Osorezan – The Gateway to Hell
The aptly named Osorezan, which literally means Mount Fear in Japanese, is located at the northern tip of Honshu in Aomori Prefecture. The mountain is home to Bodai-ji Temple, and is one of Japan’s three holiest mountains along with Mount Hiei in Kyoto and Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. While there are larger temples in Japan, Bodai-ji stands out as one of the most remarkable locations to visit in a country not lacking in the category.
The reason the mountain is so memorable is its association with hell. Discovered by the monk Ennin in 862 CE, he observed that the mountain’s caldera was surrounded by eight peaks at the center of which lies Lake Usori, which is fed by a small stream. This matches the Buddhist description of hell, and Ennin associated the stream with the Sanzu River, which Japanese Buddhist tradition holds everyone must cross over when they die. The mountains and stream combined to convince Ennin that he had found the gateway to hell, and he thus founded Bodai-ji Temple.
While the mountains and stream matched the written descriptions of hell, it must have been the volcanic nature of the caldera that truly sold Ennin on the idea that he had discovered the entrance to the underworld. The first thing a visitor will notice as they approach the temple is the smell of sulfur in the air. As you draw closer, however, the green of vegetation disappears and is replaced by bleached rock streaked yellow with concentrated sulfur. This desolate, yellow-streaked rock is sporadically interrupted by rising vents of steam and bubbling mud flats. This bleak landscape is sharply contrasted by the mineral enhanced blue of Lake Usori, and the entirety of it all – from the smell of sulfur, the drab rock, to the brilliant blue lake – combine to transport a visitor to a different realm of existence.
It is not, however, this hellish terrain that sets Osorezan apart as one of the most memorable places to visit in Japan, but the fact that the mountain became a popular pilgrimage destination for people who lost loved ones, especially children, over the centuries. Those pilgrims have added a poignant human touch to the area that lingers with the visitor long after the smell of sulfur has dissipated. Statues of Jizo, the Buddhist deity who helps the souls of deceased find peace, are found throughout the area, and pilgrims have made piles of small rocks and stones in hope that it helps their loved ones cross the river safely.
Scattered amidst these piles of rocks and Jizo statues are pinwheels left by parents for their departed children – splashes of color that clash against the dull rocks around them. Within the temple buildings can be found personal belongs of the deceased left by the bereft: baseball caps, shoes, drinks, and other mementos left to bring comfort to the departed in the next world, and it is these personal touches that elevate Osorezan above many other potential destinations in Japan.
Osorezan is accessible by a 45 minute bus ride from Shimokita Station in Mutsu City, Aomori Prefecture . The temple is closed from November to April but is open the rest of the year from 6 am to 6 pm. It has an annual festival held from July 20th to the 24th where itako, blind women who have undergone spiritual training to communicate with the dead, appear to act as mediums between the living and the deceased. The temple grounds also contain an onsen (Japanese style hot spring) that can be entered for a small fee. While far from the bustle of Tokyo, Osorezan is one of the most rewarding side trips that can be taken in Japan.