Osorezan (恐山, Mount Osore, 879 m), often transliterated as "Mount Fear" or "Mountain of Terror", is a composite volcano located on Shimokita Peninsula in the north of Aomori Prefecture. It is part of the Shimokita Peninsula Quasi-National Park. Lake Usori (宇曾利湖) is in the centre of its caldera. Osorezan is notorious as a place where the spirits of the dead are believed to linger on their way to the Buddhist paradise.
Lake Usori is surrounded by steaming banks with countless vents emitting sulphuric gas. The only plant life able to survive in the wasteland are rhododendrons. The bleak and desolate landscape is reminiscent to the banks of the mythical River Sanzu (三途の川 Sanzu-no-kawa), the River of Three Crossings, a Buddhist belief similar to the Greek Styx, symbolising the gate to the netherworld. Souls of children are said to wander here, condemned to pursue salvation by building towers of stones (stupa) which are trampled down by demons during the night. Jizō, the bodhisattva (菩薩 bosatsu) who drives away the demons, is represented by hundreds of small statues scattered across the crater region, often adorned with the red or pink bibs of dead infants as well as their favourite toys, pinwheels, soothers, and rattles.
The yellow-reddish soil covering the banks of the lake contrasts starkly with the silvery-turquoise waters of Usoriko, the surrounding dark green forests and - if you are lucky - the blue skies; an unforgettable and unearthly spectacle.
The Bodai temple (菩提寺 Bodai-ji), said to have been founded in the 9th century CE by the monk Ennin (圓仁 or 円仁, 794-864), also known as Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師) of the Tendai school, stands on the banks of the lake. The mountain had already been revered by Japanese shamans well before the advent of Buddhism, and during their annual gathering held July 20-24, busloads of people arrive at Osorezan to communicate with their ancestors or the recently deceased through mediums called itako (イタコ), elderly blind women who received spiritual training that lasts for many years. Contacting the spirits has turned into a lucrative industry.
The small red humpback bridge not far from the temple represents the journey the souls of the deceased make when crossing from this world to the next; those who led an evil life will not be able to pass over.
Bridge over the River Sanzu which the souls of the deceased need to cross into the afterlife. The Sanzu River (三途の川 “River of Three Crossings”) is believed to be the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead.
Near the lake there are several free hot-spring baths and pilgrims' lodgings. A very picturesque onsen resort is the Yagen Onsen (薬研温泉) right within the Quasi-National Park, with a few ryokan (Japanese inns) and a rotenburo (露天風呂, outdoor bath) nearby.
The female demon Datsueba (奪衣婆), represented by an old woman, and the male demon Keneō (懸衣) sit at the edge of the Sanzu River and strip the souls of the deceased of their clothes; they judge the gravity of their sins and punish them severely for their wrongdoings.
More photos in the Osorezan album.
In the open season (May-October) there are four buses daily that run from Mutsu Town (むつ市) to the temple. The ride takes about 40 minutes (JPY 1,500 for a return ticket); the last bus departs from Osorezan at 17:30 (15:50 in October). Bodaiji temple offers accommodation and meals, reservations are required (phone 0175-223826, fax 0175-223402).
The temple is open from May-October daily from 6:00 to 18:00 (admission JPY 500).
Mutsu can be reached on the main Tōhoku Line via JR Noheji Station (野辺地駅, 37-43 mins from Aomori City, 35-45 mins from Hachinohe); from Noheji take JR Ōminato Line to Shimokita Station (下北駅, about one hour).
- Shimokita Hantō Quasi-National Park (in Japanese)
- As Japan’s Mediums Die, Ancient Tradition Fades (New York Times, Aug. 20, 2009)
- The Life of a Shamaness: Scenes from the Shamanism of Northeastern Japan (Kunimitsu Kawamura, Kokugakuin University)
- Japan's Blind Women Seers Becoming An Endangered Species (Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1992)
- Horii, Ichiro; Shamanism in Japan, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 2 (4), December 1975 (PDF)