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Into the Maw of Hell

“Fear Mountain” and the Buddhist Afterlife

Into the Maw of Hell

Gather ‘round folks. For today’s article, I have something really special to introduce to you. I’ll be taking you on a journey far, far up north to the furthest reaches of Aomori prefecture’s Shimokita peninsula. Together we’ll explore a place that has often been described as the physical incarnate of hell on earth, at least as the Buddhists see it. Known as Mt. Osore (“Osorezan” in Japanese), this holy site ranks among the top three sacred locations in all of Japan along with Mt. Koya and Mt. Hiei. The remote peak has long been home to an array of hearty Buddhist adherents who have been congregating here for well over a millennium.

Let’s start with a bit of geography. For those not aware, Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Though not as north as the island of Hokkaido, it is still well up there. Now Aomori is shaped almost like the letter “W” with two peninsulas on its eastern and western sides. Mt. Osore resides on the eastern side of the prefecture on Shimokita peninsula, an area which is often said to be shaped like an axe. It has a long “handle” followed by a thick upper portion where the “blade” would sit. This section of the peninsula is both extremely isolated and very mountainous. As such, train access only extends up to where the head and handle of the proverbial axe meet.

 Into the Maw of Hell
 
 
 

Anyway, back to Mt. Osore. While no written records remain of its founding, legends hold that the site was first discovered approximately 1,200 years ago by the Buddhist monk Ennin. While studying Buddhism in China, he one night had a vision where a ghostly spirit commanded him to return to Japan and journey eastward. After walking for thirty days from Kyoto, Ennin was promised that he would find a sacred mountain. There he was instructed to carve a statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo and propagate the cite as a center for Buddhism. After completing his training in China, Ennin went returned home to Japan and began his search.

Of course, as it often goes with legends of yore, Ennin’s quest did not exactly pan out as expected and the stalwart monk wandered endlessly for days across many provinces. After enduring much hardship, with only a smidgin of land left to go on the most northeastern part of Japan’s main island, Ennin finally stumbled across a site that satisfied all the conditions dictated to him in his vision. Thereafter, he immediately set about carving his statue as instructed and establishing the site that would later be known as Mt. Osore.

Ennin aside, what’s the deal with this article titling? Well, anyone familiar with the deep meaning inherent within Japanese characters already knows, there’s a lot to a name. Of course, this holds true for Mt. Osore as well. When directly translated to English, the mountain’s title is often localized as “fear mountain.” This nomenclature is undoubtedly linked to the region’s nightmarish terrain. You see, the area around Mt. Osore is blessed (or cursed) with heavy volcanic activity. Over time, these geological conditions have terraformed much of the land into a grey and barren wasteland.

Into the Maw of Hell

Not all of Mt. Osore is doom and gloom. While a heavy scent of sulfur continually lingers in the air, there’s more than just ash in this holy neck of the woods. In addition to the bleak scenery, the region is also home to some jaw dropping vistas. Chief among these is the beautiful, but poisonous, Lake Usori. This deadly body of water sits in the middle of the site and is surrounded on all sides by eight towering mountains. These peaks are symbolic of the eight petals of the lotus, a flower which is said to symbolize the world of Buddha and remains a very important icon in Buddhism.

Speaking of Buddhism, Mt. Osore main’s object of worship is the Bodhisattva Jizo. While a full exposé is beyond the scope of this piece, know that this heroic soul forsook enlightenment and instead opted to brave hell itself. Why would anyone holy or not make such a choice you ask? Well, Jizo’s raison d’etre is to help lost and wayward spirits free themselves from the illusion of life and death. To accomplish his mission, Jizo has voluntarily ventured back into the land of eternal suffering. As such, Mt. Osore’s hellish landscape is symbolically transformed into the path of salvation.

Lastly, before diving into the rest of the guide, I just want to quickly mention that Mt. Osore is only open from April to November. During other months there’s simply too much snowfall for access to be feasible. With that said, and without further adieu, it’s about time that I tell you, the reader, to go to hell (and stay the night but more on that later)…

Getting There

Into the Maw of Hell

Oh boy! Let me come right out and say it. Mt. Osore isn’t easy to get to nor is it cheap. In fact, accounting for both ways, you’ll need to devote in total more than 50,000 yen and half a day to transit alone. Over the years I’ve been to some really off the beaten path destinations but Mt. Osore easily ranks among the hardest to reach. If you’re coming from Tokyo, the journey will begin by taking one of the Hayabusa bullet trains up to Hachinohe, the second largest city in Aomori prefecture. From there, you’ll need to get on one of the local trains bound for the Shimokita peninsula.

