The stench of sulfur hits you long before you get off the bus. And when you do step off, it hits you all the stronger. Before you stretch the sickly, yellow-green waters of a caldera lake, whose acidity has expunged all fish life except for one hardy species (ugei or big-scaled redfin). Signs everywhere warn of the danger of poisonous mamushi pit vipers. Even at the height of the Japanese summer, the air is curiously silent, with none of the clamorous abundance of the insect life ubiquitous to Japan. The only sound is that of the raucous, ill-tempered crows that obviously have an affinity for the spot. Death seems to be built into the very fabric of things at Osorezan.
Some places have a peculiar, uneasy air about them. They provoke the sensation that things are not quite right. And that’s certainly true of this place. Visitors wanting a taste of a Japan far removed from the genteel, familiar temples and festivals will not be disappointed by Osorezan and its unsettling lunar landscape.
Located at the end of hatchet-shaped Shimokita Peninsula, stretching north toward Hokkaido at the northern tip of Aomori Prefecture, Osorezan is a place that since ancient times has been venerated because of its mystical power. The lake — Usoriyama — still bears the Usori name by which the area was known to the Ainu. This was later phonetically altered to provide the Japanese pronunciation and etymology — Osorezan, the mountain of dread. After Buddhism was introduced to Japan, the religion worked its way north, and when it came to Osorezan, the Buddhist cosmology was projected onto this desolate volcanic landscape of sulfur-stained rock.
Here, among the features marked on the map of Osorezan’s temple, called Bodaiji, over an area of several hectares are such doleful-sounding spots as the Lake of Blood, half a dozen different hells, the Mountain of Swords and the Dry Bed of the River of Souls (Sai no Kawara) — the desiccated river that divides the worlds of the living and dead. Slightly more cheery is the Beach of Pa-radise (Gokurakuhama) on the shores of Lake Usoriyama.
Souls of children
The names may sound like lurid attractions at some awful theme park, but there’s no getting away from the dispiriting atmosphere that hangs over Osorezan. It is Sai no Kawara that gets perhaps the most visitor attention. With its boundary function, Sai no Kawara is often referred to as a Buddhist River Styx, but it also has the aspects of limbo. It is to this grim realm that children who predecease their parents — and are thus unable to repay those parents for having giving birth to them — are condemned. As penance, they are obliged to build up stone cairns, only to have foul demons with an attitude problem come along and smash them apart — and, for good measure, tormenting the little souls with fond memories of the happiness they knew as living children. Sole protector of the children is the bodhisattva Jizo — he of the red bib and cap and whose stone figures are seen everywhere around Japan — driving the demons away.
Jizo images are a common sight at Osorezan, as are cairns built by visitors. Upon the cairns are often placed offerings of coins, which become blackened by the sulfurous vapors expelled by numerous volcanic vents. Many of the visitors who add to the cairns are the unfortunate ones who have lost their own young children. However one may feel about Buddhism and the afterlife, it is hard not to be moved by the presents left here — the chocolates, plastic pinwheels, candy and small toys representing life’s small pleasures, which these children will never know again. Many offerings are also made at Gokurakuhama. As well as the small cairns, along the lakeshore can be seen such items as flowers, pinwheels stuck into the soft sand and straw sandals, the latter being given to Jizo to protect his feet as he walks across the sharp rocks of Sai no Kawara. At Gokurakuhama, visitors come and perform their own small ceremonies, often done matter-of-factly. A typical one will have the visitors approach, burn incense, set flowers upon the sand, open the can of beer and onigiri they have brought along and set them by the lakeshore. They clasp their hands in prayer, call out to the departed across the lake and, the incense still burning, make their way back. What the dead can’t manage of the onigiri, the crows gladly come and finish off.
A couple of times a year during Osorezan festivals, the living who seek direct contact with the departed can do so through the blind mediums known as itako. Though often referred to as shamans, itako are not shamans in that they do not have any supernatural calling and do not experience any shamanistic possession. Instead, itako were traditionally born into the job through their visual impairment. Clutching and rubbing long black rosaries of soapberries, to which are often festooned such objects as old coins and the teeth, claws and bones of wild animals, the itako chant and deliver their messages from the spirit world to their paying customers. If you listen long enough, you do notice that the itako seem to work within a certain repertoire: The spirits of a grandfather or a child tend to say similar sorts of things to different people. But that is clearly no problem for the customers, many of whom queue for hours for the itako and afterward are quite visibly affected after their communications with the dead.
On the approach to Bodaiji stands one structure that, apparently, all of us will encounter sooner or later — a small, arched, vermilion bridge that the newly deceased have to cross. For the person who has led a virtuous life, finding and crossing the bridge will be comparatively easy. But those who fail to observe Google’s wise dictum of doing no evil will hardly be able to discern the bridge: It will appear to them as nothing but the slightest hint of mist.