – 6:30am, to be precise, which is when the morning rites are held. Getting up a bit earlier though allows you to experience the Osorezan dawn, and to visit the hot springs again to refresh yourself for the day.

I will not describe the experience of wandering the Sai no Kawara and Usori lakeshore at dawn, because there is probably nothing in the world quite like it. It is unique.

Some rare animal life in Osorezan was spotted that morning.

The main service at 6:30am takes place in the Jizō-den hall, in front of the temple's primary Jizō figure. This was a profound experience, and despite being a spiritual outsider I felt no discomfort from participating in it. On the contrary, it was engaging, with a striking musicality: the rhythm of the drumbeats and chants of the priests blend into an atmosphere that resonates in your heart.

Once it is finished you are given the chance to look around the Jizō-den hall, and to meet some of the other precious statues who live in the back rooms. There follows a memorial service at the hondō or main hall. This one is adorned to the rafters with keepsakes and photos of those who have passed away; some are recent, including March 2011 disaster victims, while some must have dated back well into the last century. 

After that, a shōjin ryōri breakfast awaits.

You then have the rest of the day to do as you see fit. For me the time to leave came all too soon: a final walk around the Sai no Kawara and then the 10am bus back to Mutsu, from where it was on to Aomori city.

There would be little purpose to summarise about Osorezan. It seems a place that affects everybody differently, and my own twenty-four hours there reinforced that sense that any experience of it can only be a deeply personal one. But I will admit that some subtle effect from the place seemed to accompany me after I left the burning mountain; something which lingered within, and gently released a refreshing energy over the following days and weeks. It was a good complement to and contrast with the explosive catharsis of the Hakkoda Mountains, which we will come to later.

As such, if you seek a rest from calamities, or just want to go somewhere fundamentally different, I would recommend this so-called mountain of fear. It is a special place, where thousands of people still go to reaffirm bonds of love that cross the realities or drown their sorrows in sulphur. So respect it as such. Don't go around hysterically snapping selfies, trivialising heritage or laughing and shouting at the top of your voice like a tourist. Go with honesty and substance, and you may find that part of Osorezan stays with you on your journey; and that it helps you in your life, if even a little.

Next: Aomori city, the prefectural capital. A place of scallops, ancient ruins, and the colours of the Nebuta festival, the nerve centre of the lands at the very top of Japan.

Or so it would appear. In fact this is a very recent picture, almost still an illusion. For most of its history this region lay outside Japan, and no sooner was it taken from its indigenous inhabitants than it split down the middle. Its turbulent relationship with the Japanese centres of power and its east-west division leaves legacies that live on today.

Other articles in this series:


  1. I did this travel in 2009, though not as intensely, being a day-tripper, but it blew me away. Some photos in the link below.
    I didn't have as much knowledge as this post has now given me. I travelled in the opposite direction. I was living in Niigata-ken at the time, so I went Akita - Aomori - Shimakita - Wakinosawa - took the ferry to ?, where I took the train through to Hokkaido, Hakodate, Sapporo and Asahidake san.

    The return journey took me through Towadako where they had a festival of the three prefectures surrounding it, which was amazing. And Oirase stream, and ferry trips across the lake. A wonderful trip.

    Thanks for this write up!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Those are some superb and evocative photos indeed, and I am glad you enjoyed this article. There are other write-ups here on several of the places you mentioned which you might find interesting too, including Akita and the places in Hokkaido; the next in this series, on Oirase and Towadako, will also be appearing soon.