Now given how difficult it is to reach Mt. Osore, I highly recommend starting the journey on the evening prior to the day of your visit and spending the night in Hachinohe. This will cut the time you consecutively spend on the train in half and will also allow you to sample a taste of northern Japan’s nightlife. I’ve included a brief overview of Hachinohe at the end of this article so be sure to refer to the “Other Attractions” section for more details. If you’re traveling from overseas, you’re going to need to book some sort of hotel so you may as well plan your travel in this way.

Into the Maw of Hell

Anyway, regardless of choosing to make the trip in one go or overnight as suggested, you’ll need to take a bus to Mt. Osore after arriving at Shimokita. This can be accomplished by exiting the train station, making an immediate left and then searching for bus stop number one. While this sounds confusing, when written out, the bus stop is right outside Shimokita station and there’s really nowhere else to go. Note that there are only a few buses per day and the departure times change every year.

When riding the buses here, you’ll need to take a ticket from the machine upon boarding. This will serve as proof of where you got on so be sure not to lose it. Once on the bus, all you need to do is kick back and relax. The ride to Mt. Osore will take about 40 minutes and will run you 800 yen. En route, the bus will snake its way through the mountains as it traverses hills that shoddy vehicles really have no business traveling on. Don’t be surprised if you hear the diesel engine choking on fumes and chalk it up to part of the experience.

Into the Maw of Hell

Assuming your bus doesn’t stall out on the way (don’t worry, it just SOUNDS like it will), you’ll eventually come across the bridge pictured above. This vermilion archway spans a small river that has earned the nickname Sanzu-no-Kawa. Much like the River Styx in Ancient Greek mythology, this stream from Buddhist myths is one that all dead souls must cross as they make their way to the afterlife. There’s actually a bus stop here so you can pop out and inspect it. Since the final Mt. Osore bus stop is only a few minutes walk away, I recommend getting off and checking out the haunting Sanzu-no-Kawa river. If you close your eyes, you can almost sense the spirits passing on their way to Mt. Osore.

Mt. Osore’s Bodai-ji

Into the Maw of Hell

Mt. Osore has a long Buddhist tradition dating back centuries yet the current temple complex occupying the sacred mountain dates only back to the middle of the 16th century or so. Known as Bodai-ji, this temple belongs to the Soto Zen sect. It was erected by a local Buddhist master following the restoration of spiritual practice at Mt. Osore. While spoken stories have been passed down, all earlier records before this restoration were unfortunately either lost to fire or the ravages of wars. That said, Bodai-ji is still a site worth seeing. Entry will run you 500 yen.

Once you’ve paid your dues, you’ll enter through the Somon gate where you’ll find yourself looking at a long approach. This pathway leads up through the second gate, the Sonmon, to the Jizo-den. Inside, you’ll find a two-meter tall statue of Jizo. In a rare break from Buddhist tradition, this effigy is clothed with the robes of a monk. According to local legends, this statuette is known to wander around the temple grounds at night in an attempt to free those trapped in hell. The wear and tear on the figure’s vestments is said to be caused by the clinging on of lost souls seeking salvation.

Into the Maw of Hell

One of the strange things about Bodai-ji is that the complex is home to a collection of four hot spring baths. These spartan facilities are evenly split among the genders and are immensely popular with locals of the Shimokita peninsula. According to Bodai-ji’s pamphlets, the onsen located on the temple grounds hold an extensive history. Across the ages, pilgrims have flocked to these hot springs for a multitude of health reasons. Much like with Kusatsu onsen, the waters at Mt. Osore are said to have the ability to cure a whole host of illnesses. As such, these healing properties have played an important part in the development of the faithful at Mt. Osore.

Evoking Necromancy

Into the Maw of Hell

Do you wish to speak with the spirit of a deceased friend or loved one? Well you’ve come to the right place! Mt. Osore is home to a special breed of spiritually endowed mediums. Known as Itako, there are only 20 or so living practitioners of this ancient tradition. The select female-only group has undergone extensive training in order to be able to communicate with the dead. For some Itako, this preparation began during the early childhood years. The Itako perform grueling rituals to both attain and maintain their austere purity. The training involves a cornucopia of severe ascetic practices and includes ritualized exposure to cold water. Oh, did I mention that all of the Itako all blind?

