Have you ever wondered what the world would look like after you die? Well, we have. According to Japanese folk tales, those who die will pass a bridge to cross the Sanzunokawa River. It has been said that the river divides our world from another world.
As we all need to cross that river one day, why not start preparing ourselves in the meantime by visiting Mt. Osore (恐山) in Aomori Prefecture for an idea of what heaven and hell might look like? Albeit the real ones will be millions of times better or worse depending on where you end up going, the trip to Mt. Osore might inspire you to do more good deeds！
How to Get to Mt. Osore
There is no direct public transport that will take you to Mt. Osore. In fact, it is kind of complicated.
From JR Aomori Station (青森駅), you will have to take the Aoimori Railway (青い森鉄道) to get to Noheji Station (野辺地). From Noheji Station, you will need to change to JR Ōminato Line (大湊線) to get to JR Shimokita Station (下北駅). Then board the Shimokita Koutsu Bus (下北交通) that will bound for Mt. Osore (恐山線) from Shimokita Station’s bus stop no 1. You will be getting off at the last stop. The whole bus trip will take you approximately 40 minutes.
Important: The bus services bound for Mt. Osore are only limited to 3 services a day. The last bus leaves Mt. Osore at 3 pm. Make sure you don’t miss it, or you will need to get a taxi back to your accommodation!
You can also find Aomori Railway’s route map and ticket fare HERE.
Sanzunokawa (三途川) and Taiko Bridge (太鼓橋)
Coming to Mt. Osore by bus means that by the time you get off the bus, you are already at the other side of the Sanzunokawa River…
So to remind yourself of how you got to the world of death, walk backward to find this gorgeous arch bridge – the Taiko Bridge. Taking a photo with the bridge and the river is important so you can prove your visit to the other world to whoever dares to doubt you!
Disclaimer: The article contains some distressing content that may be uncomfortable for you as some parts relate to children.
Osore-Zan Bodai-Ji Temple (恐山 伽罗陀山菩提寺)
When you return to the Mt. Osore bus stop, you will find the statue of Jikaku Daishi on your right-hand side.
You will need to pay the entrance fee if you want to go beyond the front gate of the temple.
- 500 yen for adults
- 200 yen for elementary and junior high school students
You will also find these six statues of Jizō Bodhisattva (although the photo only shows five…).
These statues symbolize reincarnation. In Buddhism, it is said that depending on what you have done in your present life, if you can’t become a Buddha, you will be born into one of the six worlds in your next life. It can be heaven, can be the human world, can be hell…etc.
From the photos of the temple, you might be wondering why there are pinwheels everywhere. Those pinwheels were offered by the parents who lost their children.
As one of the three holiest spots in Japan (the other two are Mount Kōya (高野山) in Wakayama Prefecture and Mount Hiei (比叡山) in Shiga Prefecture), many Japanese people believe that after one has died, their spirit goes to Mt. Osore. So anyone who wants to be closer to their deceased loved ones will come here.
This is especially the case when Osore-Zan Bodai-Ji Temple conducts festivals. During the festivals, mediums (イタコ) will gather at the temple to help people connect and communicate with their loved ones from the other world.
Similar to Chinese culture, it is believed that if you die before your parents, you lack filial piety as you wouldn’t be able to pay back the care you have received from them ever since you were in your mother’s womb. This is a sin that people believe is so serious that it will lead you to hell. Yes, we know…
In Japan, parents mourning their deceased child or children usually visit Mt. Osore and offer the pinwheels to Jizō Bodhisattva. They pray to Jizō Bodhisattva so that he can travel to hell and bring the pinwheels to their children. With the pinwheels, they hope their child/children can still have some fun even though they are suffering in hell.
On a side note, the spinning pinwheel also symbolizes reincarnation.
The Origin of Osore-Zan Bodai-ji Temple
When Jikaku Daishi was learning and practising Buddhism in China, he had a dream. In his dream, an eminent monk told him, “When you return to your hometown, travel further east for around 30 days, and you will see a holy mountain. When you arrive, make a Jizo Bodhisattva and practice and promote Buddhism there”.
