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Cultural Quintessence

A BRIDGE TO THE BEYONDMt.Osore-zan, the northernmost tip of Honshu

Written by Charlotte Anderson Photographed by Gorazd Vilhar

Jan Fornell (Sweden)

In the far north of Japan is a place of awesome desolation where the spirits of the dead are thought to gather. Osore-zan (Fear Mountain) was revered already in ancient times by the indigenous Ainu people, who once inhabited that northern region of the island of Honshu, before they were driven into Ezo (now called Hokkaido) by the Japanese.
Because of the mystical nature of this remote spot, the temple Entsu-ji was founded here in the 9th century, melding new Buddhist beliefs with local folk beliefs. The temple has been rebuilt several times during the intervening centuries, and today its priests still minister to the many pilgrims who make their way up the mountain to commune with their lost loved ones.

Lake Usori, bearing the original Ainu name for this place instead of the Japanese Osore) stands pale and still in the caldera of this volcanic plateau. This otherworldly scene of sand and rocks, pierced by natural steam and sulfur vents, stands against an often dark and brooding sky.
Women of all ages, occasionally accompanied by their husbands, come to arrange poignant offerings to the spirits of their lost children along the lakeshore: toys, flowers, coins, candy, snacks. Nearly every cluster of offerings is marked with one or more pinwheels which spin in the breeze, ruffling the air with the softest of sounds. The parents stay a while, praying, remembering. . . . Often they bring a picnic lunch which they will eat right there, seated on the ground, sharing food and conversation with the spirit.
It is believed that the child-spirits are forced to spend their time piling up mounds of stones to serve as stepping stones across the water to the other world. Demons are said to come in the night to topple over the piles, so the work and suffering of the little ones is endless, piling and piling again and again. As an expression of their pity, visitors to the mountain help out the spirits by adding a rock or two.
Jizo is a bodhisattva, one who out of compassion foregoes his own enlightenment and, therefore, buddhahood in order to help others attain it. There are innumerable statues of Jizo-san all over Japan, where he is popularly worshiped as the saint-like protector of children and travelers. On Osore-zan he is credited with coming to the aid of the child-spirits in their efforts to reach “the other side.” Pilgrims sometimes give the simple straw sandals, waraji, to him as an offering, for it is believed that he wears out countless pairs on his endless benevolent treks over this harsh landscape.
Here and there can be seen great piles of offerings to adult spirits as well, obvious by the whiskey, sake, beer and cigarettes among the great variety of foods given. Often the giver will open the packaging of the offering, and will even light a cigarette from an offered pack, to make it easier for the spirit to consume essences. Cast upon the branches of rhododendrons and the other rare plants that are able to survive in this inhospitable place, are garments, hats, towels and baby bibs, to offer the wandering spirits symbolic protection from the cold. Wooden sticks called sotoba are purchased by worshipers and inscribed by the temple priests with the posthumous name of the deceased, to be stood upright in the sand as a memorial and blessing for his or her spirit.
A graceful red bridge represents the passageway to the world of the dead. Sometimes visitors come to rehearse the crossing to relieve their apprehension of that inevitable time in the future when they will truly pass from this world of the living.

Closed for winter due to the heavy snow, the mountain is accessible only from May until November. In spring, following traditional folk custom, farmers from the surrounding region come to pray for fertility and in the autumn to give thanks for abundance. It is not just nature’s deities to whom they pray for these favors, but also to their ancestors, who are believed able to influence family fortunes from beyond the grave.
For five days each summer, Osore-zan is crowded with pilgrims for its “Great Festival,” and once again for two days in October for “Autumn Prayers.” Particularly at these times, blind female shamans called itako congregate here and through them people seek to make contact with their lost loved ones. As a medium manipulates her huge rosary, made of black soapberries and interspersed with certain objects thought to be imbued with supernatural powers--old coins, seashells, bear claws, stag horns, falcon talons, boar tusks--she falls into a trance and summons the requisite spirit. One young woman, for example, has come to Osore-zan to give the happy news to her mother, whom she lost while a middle school student, that she has succeeded to graduate from the university. A man who is getting up in years wants to tell his wife, who passed away a few years before, that he will see her again soon on the “other side.” There are hundreds of people from all over the country, each with his or her own special reason for making the often long journey to this very special place.
The departed, it seems, have much to say too, and visitors are eager for and moved by the messages transmitted to them through the mediums. The spirits may convey words of endearment or give comforting reassurance that they are fine in their otherworldly home. They may have advice for their family members, sometimes reprimands, and even occasionally warnings of impending dangers. But perhaps most often of all, they gently remind their descendants to not forget them, for in Japan it is not only the living who require attention and care. As long as they are remembered and honored, the ancestors and other lost loved ones remain, in spirit, an important part of the family circle.