Legend has it Kūkai, much-celebrated monk of 9th Century Japan, threw a three-pronged trident from Xi’an, China, which soared across the East China Sea, and embedded itself in a cedar tree, just outside Okunoin Cemetery, in Kōya-san (Mount Koya), in the Wakayama Prefecture of Japan.
And that, so they say, is how esoteric Buddhism arrived in Japan.
Who was Kūkai?
Kūkai, known as Kōbō-Daishi in Japan, born in 774 CE, was an aspiring young monk who travelled to China to learn the ways of esoteric Buddhism (also called tantric Buddhism, as its followers believe that tantric rituals hold the secret to spiritual enlightenment).
When Kūkai finished his training in China, he returned to Japan, and in 819 CE, established the home temple for the Shingon school of Buddhism.
The site he chose for his new school was that of Kōya-san, an 800-metre high valley nestled amongst eight mountain peaks – which, from an aerial view, is said to resemble a lotus blossom.
There are now more than 120 temples in the Kōya-san monastic centre, along with numerous historic gates, historic pagodas, historic pilgrimage routes, historic mausoleums, and the atmospheric, otherworldly, forest-giant-studded Okunoin Cemetery.
Okunoin Cemetery contains in excess of 200,000 tombstones (there are no graves here, only cenotaphs, in accordance with the Buddhist practise of cremation), making it the largest cemetery in Japan.
Visitors follow a two kilometre-long path that winds its way from the cemetery entrance, passing endless arrays of moss-covered tombstones and family memorials, and ending up at Kūkai’s own mausoleum – whose body lies inside in a state of eternal meditation.
The cemetery includes the tombs of many important historic figures, including highly-acclaimed warriors, samurai, and daimyō (feudal lords).
There is even a tomb erected by a pest control company in dedication to its many insect victims.
Kongōbu-ji (Kongobu Temple) is the home temple and ecclesiastical headquarters of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. The temple’s origins date back to the school’s founding in 819 CE, although the oldest extant parts of the current temple date to 1593.
Kongōbu-ji contains Japan’s largest rock garden, known as the Banryūtei rock garden, with 140 carefully-placed stones conveying the image of the temple’s two guardian dragons. The long, flat, snout-shaped rock in the centre of the photo above is one of the dragon’s heads. The rest of the imagery you will have to work out yourself. 😉
Kōya-san and Okunoin Cemetery are accessible from Osaka via a combination of public transport options. The amount of connections required to reach Kōya-san might appear daunting, but don’t be put off; public transport works seamlessly in Japan. 🙂
Read more on Kōya-san and the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.