When he arrived at Mt. Osore, he felt that this must be the mountain that the eminent monk spoke of. As he stood on the bare rock surface, hot steam and hot water came out everywhere. The area was also filled with a sulfur-like smell. This hell-like view greatly contrasted with the heaven-like scenery around Lake Usori (宇曽利山湖). The clear cobalt blue lake with white sand at the lakeshore was surrounded by eight mountains resembling the lotus flower with eight petals on which the Buddha stands. And if you wonder which eight mountains, they are Mt. Kamabuse (釜臥山), Ozukushiyama (大尽山), Kozukushiyama (小尽山), Hokkokuzan (北国山), Mt. Byobu (屏風山), Tsuruginoyama (剣の山), Jizoyama (地蔵山), and Keitosan (鶏頭山).
HERE is a map of the temple on the official website. You can change the language setting to English, but unfortunately, the map at the top will remain in Japanese.
Onsen at Bodai-ji Temple
Between May and October each year, anyone who has paid the entrance fee to the temple is welcome to use the following four onsen facilities in the precinct:
- Kotaki no Yu (古滝の湯): good for stomach-related diseases
- Hie no Yu (冷抜の湯): good for Neuralgia
- Hanazome no Yu (花染の湯): good for pimple
- Yakushi no Yu (薬師の湯): good for eye-related diseases
The onsen was originally used for worshippers to clean their bodies before praying to the Buddha.
☛ While the onsen facilities at the temple are as clean as those in hotels, you will need to bring your towels to dry yourself up!
☛ There should be signs at the entrance of the four onsen facilities indicating whether that particular facility is a male-only (男), female-only (女), or mixed-gender (混浴) bath. Read clearly to avoid any embarrassing moments!
☛ Maximum bathing time in the onsen is 10 minutes, or you will risk getting damaged skin from the high acidity of onsen water.
A Tour To The Hell And The Heaven
You might have heard of the famous Hell of Beppu in Oita Prefecture. At Mt. Osore, you will get a tour that supposedly resonates the hell even more!
After you depart from the last hall of Osore-Zan Bodai-ji Temple – Jizōdō (地蔵堂), the hell that Jikaku Daishi saw 1,200 years ago is awaiting.
Walking on the rugged rocky road as you smell the sulfur-rich gas ejected from the small holes on the ground and the gaps between the rocks, doesn’t it feel like you are already in hell?
During the tour, you might see some stones with names written on them. These are the names of the deceased written by their beloved friends and/or family. The stones are their second tombstone.
You might also see some drinks and snacks placed around the stones, especially those close to the statue of Buddha. Don’t try to take those as they are for the dead to enjoy. Please don’t take what is not yours.
You might notice a pile of stones throughout the path leading to Lake Usori.
Remember the sin of those child/children who passed away before their parents that we mentioned earlier?
For those lacking filial piety, it has been said that they spend their time piling stones in hell. If they can make a pile of stones as tall as they are, they will be free to go to heaven.
Sounds easy? Nope! If you don’t pile quickly enough, you will be beaten by the guards of hell. And not only that, just when the pile of stones reaches your height, the guard will head over to destroy your pile. Not the most uplifting story to read…
So by piling the stones at Mt. Osore, the parents hope to reduce their child/children’s suffering…
☛ The signboards with “危険” (meaning dangerous) are placed throughout the hell’s promenade. Please don’t walk past those signboards. Not unless you want to be poisoned and burnt by the sulfur gas! Please avoid it at all costs.
☛ Please watch out for snakes. Although rare, it is still their natural habitat.
Usoriyamako Gokurakuhama (宇曽利山湖 極楽浜)
As you get closer to Lake Usori, your eyes will definitely be immersed in this beautiful emerald-green lake water. Albeit the sulfur smell, the lake is equally as stunning as Lake Towada (*´ω｀).
The water of Lake Usori is so clean that it has a transparency of as deep as 13 meters!
Passing through the hell-like rocky area, the white sand spreading alongside the lakeshore will make you feel like you are at a tropical beach!
Coming from hell, this beach is like the beautiful Pure Land described in the Buddhism sutra. Hence the lakeshore was named Gokuraku (meaning ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise’).
