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If I told you I’d been to hell and back you wouldn’t think I was serious, but it’s true. At least, I should say I made it to the gates of hell and back, all the while living to tell about it. In the far north of Japan, way past the concrete jungle of Tokyo, and past the tsunami’s carnage in Tohoku lies another hellish landscape: Osorezan.
It’s the Buddhist belief that Osorezan is the point of entry for the after life. The eight surrounding peaks and river that must be crossed by all dead souls resemble the Buddhist depiction of heaven and hell. Literally, “Osorezan”, translates to “Fear Mountain” and it’s said to mark the entrance to Hell. The landscape looks fitting to be the gateway to Hell, too. Lake Usori’s shores stretch to the forest across gray expanses of rock that seem to have been formed on another world.
Water rises from the ground like blood from a wound deciding whether or not to congeal. Colored pools form before the water trickles to the lake. If you’re quiet you can hear that the landscape is quite alive with the sound of bubbling water and at points you can see steam rising from a landscape that’s fitting for anything but life.
Getting to Osorezan
Finding your way to Osorezan is no easier than finding your way out of hell. If you’re disembarking from Tokyo you’ll need a Shinkansen or overnight bus to Aomori. From there you’ll have the delight of enjoying a slightly less high-tech system of public transportation than that offered in the major metropolitan hubs. Train transportation in areas of Aomori is irregular with waits of up to an hour and a half depending on when you leave or arrive.
For example, if the overnight bus drops you off at Honhachinohe station around 0730, as the Willer Express does, then you can expect to wait up to 20 minutes for a train to JR Hachinohe station. From JR Hachinohe you can again expect to wait for about an hour and a half to catch the train to Shimokita. If you’re planning on making this trek you should note that the first train from Hachinohe to Shimokita departs at 0930, so you have no rush after alighting the bus.
The train ride from Hachinohe to Shimokita feels like the longest in the world. Consisting of only two cars the train makes a pace that, while not leisurely, feels slow as it squeaks and chugs along the coastline. After the 100 minute ride is complete you’ll arrive at a small station which is Shimokita.
Your accommodations will likely dictate what you do at this point. The city of Mutsu is relatively small if you’re coming from the city, and so taxi service isn’t the same. When I arrived two taxis were waiting, and both were gone before I could say sumimasen. So, I walked the roughly two miles to my hotel.
I want to blow your mind with travel revelations of having found the last unspoiled piece of Japan, but I can’t. Mutsu is by and large a quiet, sleepy town, that receives few visitors. During my stay I saw four travelers whom were clearly not from there, compared to Tokyo where you get at least one “hey man” a week. While sleepy, Mutsu is not without it’s charms, but as nothing was open I can’t tell you what those are exactly.
What I can say though is that the people I encountered were charming, and more than willing to help me during my travels. My stay in Mutsu was in an area that an Ecologist would call a “dead zone." There were all the tell-tale signs that life should exist, but there was none. There were bars, and shops, and three camera stores, but alas no people.
While the nightlife in my part of town wasn’t jumping off I can say that the location at which I stayed was exceedingly convenient. The Mutsu bus terminal is located one block from the Mutsu Park Hotel which makes it very convenient to reach Osorezan, which as many have noted is hard to reach. If you’re staying at the hotel take note that the bus to Osorezan first leaves the terminal at 0915 and takes a little over half an hour to reach the temple.
A visit to Osorezan is a humbling experience. It’s both beautiful and a somber reminder that all of the things we’re given in life also can be taken. As you walk past stones piled by families who have lost children it becomes quite clear that for some this pilgrimage is for some a painful one. Stones, piled by parents and loved ones of the lost, are scattered about the area in an attempt to help the souls of those who have passed gain access to heaven.
Jizo inhabit this land that is otherwise uninhabitable. They look out over the pinwheels left by families of the dead. Even though it’s a dark landscape, and not one that you would likely visit for pleasure it’s actually quite beautiful. The purpose of the Jizo at Osorezan is to fend off demons who would otherwise torment the souls of children in the afterlife.
In addition to piles of stone, pinwheels and Jizo you’ll find the forested portion of Osorezan to be covered with shoes and pieces of cloth. The shoes are presumably to aid the dead in the afterlife. If you travel only slightly further into the forest you can see that offerings are scattered about. Nearly everywhere you look is a reminder of loss.
If you’re Nihongo skills are good enough and you’re here at the right time you can receive a reading from an Itako. The Itako are traditional blind mediums who are said to be able to communicate with the dead. Twice yearly Itako are present at Bodaiji Temple.
You don’t have to have experienced a loss to be able to appreciate Osorezan. It’s mystery alone is enough to entice travelers to come here, whether on a pilgrimage or not, and it’s an excellent way to experience something off the beaten path in Japan.
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