By Hiroya Yamaguchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterMUTSU, Aomori — Osorezan, an otherworldly volcanic area in Mutsu, northern Aomori Prefecture, is like a theme park of death and reincarnation, featuring glimpses of heaven and hell.
There are craggy rocks; a place called Sai no Kawara, where stones are piled up in small towers; Buddhist statues in various sizes, including those of the saint named Jizo; and a large number of small ponds that have the look and smell of Hades.
That’s part of what I saw after buying a ¥500 ticket to enter the precincts of Osorezan Bodaiji temple, which also has a Jizoden hall housing a Jizo statue.
A strong odor of sulfur filled the air. Red pinwheels set up among the rocks spun with dry, husky sounds. A crow slowly circling overhead completed the eerie scene.
But signs indicating the route eventually led me to a white sand beach and the ultramarine water of Lake Usori. The beach is called Gokuraku-hama, meaning Paradise Beach.
Walking further along the route, I passed a sign bearing the phrase “tainai kuguri” — meaning to be physically born again. And then I returned to the precincts of the temple.
I had gone from a hellscape to a beach paradise to a place of rebirth.
However, the strange scenery is not the only reason why Osorezan attracts many people.
In Japanese, Osorezan sounds like the name of a mountain, but the name actually indicates the area in a crater of an active volcano.
It is believed that the Osorezan area, in the center of the Shimokita Peninsula, was developed as a sacred site in the ninth century by Ennin, a Buddhist priest with the title Jikaku Daishi, who was the third head of the Tendai school of Buddhism.
Since then, local residents have come to Osorezan as a place to mourn the dead. These days, Osorezan is managed by the Entsuji temple, which belongs to the Soto school of Buddhism.
Jikisai Minami, 61, the acting chief priest of Osorezan Bodaiji temple, said, “At Osorezan, there is an overwhelming awareness of the dead that cannot be clearly rationalized by Buddhism.”
Waraji straw sandals and tenugui towels are tied around many of the trees in Osorezan. The sandals are for walking to reach the world of the dead. The towels are for wiping away sweat during the trip.
The pinwheels were originally put in place to pray for the souls of deceased children, but now, they are placed as an alternative to flowers.
Both customs are said to have begun with spontaneous acts by mourners visiting Osorezan.
Entering the main hall of Osorezan Bodaiji temple, I saw a line of cases each containing a doll clad in Japanese wedding attire. People whose sons have died bring these dolls to the temple in the hope that their deceased sons can get married in the afterlife.
Minami said Osorezan is not a “power spot” — a Japanese English term meaning a vortex of spiritual energy — but is actually a “powerless spot.”
“There is no specific religious dogma present here. This place is no more than a vessel. And because of this, people can freely express their sentiments about death and the deceased,” Minami said.
There are also hot springs in the temple’s precincts, with four small bathhouses open to all worshippers.
I bathed in one of them, called Yakushi no Yu. Its slightly milky water smelled of hydrogen sulfide and was quite comfortable.
That night, I bunked at the Kisshokaku lodging house in the temple’s precincts. The Buddhist vegetarian meal I was served was filling and delicious.
However, alcohol is prohibited, because it is a temple facility. There are also no TVs, and the temple is mostly outside the service areas of mobile phone providers. So, after some quiet reading, I went to sleep earlier than usual.
On the following day, I interviewed several people while walking around the volcanic area.
A man in his 50s, who lost his mother a few years ago, told me: “I feel better when I come here. I can become forward-looking.”
A woman in her 30s, whose niece died, said: “Though the atmosphere here is desolate, my mind becomes calm. I feel renewed.”
Amid nature’s gift of this surreal scenery, people have clarified their sentiments about the deceased for the past 1,200 years.
Perhaps precisely because Osorezan is this kind of place, people may be able to come to grips with death, a reality from which they usually avert their eyes.
Chats with the deceased
Osorezan is famous also for people called “itako,” who claim that they are mediums capable of hosting souls of the deceased in their bodies.
The mediums do not always stay in Osorezan. They conduct a spiritual ritual called “kuchiyose” on such occasions as an annual festival in July.
Osorezan Bodaiji temple doesn’t contract with them or control their activities. The temple only offers them a place for the kuchiyose ritual.
A 50-year-old man from Iwate Prefecture said he lost his son, a junior high school student, to an accident a few years ago and was able to “talk” with him via an itako. He said in tears, “I felt taken back to the past, as if my son came close to me again.”
Local specialty of Shimokita
A local specialty representing the Shimokita Peninsula is miso kayaki. Miso and beaten egg are boiled in scallop shells that are used instead of pots.
Local people say that the cooking style was begun by fishermen on the Shimokita Peninsula. The seasonings, the kinds of miso and the other ingredients vary from household to household.
Taisuke Nakagawa, the manager of Shokujidokoro Nakagawa in Mutsu, said his restaurant was a pioneer in featuring this cuisine on their menu.
Various foods from the mountains and the sea, such as shrimp, scallops, oysters, matsumo seaweed, warabi bracken, naganegi onions and tofu, are used in the restaurant’s version.
Before eating, such ingredients are thoroughly stirred into the miso and beaten egg. From the first hot mouthful, the ingredients combine to deliver a hearty taste of the ocean. A set menu of miso kayaki with a bowl of rice and side dishes is priced at ¥1,000.
In the city, local people say, there are more than 30 restaurants that serve miso kayaki. Because the taste varies from restaurant to restaurant, it’s good to sample various establishments and compare the tastes.
Shells that can be used as miso kayaki pots are sold in local souvenir shops.
About 2 hours and 50 minutes by Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station to Hachinohe Station. About 1 hour and 40 minutes on the Aoimori Railway and the JR Ominato Line from Hachinohe Station to Shimokita Station. About 40 minutes by Shimokita Kotsu bus from the station to Osorezan.