Now Itako have a long tradition dating well back before the Edo period(1603–1868). At that time, blindness was widely associated with a host of diverse spiritual capabilities and was often considered to be evidence of karmic debt. Should a young girl not be gifted with sight, folkloric traditions held that she should be wed to a deity whom would grant unto her the ability to commune with spirits. Over time, this practice merged with the ascetic practice of the yamabushi to form the current iteration of the Itako. These days, Itako typically carry several artifacts including a beaded necklace that is used ceremoniously.

Every year Bodai-ji holds a festival between July 22nd and July 24th that attracts all practicing Itako as well as grieving families from across the nation. These groups come in hopes of communicating with their lost loved ones who have passed on to the next life. While this is most certainly the debut highlight for these peculiar spiritualists, one can make an appointment with an Itako whenever the temple is open. As a side note, I personally advise that you stay far away from this three day festival. After all, part of the charm of northern Japan, and specifically Mt. Osore, is the absence of the jamming crowd that plagues Kyoto and the like.

Hell’s Sai-no-Kawara

Into the Maw of Hell

If you exit to the left-hand side of Bodai-ji, you’ll find yourself in the otherworldly Sai-no-Kawara. Meaning “the dry riverbed of the netherworld,” this area takes its name from a section of hell in Buddhist mythology. The landscape has been malformed by the intense volcanic activity below; because of this, Mt. Osore has long been consider the gateway to hell itself. The dystopian environment is really something right out of the pages of a fantasy novel. As you meander through the jagged rocks making up Sai-no-Kawara, you’ll discover an ample collection of thermal vents. These are known as “jigoku” which quite literally translates to hells in English.

What’s more, you’ll come upon many small piles of stones throughout the entirety of the Sai-no-Kawara section of Mt. Osore. While not unique to this area of Japan, the practice of building these somber mounds is a solemn one. You see, according to legends, children who pass away prematurely are sent to Sai-no-Kawara in the Buddhist underworld for bringing sorrow to their parents. Since they were unable to repay their debts to mom and dad, these wayward souls pray for salvation by piling pebble upon pebble in the hopes of eventually climbing out of purgatory. Back in the real world, grieving parents will honor this tradition by constructing similar assortments.

 Into the Maw of Hell
 
 
 

What does this have to do with Jizo and Mt. Osore? Well, supposedly as the children struggle to construct their towers out of limbo, demons in the service of the hag Datsueba will arrive and scatter the stones and/or beat the poor children with clubs. Here, Jizo comes to the rescue as part of his mission to help all wayward souls find their way through hell. Whenever the legions of hell show up with their blunt instruments of pain, the kind Bodhisattva simply conceals the children’s lost souls within the folds of his robe. Thanks to his smuggling, the children are spared the wrath of hell and are able to finally complete their stone towers.

Now this should go without saying but before moving on, I’d like to take a second for a quick disclaimer. As mentioned, this area is rife with vents releasing scalding volcanic gases. Since these can reach astronomically high temperatures, it is imperative that you not be a fool and burn yourself. While the exceptionally dangerous areas are generally roped off, there remain some vents that are not restricted. If you’re after a Darwin Award, please find someplace less sacred to pursue your goal. Likewise, many bereaving families journey to this area to say goodbye to loved ones. While this goes without saying, don’t be a jackass. By all means feel free to take pictures and whatnot but try to be respectful of other visitors.

Redemption & Salvation

The metaphorical Sai-no-Kawara riverbed area of Mt. Osore zigzags all the way up to the shores of the poisonous Lake Usori as can be seen above. This stretch of pure white sand is called Gokuraku beach. Every July, millions of pinwheels and bunches of flowers are left along the beach coupled with a variety of sweets and treats. Worshipers share these offerings in memory of their deceased family members. After paying their respects, visitors to Mt. Osore stand by the lakeside and clasp their palms together in prayer while facing the mountains on the far shore. Supposedly, tradition claims that the lake and the mountain range on the far side of the Gokuraku beach is the physical incarnation of Buddhism’s heaven or paradise on Earth.

In 2011, a large statue of Jizo was also erected at the Gokuraku beach. This solemn representation of the Bodhisattva was created as a memorial for all those who lost their lives following the the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Visitors are encouraged to ring the two bells on either side of Jizo to pay their respects to the dead. The bell of the left side is known as the Chinkon-no-Kane (lit. “The Bell of Requiem) where as the bell on the right is known as the Kibo-no-Kane (lit. “The Bell of Hope). Next to Jizo, there’s also a couple of seats that are shaded from the sun with a simple roof. This spot has a great view across Lake Usori and is particularly pleasant when the breeze is blowing.

