Osorezan: the other-worldly side of Japan

by Mary K

In the northernmost reaches of Japan lies Osorezan, or "Fear Mountain". Here, you can picnic with the dead and meet shaman priestesses, many of them blind, who commune with spirits

The shaman priestess silently observed the elderly Japanese couple over her thick-rimmed spectacles before beginning to sway and finger her brown prayer beads. Slowly she chanted the words that would help her enter the spiritual world of the dead.

Although traditionally the priestesses, or itako of Osorezan are blind, some like Miyou Ogasawara are partially sighted. The silver-haired couple sitting with her appeared nervous as her voice suddenly cracked and her posture changed. The itako began rapidly to relay a message to the man and woman, who had travelled up from Osaka to commune with their only son, whom they lost three years ago.

From the top of Aomori Prefecture, the Shimokita Peninsula juts out like a woodcutter's axe ready to strike. It is here that you find the sacred mountain of Osorezan, or “Fear Mountain.” During the Itako Festival, which is held twice a year in July and October, traffic crawls along the country roads leading up to the 879m-high volcano. At other times of year, Osorezan is far less crowded, but it is still possible to meet with an itako and for 3,000 yen (about £20) commune with a loved one who has passed away.

Osorezan is one of the most magnetic and otherworldly places in Japan, for it is believed that beyond the volcanic shores of Gokurakuhama (“Heavenly Beach”) and Lake Usoriyama lies the spiritual world of the dead. Villages around the area, such as Sekinebashi, are where you can hear stories from locals who claim to have seen or heard spirits of the dead walking up to the mountain.

Mizukojizo, small Buddha-like statues dedicated to the souls of unborn babies, dot the area in and around the mountain, where the wind howls and rain drips from the stone faces of these figures, giving the mournful impression of tears. For many people, a trip to Osorezan is like entering a world of intense sadness, while for others it is a time to picnic with the dead. Flowers lie scattered around the mizukojizo, who with just their tattered red caps and bibs look like pitiful, abandoned babies waiting to be picked up and carried away from these forlorn surroundings. Couples, young and old, offer flowers and sweets to appease the tormented souls of those who never had the chance to experience life in this world. During the Itako Festivals, crowds gather as early as 6am outside the itako tents, bringing with them straw mats and enough refreshments to sit out the hours until their 20-minute session comes.

As you stroll out to the shores of Gokurakuhama, a strong smell of sulphur permeates the air and fumaroles gurgle and belch. Huge black ravens can be seen swooping low, snatching packets of food that have been left as offerings at Jizo statues or near piled pebbles and stones where colourful pinwheels blow in the breeze.

Some people merrily enjoy picnics among the rhododendrons, the only plant life that grows along the shores of Lake Usoriyama. Others, surrounded by flowers and children's toys they have brought, light fires and burn incense while listening to tapes of religious chants, or pray and wipe tears away as they stare out towards the lake and the thick mists beyond.

“Come back and pay your debts,” one old lady playfully yelled out as she threw food into the lake. The 86-year-old woman lost her husband more than 20 years ago and has come to Osorezan on a number of occasions to commune with dead members of her family via itako.

“It makes me feel happy to come here and to be able to hear what they have to say, and I'm sure they are glad that I come, too. I hope my children and grandchildren will come here to communicate with me after I have passed away. Hopefully, I won't leave any debts to pay,” she laughed.

Although the powers of the itako are recognized by many Japanese who visit Osorezan, they are not considered to be “true” shamans in so far as they rarely experience the initial “visionary call” that shamans, who are usually male, undergo in Japan.

The women, who are usually blind from birth, undergo their own particular rigorous training under a master before taking part in a symbolic marriage with a god. The itako then goes on to become the mouthpiece of the ancestral spirit for pilgrims to Entsuji, the temple founded in the 9th century by the Buddhist monk Jikaku Daishi.

It is said that while studying Buddhism in China, Jikaku Daishi, had a prophetic dream in which he was told to return to Japan and walk east for 30 days until he found a mountain. On this mountain, the dream told him, he should build a temple from where he should spread Buddhism, but long before even that time Osorezan had served as a sacred place for Japan's indigenous people, the Ainu, to commune with their spiritual world of the dead.

Places to stay & Useful Contact Information:

Hotel New Yagen       Phone:+81-175-34-3311

Maruhon Ryokan        Phone:+81-175-36-2330

Murai Ryokan               Phone:+81-175-22-4755

Aomori Tourist Information   Tel: :+81-177-23-7211

Japan National Tourist Organization http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/


Mary K

I have worked as a travel writer and photographer for many years. My work has appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide, as well as on websites. During my time in Japan, I have worked as the Travel Editor at the Asahi Evening News (now the International Herald Tribune/Asahi Shimbun), a position that not only saw me edit and commission stories, but kept me busy travelling around Japan and to other countries too. My world travels have taken me through Asia, Africa, North and South America, Australia and Europe. My dream is to visit Antarctica, the Falklands and Argentina. Actually, there are so many places that I hope to yet see, and many I wish to return to. My claim to fame is that I have walked the length and breadth of Japan in a zigzag, a 16-month odyssey from northern Hokkaido to Okinawa’s southernmost island. A book of the walk is due to be published soon. Apart from travelling in RL, I also enjoy exploring virtual reality worlds. And, I particularly enjoying mixing (and mashing) my traditional media skills to create digital media. I now love to experiment with video and audio when I travel. You can see some of my multimedia travel stories and photographs at http://www.marykingmedia.com