Okunoin (奥の院) is the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan. Instead of having died, Kobo Daishi is believed to rest in eternal meditation as he awaits Miroku Nyorai (Maihreya), the Buddha of the Future, and provides relief to those who ask for salvation in the meantime. Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage spot.
The Ichinohashi Bridge (first bridge) marks the traditional entrance to Okunoin, and visitors should bow to pay respect to Kobo Daishi before crossing it. Across the bridge starts Okunoin's cemetery, the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the almost two kilometer long approach to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.
A second, shorter approach to Okunoin, which is used by the majority of visitors these days, starts at the Okunoin-mae bus stop and cuts the walk to the mausoleum in half (to slightly under a kilometer). This alternative route leads through a more recent addition to the cemetery with modern tombstones by individuals, associations and companies, including some surprising ones, such as a pest control company's memorial to all the termites that their products have been exterminating.
Regardless of which approach you choose, both paths meet up at the Gokusho Offering Hall which lies near a row of statues depicting Jizo, a popular Bodhisattva that looks after children, travelers, and the souls of the deceased. Visitors make offerings and throw water at the statues, known as Mizumuke Jizo (Water Covered Jizo) to pray for departed family members.
The Gobyonohashi Bridge crosses a stream behind the Mizumuke Jizo that separates the innermost grounds of the temple from the rest of Okunoin. Visitors should again bow to Kobo Daishi before crossing, and photography, food and drink are forbidden beyond this point. To the left of the bridge are a group of wooden markers placed in the stream as a memorial to unborn children.
A few meters past the bridge on the left side of the path lies the Miroku Stone, housed in a small cage. Visitors are challenged to lift the stone from the cage's lower platform to an upper platform with only one hand. It is believed that the stone feels lighter to good people and heavier to bad people, and that it can provide a connection to the Miroku Bodhisattva.
Torodo Hall (Hall of Lamps) is Okunoin's main hall for worship, built in front of Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. Inside the hall are more than 10,000 lanterns, which were donated by worshipers and are kept eternally lit. In the hall's basement are 50,000 tiny statues that have been donated to Okunoin on the occasion of the 1150th anniversary of Kobo Daishi's entrance into eternal meditation in 1984.
Behind Torodo Hall is Kobo Daishi's Mausoleum (Gobyo), the site of his eternal meditation. Visitors come from all over to pray to Kobo Daishi, and it is not uncommon to see pilgrims chanting sutras here.
Some guidebooks suggest visiting Okunoin's graveyard at night. A night time visit indeed provides a special atmosphere that is quite different from that of a day time visit, but note that some parts of the path are poorly lit. It is possible to venture all the way to the mausoleum during the night, but neither the Torodo Hall nor any of the the other offering halls are open. Also, please behave respectfully and keep in mind that photography, food and drink are prohibited beyond the Gobyonohashi Bridge.