Osorezan is the name of a remote temple complex known as one of the three great reijo – one of the most spiritually powerful sites in Japan – the other two being Mount Koya in Wakayama, and Mount Hiei in Shiga. Even getting there feels like a pilgrimage; it’s located in the Shimo-Kita peninsula, right at the northernmost tip of Japan’s Honshu mainland, five or six hours from Tokyo. Access is by highway 279 through the Mutsu district of Aomori prefecture, or the bus from Shimo-Kita station.
Once you step out of the car or bus, the first thing that strikes you is the smell of sulfur … the smell of volcanoes … or brimstone. The region is a dormant ‘composite volcano’, with the nearby Lake Usoriyama actually inside the crater. The lake water is highly acidic, where only one species of fish is able to survive … the Ugui. Across the lake is the mountain that gives the area its name … ‘san’, meaning mountain, and ‘osore’, meaning ‘fear’, ‘dread’, or ‘terror’.
Approaching the gate, you are greeted by six giant Buddha statues, guarding the entrance to the temple. Around the gates the visitors throng to the stalls, buying snacks, sift drinks, souvenirs, as well as protective amulets. Past the gates, the long straight concrete path takes you to Bodai-ji Temple (also known as Entsuji), run by the Soto Zen sect, built around a number of volcanic cauldrons that are responsible for the sulfurous steam constantly rising up from the ground and drifting along the path.
The temple was founded over a thousand years ago by the monk Jikaku Daishi (also known as En’nin) after a powerful prophetic dream whuke he was studying in China. The dream told him to return to Japan and walk northeast from Kyoyo for thirty days, whereby he would find the mountain of the dead. and he would establish a temple there. He followed the vision … and discovered Osorezan.
Surrounding Osorezan is actually not one mountain, but eight; Mount Kamafuse, Mount Ôzukushi, Mount Kozukushi, Mount Hokkoku, Mount Byôbu, Mount Tsurugi, Mount Jizô, and Mount Keitô. The landscape of Osorezan with the eight peaks surrounding it is said to represent a lotus flower of eight pedals, the symbol of the world of Buddha. In it’s central area there are 108 ponds of boiling water and mud, which correspond with the 108 worldly desires and the hells linked to each of them. Side by side with the hellish ponds, the mysterious woods and the ghostly lake, is a beach of white sand that has an eerie beauty, that some have compared to the plains of Heaven described in ancient Buddhist scrolls.
Once every year, Bodai-ji holds a festival called the Itako Taisai. The event attracts those hoping to communicate with lost loved ones through the temple’s Itako – female shamans who live near the temple. In order to commune with the dead, the Itako are said to perform intense purification rituals for the three months leading up to the annual Itako-Taisai festival, from July 20th until 25th, and during the festival, they enter into a deep trance that continues for three days. Do they actually have the power to pierce the veil of death? Do the long lines of visitors really hear the voices of friends and relatives who have passed on to the Other Side?
Not many seem willing to talk about the Itako, or to verify the claims of these reclusive spiritualist mediums … but every year, there are always lines of clients, lined up outside their tents.
You can find out more by reading a sample chapter of Zoe’s novel … here!