Some places just make you feel uneasy. These places have a peculiar, strange feel about them and you just want to leave as soon as you get there. They provoke the supernatural sensation that something is just not quite right. Japan’s Mount Osore (Osorezan) is one such place. According to Japanese legend, Osorezan (translated as fear mountain) is considered the entrance to hell.
Much like Aokigahara, Japan’s Haunted Forest of Death, Osorezan is a place steeped in Japanese lore and mysticism. Visitors wanting to experience a side of a Japan far removed from the nice and familiar temples and festivals will certainly not be disappointed by Osorezan and its unsettling landscape.
This is What Japanese Hell Looks Like
Located at the northern tip of Aomori Prefecture, Osorezan is a place that has been venerated for its mystical power since ancient times. Lake Usori still bears the Usori name by which the area was known to the Ainu people many many years ago.
The area houses many different inviting sounding locales such as the Lake of Blood, half a dozen different hells, the Mountain of Swords, and the Dry Bed of the River of Souls. Even Osorezan itself is still an active volcano. Sure sounds like a nice place for a vacation, doesn’t it? But wait – there’s more!
The inescapable stench of sulfur is rampant in the area. The ground is grey, barren, and marked by openings that bubble with steam and hot water. The toxic waters of Lake Usori have killed off all aquatic life except for one hardy species of redfin. Signs everywhere warn of the danger of poisonous pit vipers in the area. Year-round the air is curiously silent, with no insect noise to speak of. The only noise to break the silence here is the call of black crows that eerily populate the area. Osorezan is a very creepy place indeed.
But despite its creepy factor, Osorezan has a healthy flow of tourism, and some parts of the area are actually quite pretty. Osorezan was discovered over 1000 years ago by a Buddhist priest in search of a sacred mountain that resembled the world of Buddha. Today it is the site of Bodaiji Temple. Bodaiji is the only temple in the area, and thus the main attraction. Bodaiji stems from a branch of Japanese Buddhism that has played a traditional role in helping the dead on their journey to the afterlife.
The Entrance to the Afterlife
Because its geographical elements are similar to the descriptions of Buddhist hell, Osorezan is known as the entrance to the afterlife. On the way to Bodaiji Temple stands a small crimson bridge over a river that every dead person has to cross on their way to the afterlife.
Two demons are said to guard the river with the female demon stripping the clothes of the dead and the male demon weighing the clothes on tree branches to judge their karma. How weighing clothes determines your karma is a mystery to me, but I guess that’s just the way they do things at Osorezan.
For the person who has led a virtuous life, crossing the bridge will be easy – you just walk right across it. If you’ve lived an average life you can cross at a shallow path across the river which isn’t too bad. But if you have led a life of evil, you must walk through the waters of the river which are filled with demons and poisonous the snakes mentioned above.
The majority of Japanese funerals are Buddhist ceremonies, and most adhere to this bridge crossing belief. For example, it’s believed that the departed make the crossing seven days after they die and a special ceremony is often held to pray for a successful crossing.
The Jizo Also Make an Appearance
Among the souls trying to cross the river are the souls of dead children and unborn babies. These little tykes build up piles of pebbles along the riverbed in an attempt to get to the other side. They are supported by Jizo (which Viet wrote about in an earlier post) who protect the souls from evil demons who constantly try to destroy the piles of pebbles because they are demons and that’s what they do.
Statues of Jizo and piles of stones are commonplace around Osorezan. The stones are offerings to Jizo by parents of dead children in the hope that the Jizo will use the stones to help their children gain access to the world beyond. Pinwheels are also a common sight as they are said to help with the children’s journey as well.
The Blind Shamans of Mount Osore
During Osorezan festivals, those seeking direct contact with the departed can do so through blind mediums known as itako. These mediums are all women, typically over 80 years of age, and rarely speak English. And I guess not all of them are totally blind because the woman in the above photo is wearing glasses, so she must have some sight left in her.
The itako chant and speak with the dead to deliver messages from the spirit world to their paying customers. While doing so, they hold their sacred black beads which often contain such odds and ends as old coins and parts from dead animals.
It’s not hard to tell that the itako all seem to be a bunch of hacks, though. The supposed spirits of the dead tend to say the same things to just about everyone, but the customers don’t seem to mind. Many such customers will queue for hours on end waiting for the itako. Afterwards they all seem quite satisfied with their “interaction” with lost love ones.
The Bodaiji Festival
Every year the Bodaiji Festival (July 22-24) attracts many visitors, and is a real cash cow for the itako. Getting to the area can be difficult due to a lack of public transportation, but Osorezan remains a popular destination and the temple even has overnight lodgings for guests.
There are many walking paths around the area, allowing visitors to stroll around the site and take in the scenery. Like I said before, some areas around Osorezan are gorgeous, so it’s nice for people to be able to walk around and experience them. Visitors should avoid the poisonous water of Lake Usori though, as it is poisonous. And remember, the whole place stinks to high hell of sulfur, so if you have a sensitive nose, be aware.
As a tourist destination, Osorezan is definitely a departure from the usual temples and shrines that Japan has to offer. Minus the rotten smell, it definitely seems like a cool place to visit. If I’m ever in the general area and have some time to kill, I’ll be sure to check it out in person.
So tell me, have any of you ever been to Osorezan before? What was it like? Think you’d ever go visit it, or would the stench be too much for you? And which area do you think is more spiritually charged – Osorezan or Aokigahari? Let us know in the comments!