Into the Maw of Hell

In addition to Gokuraku beach, you’ll also encounter the slope pictured above on the way back towards Bodai-ji. Allegedly, this represents the decent out of hell and rebirth back into the world of the living. As such, a trip through Mt. Osore’s Sai-no-Kawara can metaphorically be thought of as experiencing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth which is a core tenant of Buddhism. That said, as soon as you make the short ascent to the top of this summit, you’ll ironically be met with three active volcanic vents. Let this serve as a reminder that life is suffering and hell continues to exist on Earth.

Overnighting

Into the Maw of Hell

Dear reader, you trust me, don’t you? I mean, after all, I do venture out to all these remote locations by myself so that I can accurately document the journey for your visit. Hopefully, with all the years and years of content behind us, I’ve managed to garner a little bit of credibility with you right? What’s that? Yes? Good! You see, I don’t make demands often but I’m about to make a very strong suggestion that I truly want you to heed. Are you ready?

IF YOU’RE GOING TO TRAVEL ALL THE WAY TO AOMORI PREFECTURE AND VISIT MT. OSORE, DO YOURSELF THE FAVOR AND SPEND THE NIGHT AT THE TEMPLE!!!
Into the Maw of Hell

Yes you read that right. You can actually stay overnight at Bodai-ji! The complex has a rather luxurious set of accommodations that include a killer onsen which is much better than the stringent facilities mentioned above. A ridiculously spacious room will run you only a mere 12,000 yen per night. Furthermore, this affordable rate comes with two vegetarian-friendly Buddhist shojin-ryori meals that are served at 6:00 PM and 7:30 AM sharp. You’ll also have the rare chance to partake in morning prayer services as well. To make a booking, call 0175–22–3221. While I was told that there’s one person on staff who can take reservations in English, I wouldn’t bet on it. Instead, do whatever you must, kidnapping included, to get a native Japanese speaker to make the reservation on your behalf.

By the way, if you’re surprised by the fact that you can spend the night at a temple, know that it is actually pretty common. The practice is known as “shukubo” in Japanese and many temples welcome guests. If you can manage to navigate the language barriers, I cannot more highly recommend ditching the hotel and giving a stay at a temple a try!

 

Other Attractions

Aomori prefecture is rich in culture and attractions. Many of these such as the famous Nebuta festival have already been covered at length elsewhere. Seeing as these are only a mere Google query away, I am instead going to focus on the aforementioned city of Hachinohe. If you’re coming from Tokyo, you’ll likely need to transit here at Aomori’s second biggest city. While I adamantly suggest that you overnight in Hachinohe if possible, the train schedules will likely leave those who don’t heed my advice with an hour or two to kill.

So what’s Hachinohe got to offer? Well, first up, you need to know that most of the areas attractions are quite a distance from Hachinohe station itself. This hub serves as the entry point to the area but has nothing really of note. The only exception to this is a building called the Yew Tree. This facility functions as the Hachinohe Regional Industry Promotion Center and is directly connected to the station. It is therefore a convenient place to sample Hachinohe or do some shopping on the way home.

Outside of the Yew Tree though, there’s little to do in the area of Hachinohe station. Instead, you’ll want to head over to the downtown area near Hon-Hachinohe station. This can be reached in a few minutes by train but know that departures are infrequent. Be sure to check in with Hyperdia first else you need to bite the bullet and take a taxi. The last trains up here are shockingly early by Tokyo standards. Note that if you’re going to overnight, I suggest you do so in the Hon-Hachinohe area despite the additional logistics.

What’s so much better about Hon-Hachinohe that it’s worth giving up the convenient access to the main hub? Glad you asked! As can be seen in the above video clip from Visit Japan, Hachinohe is home to a ton of boozy alleyways and backstreets that can easily rival the likes of Shinjuku’s famed Golden Gai. Many of these establishments go very late into the night but just be careful not to drink yourself into a stupor. This is a place that sports an adorable mascot that is piss drunk after all and a hangover is sure to hamper your exploration of Mt. Osore.

 The city has gone to great lengths to localize a lot of information into English for easy consumption. As anyone who frequents the countryside knows, this is a bit of a rarity. Truth be told, there’s a lot of content up here and I’ll likely end up doing a standalone article at some point in the future. Between Japan’s largest open market and a whole host of other hidden gems, I simply didn’t enough time before I had to return to the daily grind. Maybe you’ll fare a bit better that I did…

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