Koyasan, Japan

As he speaks, the Buddhist monk waves his hand across a maze of over 20,000 moss-covered tombstones that are partially illuminated by small stone lanterns. “Anyone can be buried here. We don’t care about your religion, we care about your peace.”

I am standing in the middle of Japan’s largest cemetery, Okunoin, nestled high in the peaks of Mount Koya.

Towering thousand-year-old tree stands cast imposing shadows on the ground and the spirits of feudal lords, Buddhist monks, and fallen soldiers thicken the midnight air. But I feel no fear; only admiration.

For the second time in my life, the Japanese are teaching me a new way of dealing with death.

I received my first lesson awhile ago. It was a story called “Really Long Distance”, produced in 2016 by the podcast, This American Life. They tell us about a man who lived in the Japanese town of Otsuchi.

When the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami happened, Otsuchi was almost completely wiped off the map. 421 people went missing and the final death toll of 1,284 was nearly 10% of the town’s population.

The townspeople were devastated, but one man, Itaru Sasaki, found a place for his grief and he decided to share it with his community.

It is an old-fashioned white telephone booth that sits in his garden, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and he uses it to talk to the dead. He calls it “kaze no denwa” or “the wind telephone” and once people figured out what he was doing, they started showing up and asking to talk to their lost loved ones, too.

A Japanese TV station actually asked permission to tape some of those calls and on the podcast, you can hear the Japanese and translated English conversations of people sorting through their sadness on this dead telephone line. It is a deeply moving experience, because so many of them never got to say goodbye.

The idea of a direct telephone line to the dead is not at all far-fetched for the Japanese either. Both Shintoism and Buddhism, the two main religions in Japan, maintain a strong connection with the dead.

It is not uncommon to find a shrine to a deceased loved one in a Japanese home and their summer Obon festival, one of their most important holidays, is dedicated to the return and remembrance of ancestral spirits.

I didn’t have a chance to visit the wind telephone while I was in Japan, but I was able to spend a night at the holy mountain sanctuary of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Mount Koya, where the Okunoin cemetery is located.

The local Buddhist monks take of the sacred place. One of them leads our small group of tourists to the end of the 2-kilometer graveyard, where the magnificent Torodo Hall glimmers in the darkness.

The hall holds more than 10,000 lanterns that are kept eternally lit. While it is closed at night (but still spectacular during the day), you can follow a trail of glowing ceiling lanterns around its perimeter until you reach the secluded mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.

Kobo Daishi was the founding monk of the Mount Koya sanctuary and the scholar who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China in 806. He is not considered to be dead, but rather, resting in a state of eternal meditation inside his mausoleum.

As we reach the mausoleum, another monk appears alongside our guide. Together, they break the stillness of the night by chanting a sutra that pays respect to their spiritual leader.

When they finish, they thank us for our attention and disappear into the trees. We are left to walk back through the cemetery alone, deep in our own reflections.

I pass a small pile of little statues dressed up in red hats and bibs. They are one of many that I have seen, but these are tucked lovingly into the hollow of a tree.

“Those are Jizo statues,” the monk had explained earlier. “They are brought by women who have suffered a miscarriage. They leave them here so that their unborn babies will be protected in the afterlife. Women come from all over Japan to do this.”

When I return to the cemetery the next morning, daylight reveals a massive 15-meter pyramid of maternal grief that leaves me speechless.

But I don’t feel sad. I feel impressed. Because once again, the Japanese have shown me their ingenuity at handling one of the hardest things we have to face. The wind telephone helps us to hold on, while the Jizo statues allow us to let go, because grief is all of those things.

“Remember why the lotus flower is a symbol of Buddhism,” the monk’s words return to me. “The beautiful lotus flower grows in dirty water. It teaches us that something good can come from something bad.”


Important notice: In October 2017, a typhoon damaged the railway connection between Hashimoto and Gokurakubashi. The alternate route is to take the train from Osaka to Hashimoto and then bus to Koyasan. The train service is expected to resume as normal in April 2018.

We purchased the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket for 2,860 yen ($26 USD) per person. This included roundtrip train tickets from Namba station in Osaka to Koyasan and the local bus around Koyasan. This ticket also provided us with discounts to a number of the temples and museums in Koyasan. You can buy the World Heritage Ticket at the Namba station in Osaka. From Osaka, the trip takes about 2.5 hours.


A large part of what makes the Koyasan experience so special is the opportunity to spend the night in a Buddhist monastery. It is not cheap, but you can see everything you need to see with one overnight. We stayed at the Kumagaji monastery and loved the place. It is located very close to the Okunoin cemetery and the monastery next door offers excellent English tours at night. There are Western-style toilets and they provide exceptional vegetarian dinner and breakfast fare. In the morning, we also enjoyed a spiritual fire ceremony.


Koyasan is a somewhat removed location in the mountains so it is important that you travel with a sufficient supply of insulin. We left most of Damián’s insulin in Osaka at a friend’s house and took what we needed for our overnight stay. The vegetarian meals served (at all of the monasteries) do not pose any problem for diabetics, but make sure you keep some sweet snacks on hand because there are only a few small shops in the town.


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