Gates to the Netherworld, or is it Paradise? Osorezan and Bodai-ji Temple

Date: 21st May 2019

In my last trip to Japan, I was blessed with sunshine almost every single day though it did get hotter than usual (remember that unusual heatwave back in May?). I have always loved a clear weather but there was just one day that I wished that it would rain – when I was to visit Osorezan (恐山) or Mount Osore, one of the three holiest sites in Japan alongside Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture and Mount Hiei on the border of Shiga and Kyoto Prefecture.

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I started the day late, hanging out in the hotel room I stayed in Ominato while waiting for the rain stop. I initially had planned on getting to Osorezan early since the Bodai-ji Temple has an early opening hour of 6.00 a.m., but since the weather forecast said that the weather will be gloomy all day, I shrunk my itinerary and left out Cape Shiriyazaki for another day. The fact that my destination was a mountain meant that I had to drive up some winding roads (as usual in Japan). Though this time, thanks to the rain, it was quite foggy in certain areas especially when I was driving through dense forest that looked like a bear could run out of anytime.

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Marker says “Sanzu no Kawa”

The Soto-Zen sect. of Buddhism temple Bodai-ji (菩提寺) was founded by the famous monk Ennin or Jikaku Daishi in year 862 (I have mentioned him several times in my other posts – check out Raigo-in in Ohara, Kyoto or Kitamuki Kannon in Bessho Onsen). During his time in China (studying Buddhism), he had a mysterious dream in which a holy monk told him this (taken from the official pamphlet) – “When you return to Japan, go eastward where you will find a sacred mountain in thirty-days’ walk from Kyoto. Carve a Jizo Bosatsu (Kṣitigarbha) statue and propagate Buddhism there”. Ennin did as what was said to him in that dream and travelled on foot to find that sacred mountain until he came to the mountainous area of Shimokita peninsula in current Aomori Prefecture, discovering Osorezan.

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The landscape of Osorezan with Lake Usori at its centre next to the white sand coast, surrounded by the eight peaks of the Osorezan Mountain Range resembles the image of Paradise to Ennin as what was described to him in the dream. The eight peaks represents a lotus flower of eight petals, the symbol of the world of Buddha; the 108 ponds of boiling water and mud represents the hells linked to the 108 worldly desires. Seeing this, Ennin carved a 190-cm statue of the Jizo Bosatsu here and built a hall to house the statue.

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Lets deviate a little and talk about how scary I thought this place would be before I came here – which was why I didn’t stay the night (yes, it’s possible to stay here). First – 恐(Osore), this is the Kanji for “fear”. So why is it called the “fear mountain”? Second – being located in the caldera of an active volcano (though said to have erupted over 10,000 years ago), the place stinks of sulphuric gases which you can clearly see steaming from the fumaroles on the barren white ground that had hints of yellow sulphur. Third – Lake Usori, the caldera lake is highly acidic and thus poisonous. Fourth – Sanzu River, the river crossed by the dead into the afterlife is popularly believed to be in Osorezan, the stream beside Lake Usori. Fifth – apparently this is a home to mamushi – a venomous pit viper. Combine all these into a scaredy-cat’s head. But after visiting here, I would have changed my mind if I could – it was not the same eeriness I felt back in Nishinotakiryusui-ji in Shodoshima or Senkoji in Awaji Island.

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In Japan, Jizo Bosatsu are known as the protector of children especially those who died before their parents. Seeing how Osorezan is associated to the afterworld, I remembered reading that these children are unable to cross the Sanzu River and how the Jizo Bosatsu helps them to reduce their suffering. The souls of these children are said to pile up pebbles along the river, which is why you see some piled-up stones and pebbles here, placed by people who want to help these souls.

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I wanted to get a little closer to the blue lake since it looked really pretty in the pictures I have seen – but unfortunately it started raining again and it was so windy that I was tasting something salty(?) as I walked towards the lake. My camera was constantly getting wet at that point so I walked away from the lake.

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Putting “windy” into perspective

Every year, the Jizo Bosatsu festival is held between 20th to 24th July during the Obon holidays in Bodai-ji which attracts those wanting to communicate with the departed through spiritual mediums known as Itako. Traditionally, these Itakos are blind women who have undergone intense spiritual training, though they are now in decline and are not necessarily blind.

It is possible to stay a night here at the pilgrims’ inn for 12,000 yen per night which comes with two meals. For day visitors, it is possible to soak in the hot spring baths here which will surely make you smell like a rotten egg for the day.

Info

Opening days: May 1st to October 31st (closed outside this period)

Opening hours: 06:00 – 18:00

Admission fee: 500 yen

Official Site

Access

Osorezan can be reached via bus (4 times a day) from Shimokita Station (800 yen, 43 minutes) or Mutsu Bus Terminal (750 yen, 33 minutes). Link here – look for Osorezan Line.

Shimokita Station is accessible via the JR Ominato Line (about 45-60 mins, 1,140 yen) from Noheji Station. From Hachinohe Station, Noheji Station is a 45 mins ride (1,340 yen) on the Aoimori Tetsudo line.

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Author: Jennifer

Hi! I am Jennifer. I enjoy planning my own travels and love traveling in Japan - for the history, nature, temples, and the food! Read more for travel guides of places I have visited.

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