Remote and eerie Osore-zan…
We awoke this morning, after a great night’s sleep, to an eerie, thick bank of fog – a fitting start to the day given we were going to Fear Mountain today! Our adventure for the day took us to the Shimokita Peninsula. This remote, sparsely populated peninsula to the East of Aomori City is ruggedly mountainous and densely forested. One of the consequences of its isolation from the modern world is that many ancient spiritual practices and rituals that have disappeared from other parts of Japan persist here. It was our desire to experience something of this mystical “old world” Japan that took us to Osore-zan (translation = Fear Mountain) today.
As you can see from the map below, we traveled a fair way to reach our destination. It took us 3 hours (each way) to reach Osore-zan: first we caught a train from Aomori City to the small, remote town of Noheji; then changed trains for the even smaller, remoter town of Shimokita-machi; before jumping on a local bus that took us all the way up the mountain to Osore-zan.
Osore-zan is an extinct volcano whose crater now houses a caldera lake (Usori-ko). The shores of Usori-ko have long been revered as a place where souls of the dead gather; where the veil between this world and the next is thinner. A Buddhist temple (Osorezan-Bodai-ji) was constructed here in 811AD, atop an even older edifice; it is here that the itako (translation = mystical seers) reside, as they have for over a thousand years. These blind mediums will, for a fee, commune with the souls of your departed loved ones on your behalf, passing messages from the living to the dead and vice versa. They essentially act as conduits between the world of the living and that of the dead, with today’s itako continuing a practice that is centuries old. Our aim in going up to Osore-zan was not to contact any dead relatives, but to see its unique beauty and experience its unearthly atmosphere for ourselves.
Osore-zan has a reputation for being very isolated, and we were warned to bring our own food and water as there isn’t much up there, except for the temple itself. We came prepared, but were still surprised by how little there really is there; the photo below of the bus stop at Osore-zan gives you an idea of what we mean!
The approach to the temple is marked by a vermillion bridge that is supposed to represent the crossing souls have to make form this life to the next. In the photos below you can see the inviting blue waters of Lake Usori beneath the bridge, but don’t be fooled! The lake is so full of sulphur, antimony and other volcanic debris that its waters are highly toxic, varying in colour from bright blue, to yellow, red and silver. It’s like nothing either of us have ever seen before – beautiful despite its poisonous contents.
The temple itself is neither grandiose nor magnificent, but rather desolate and unwelcoming – in keeping with the general vibe of the place. The temple grounds are grey and ashen, with the only colours around being the green of the forest in the hills behind the temple (away from the poisonous waters of the lake and the fumes from the volcanic vents), and the red roof of the dorms where pilgrims and visitors wanting to meet with the itako can stay overnight. At the entrance of the temple there are 6 large statues of the Buddhist deity Jizo, whose role it is to help relieve the suffering of souls whilst they move through the 6 realms of existence (sometimes referred to as the “Six Paths of Reincarnation” or the “Wheel of LIfe”). Each of the statues is designed to represent one of the realms. I won’t say that Osorezan-Bodai-ji incited fear in us exactly, but it definitely has an “other-wordly” feel to it. The silence in particular accentuates this – it was so incredibly quiet up there, with the only sounds we could hear being the occasional crow cawing and the bubble and hiss of hot, sulphurous vents..
Behind the temple itself are the grounds where people can go to remember loved ones who have passed away, and leave offerings at the many various shrines spread throughout the area. This memorial ground is in its natural, volcanic state, with grey rocks piled together around hot vents and yellow, orange and red streams of hot, sulphurous water. Where there is a shrine, offerings had been left in honour of deceased relatives. Particularly touching were the brightly coloured windmills, left for children who had died before their parents.
Beyond the memorial grounds there is a lakeside “beach”, where mourners have left flowers and other tributes. The lake itself was multi-coloured and crystal clear, stretching silently into the distance. There were a small number of people there while we were, most seemingly there for private reasons. We kept well out of their way, careful to be as respectful and quiet as possible in this graveyard of sorts. It’s important, I think, when visiting a temple, church or graveyard as a tourist to enjoy the site and take your photos without intruding on other people’s grief or serenity.
From the lakeshore we threaded our way back through the temple grounds and waited for the bus. The sights, smells and sounds of Osore-zan and Usori-ko stuck with us as we caught our bus back down the densely forested mountain to Shimokita-machi, and then hopped on a train back to Aomori. Both of us were quite humbled by our experience of Osorezan-Bodai-ji and the palpable air of grief and mysticism that lingers there. I wouldn’t say it was a fun outing, but it certainly made an impression on us – one we are unlikely to ever forget.