However, like most things, there is always a ‘but’. This astonishing Lake Usori, unfortunately, has a low acidity level of pH3.5, meaning that most fishes wouldn’t be able to survive in that lake. So while the scenery around the lake is amazing, don’t be too quick to judge something solely based on its appearance.
Festivals at Mt. Osore
There are two festivals held at Osore-Zan Bodai-ji Temple every year. One at the end of July and the other one at the beginning of October.
- Osorezan Grand Festival (恐山大祭) is held between the 20th to the 24th of July.
- Osorezan Akimairi (恐山秋詣り) is a three-day festival held in early October. While the date of this festival is not fixed each year, it is always held for three consecutive days, with the last day ending on the 2nd Monday of October.
The festivals at Bodai-Ji Temple mainly consist of Buddhist memorial services and prayers. There are no stalls, fireworks, or Bon-Odori dance at night.
The highlight of the event is the Sanshujyozanshiki service (山主上山式). The monks will sing the Buddhism hymn from the Taiko Bridge to the main gate of Bodai-ji Temple (菩提寺総門).
The festivals are held between 6 am to 6 pm during the five days in July and three days in October. At night, the temple lights up briefly, but other than that, nothing exciting.
For more photos of the festivals, please click HERE to see them on the official Japanese website.
Communicating with Your Beloved Ones at the Other World through Mediums
As mentioned before, during the festivals, mediums from Tsugaru (津軽) will come to Bodai-ji Temple to help those who wish to communicate with their deceased loved ones. There will be simple stalls placed around the entrance of the temple. Look for the signboard saying “イタコの口寄せ” or even just find a stall with a long queue!
Tip: If you are keen to use the medium services, the long queue isn’t something you should worry about. The real problem is that even if you speak Japanese, you might still not be able to understand what the medium is saying. They talk really fast and will usually be speaking in the Tsugaru dialect.
The solution? Remember to bring along someone (i.e. a translator) who understands the Tsugaru dialect (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
The cost of getting their service isn’t fixed. Even if you ask them, they probably won’t give you an answer. But as a general guide, people have been paying between 3,000 to 5,000 yen.
Staying at Bodai-ji Temple
The temple provides accommodation to its visitors. Staying at Bodai-ji temple means adopting a lifestyle similar to the temple monks. From going to bed at 10 pm and waking up at 6 am, to chanting with the other monks at the Jizō Hall at 6:30 am, you have to be able to follow this schedule.
Furthermore, if you don’t speak Japanese, it will be hard for you to converse with the people there. If you really want to stay at the temple overnight, we recommend you bring a translator.
For further information, HERE is a great article in Japanese about the experience. You can translate to English by opening it on Google Chrome and changing the language using the Google Translate icon at the right of the address bar.
If you are keen on this experience, booking is required at least a week before arrival. The temple only accepts booking through phone calls or letters. Below is some brief information about the temple stay. You can refer to the official website HERE too.
- The cost is 12,000 per person.
- Check-in is from 2 pm.
- Check-out is by 10 am.
- Breakfast is served at 7:30 am.
- Dinner is served at 5:30 pm.
The Fall Foliage at Mt. Osore
Autumn at Mt. Osore is just as scenic as any other place in Japan. If you are a big autumn foliage fan, plan your trip to Mt. Osore between late October to the beginning of November (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
Bodai-ji Temple’s Opening Hours
- Between May and mid-October: 6 am to 6 pm
- Between mid to the end of October: 6 am to 5 pm
For your trip planning, you might want to allocate 1 hour to fully enjoy each spot at Mt. Osore. If you are planning to bathe in the onsen, it is better to give yourself two hours (^_-)-☆.
Discover Other Amazing Destinations in Aomori Prefecture
Aomori, Japan’s main island’s northmost prefecture, is filled with stunning landscapes and volcanic mountain ranges. In addition to its many off-the-beaten-path scenic destinations, it is also culturally rich and features two of the country’s best art museums.
So if you plan to enjoy Japan’s breathtaking scenery, refer to our Top 12 Places to Visit When You Visit Aomori article for ideas!