Osorezan – 恐山

Osorezan – 恐山

Osorezan is a sacred area located in the middle of Shimokita Peninsula, the northernmost zone of Aomori Prefecture. For centuries, considered the gate of the underworld due to its intense volcanic activity, it constitutes, together with the Hieizan and the Mount Kōya, one of the most sacred pilgrimage places in Japan.

What’s special about Osorezan?

Located in the remote Shimokita peninsula, Osorezan finds the origin of its name in several theories: in antiquity it was called “Usoriyama”, but it seems that in the Shimokita local dialect it began to be called “Osorezan”. Another theory derives the name from a term in the ainu language* from “ushoro (cavity)”.

* Ainu is the name of the ancient indigenous population to Hokkaido, Sakhalin island and the northern Kyushu.

Furthermore, the name Osorezan may be attributed to its literal meaning in Japanese, “mountain of fear”: this is due to the “hellish” aspect of this place, where the volcanic activity has generated curious mountain formations, lakes from the water with unusual colors and a smell of sulfur that hovers throughout the area.

Leaving out now the digression about Osorezan’s natural features, we talk about the core of its spiritual side, which is the Bodai-ji Buddhist temple, located on the shore of Lake Usori. The Osorezan is considered a mountain where the souls of the dead gather: in July, during the Osorezan-matsuri, the inhabitants consult the itako (blind seers) at the temple.

Osorezan is a place known for the cult of the dead, which takes place through the statues of the bodhisattva Jizō, here in great numbers since ancient times.
In the Shimokita region it is said that “the souls who die go to the mountain”.

Here has become known as a place of worship where many monks go on pilgrimages, as these landscapes are believed to be the gateway to the other world.

How to get to Osorezan

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We visited the Osorezan coming from Aomori, deciding to sleep one night on the Shimokita peninsula. The sky in those days was slightly cloudy, but this created what is perhaps the perfect atmosphere for this area.

From the parking lot you can immediately see the bridge that crosses the Sanzu river: this marks the entrance to the Osorezan, dividing the world of the living from that of the dead. Indeed, one has the impression of entering a new world once arrived beyond the bridge.

Continuing, we reached the Bodai-ji temple: being a place where the jizō are venerated, there are many pinwheels dedicated to mizuko (never born children), in a slightly gloomy and cold atmosphere. In the background, from the sulfurous plains rose smoke, making it clear why this temple has always been considered a borderline between ordinary life and enlightenment.

Near the temple we find the beach of Gokura, a bank of the Usori lake. Here there are no other buildings or human activities, so it is an area of luxuriant and unspoiled nature.

However, given the influence of volcanic activity, the water of this lake has an extremely high acidity (PH3), not allowing the proliferation of complex life forms (only a specie of fish is said to be able to dwell here).

Although we spent little time in Osorezan, we could learn a lot about Buddhism, in an experience that we can consider very significant to everybody.

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