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The Okuno-in Cemetery
The Okuno-in cemetery in Mount Kōya is one of Japan’s most stunning sites. Set amidst a towering cedar tree forest in the tiny temple town of Mount Kōya are located some 200,000 tombs, mausoleums and monuments, making it one of the country’s largest, most prestigious and most sacred cemeteries. Once the burial ground for Japan’s most powerful families, today new plots in Okonu-in are mostly used by corporations to erect monuments, with no bodies attached. The most famous resident of Okuno-in is Kobo Daishi, the monk formerly known as Kūkai who founded the village in 816 as a home to the Shingon (True Word”) sect of Buddhism. Kūkai is credited with having a tremendous influence on Japanese culture through his additional talents as a teacher, inventor, poet, calligrapher and engineer. Though he officially passed from this lifecycle in 835, it is said that Kobo Daishi is not dead, but exists in a state of eternal meditation. You can reach Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum complex by taking a scenic 1.5 kilometer walk among the aromatic moss and lichen covered cedars, where stone lanterns guide the way through an amazing assortment of ancient statues, ornate carvings, stupas (stone pillars inscribed with family names) and more modern corporate monuments.
Sharp Electronics Corp. Monument

Corporations pay large sums of money to erect monuments in the Okonu-in cemetery in the spiritual village of Mount Kōya. Many of them make sure that the monuments reflect proper corporate branding, such as this big screen granite television set at the Sharp Electronics Corporation site in Okonu-in. Other notables: a granite coffee cup, filled with polished stone “coffee” and the monument erected by a pest control company to atone for all the insects it’s exterminated.

Photo by Deborah Caulfield Rybak

Just before the long walkway to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum in Mount Kōya’s Okuno-in cemetery, you’ll come across a row of beautiful statues. They are Jizo, the Bodhisattva which looks after children and travelers. Visitors can make offerings and prayers as they move along the row, throwing water from ladles on each Mizumuke (“water covered”) Jizo.
Shingon Buddhist Monks
Each day, in the morning and before noon, a group of saffron-garbed Shingon Buddhist monks, often protecting themselves against rain and mist under exquisite wax-covered paper parasols, make a scenic trek to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi—one of Japan’s most revered religious figures—to bring him his daily meals (monks of this sect never eat after noon). Little has changed in this ritual over the 1,200 years since Kobo Daishi founded the monastic center at Mount Kōya in 816 A.D. Each day, a group of the most senior monks file in ceremonial procession across the Gobyonohashi Bridge that separates the mausoleum from the rest of the complex. They believe that Kobo Daishi is not dead, but living in a state of “eternal meditation,” waiting for the next incarnation of the Buddha Maitreya.
Temple Lodge Dining
While staying in one of the many “temple lodges” available to Mount Kōya visitors, you’ll be served only vegetarian meals. Each one is a multi-course work of art.
The Belfry at Kongobuji Temple
The Belfry at the Kongobuji Temple grounds in Mount Kōya, the headquarters of the Shingon (“True Word”) Buddhist sect, founded in 816 by the monk Kūkai, later known as Kobo Daishi. The original temple has been destroyed by fire many times, and the original complex has grown to include meditation halls, a teahouse and the largest rock garden in Japan.
Kiyomizu Temple
Located on a hillside in Eastern Kyoto and offering fantastic views of the city, the Buddhist Kiyonizu Temple was founded in 798, though the present buildings were constructed in 1633 (without using a single nail!). Kiyomizu means clear or pure water, and drinking from the water that flows through the temple grounds is said to confer wisdom, health and longevity.
Obi Sash
The obi sash is an integral part of the kimono and can often cost more than the kimono itself. There are many types of obi and many more types of bows to tie. Unmarried women wear the fanciest and most colorful obi. This obi is tied in a “butterfly knot.”
Nishiki market
The six block long Nishiki Market is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” and it is said that any and every kind of food can be found here: from meat, fish and vegetables to … tofu doughnuts?!
Geisha sighting
If you see a geisha on the street (especially in Kyoto), they are probably a tourist dressed as a geisha. This picture was taking on one of the two days a year that geishas emerge, in full makeup and dress, to pay their respects to the people who help transform them into highly sought-after entertainers: their stylists, dance teachers and booking agents. In the 1920s, there were an estimated 80,000 geisha working in Japan. This days, that number is more like 1,000.
Geisha are known as geiko in Kyoto, and apprentice geisha are called maiko, which means “dance girl” They are easy to spot from behind, as they use the same heavy white make up as they use on their faces to make two or three triangular stripes on the nape of their necks.
Japanese lanterns were used for thousands of years to light their homes, teahouses and at social gatherings. These days they come in all shapes and sizes. These capsule lanterns with kanji characters printed on them hang everywhere.
Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle sits in the middle of 15 acres of prime Osaka real estate, one of the most famous castles in Japan. It was built in the 16th century but has been damaged and restored many times in between, most recently after being bombed at the end of World War II. The walls of the castle, built in 1620, still stand today.
Dotombori Canal
The Dotombori Canal is a prime strolling area in Osaka and its many bars and restaurants are popular with Japanese businessmen.

Can't get enough of Kansai? See more images from Sky's October 2010 feature story here. And, read the full story, Kansai Confidential, by clicking on the digital magazine link.

Text by Deborah Caulfield Rybak
Photography by Christopher Wise

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