Asia, Japan

The Cemetery at Koya

At night, sleeping on the tatami in the traditional futons the monastery had given us, the holy mountain town of Kōya was so quiet I had trouble sleeping. My mind would search for the street noise of the city to latch on to, to give a rhythm to my breathing, and when it couldn’t find it, it hovered aimlessly in the dark, keeping me awake.
I turned to my boyfriend in the futon next to mine and listened to his shallow breathing. Just as I was about to turn away he opened his eyes.
“You awake?” I whispered, not wanting to wake the others sleeping behind the thin screen dividing the room.
“Yeah,” he murmured, “It’s too quiet.”
I smiled in the dark. “I know. You want to get out of here?”
“Where are we going to go? There’s nothing here.”
That was exactly why we had come to Kōya. That evening the train had dropped us at the foot of the mountain and a cable car had lifted us and our luggage the rest of the way, bypassing the original wooden gate that welcomed pilgrims who had hiked up on foot.
Kōya is the birthplace of the uniquely Japanese Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tourists go for the quiet of staying in a monastery surrounded by ancient trees, and pilgrims go as part of an 88 temple pilgrimage, stopping here to pay their respects at the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, its founder.
“We could go to the mausoleum,” I whisper to David across the futon.
“At night? Will there be any lights?”
“Yes, we could go see the Hall of Lamps. There’s like 10,000 lanterns hanging there, always lit.”
He paused only for a moment, then rolled back his quilt and sat up. “Let’s go.”
Outside the quiet darkness whispered through the leaves in the trees, and as our ears adjusted to the silence and we walked through the sleeping town we could hear the creaks of the wooden houses and the shuffling of unseen things hidden in the underbrush.
The cemetery was only a short walk away, but the faint street lights were only strong enough to illuminate the entrance and the few steps along the main path before the trees arched overhead and covered the miles of tombstones and crooked cobblestones into darkness.
“There’s no lights,” David said, pointing to the winding pathway. “Look at how big this cemetery is, we’ll get lost.”
“We’ll be fine. There’s only one path,” I protested. “Let’s just stay on it and if we want to turn back we can.”
I plunged forward with a confidence I didn’t feel. It wasn’t just a big cemetery, it was the largest in Japan. And it was really dark – the light from the street, already faint, quickly disappeared behind a few turns of the pathway so that we could only make out the first gray slabs of stone on either side of us, and then nothing.
Suddenly David jumped, swatted at his arm and then stopped. “Help me get it off,” he called out, extending out his arm. “A spider’s crawling on me.”
I took his arm and shifted it from side to side, trying to adjust my eyes to the darkness. “There’s nothing there,” I told him after I had squinted at his arm unsuccessfully. “You’re imagining things. The cemetery’s freaking you out.”
“I’m not imagining it,” he replied, pulling his arm back. “I can feel something on me.” He swatted again.
We pushed on, passing gravestones built up like pyramids and dotted with candles and offerings of incense, watched over by stone figures tied with red bibs. Everywhere old, ancient cedars grew straight up, wedged between stones and fighting for space with the dead.
Just as our eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and we were able to make out more of our surroundings, a single street lamp came into view in the distance, illuminating a small patch of the pathway.
David brushed at his arm again. “Finally, a bit of light.”
But just as we moved towards the lamp, something else stepped out from the darkness ahead of us into the pool of light. I froze. The animal dropped what it was carrying and began to rip it apart with its teeth, its paws holding it down while the meat pulled off of the bone.
“Jesus Christ it’s a wolf,” I whispered to David, already thinking of the others that would soon be following behind him, looking for a taste.
“It’s not a wolf,” he replied. “It’s just a dog. Some stray.” I heard him smile. “You’re imagining things. The cemetery’s freaking you out.”
The dog looked up at us, then picked up his meal and trotted off down the path, turning off into the darkness of the cemetery. When we reached the street lamp I could see where he had dragged off whatever he had caught, still wet.
I felt safer when we stepped back into the gloom of the forest, where we weren’t on display under the electric gaze of the all-seeing street light and could easily escape into the anonymity of the trees. They were more crowded now, in the oldest part of the cemetery, bent at dangerous angles over ancient tombs of people whose families had forgotten where to find them, their names obscured under a layer of moss.
Slowly, like a rising dawn, I began to notice a warm yellow glow from between the trees. The individual lanterns began to reveal themselves as I got closer, their insides lit up like a wrought-iron firefly. The outside of the Hall of Lanterns was covered in hundreds of them, hanging from the eaves, and when I looked inside I saw thousands more lining row after row of wooden shelves.
“It’s beautiful,” murmured David, and then swatted at his arm.
“Let me look again,” I said, turning to him, extending out his arm. In the warm light of the lanterns I could just make out a faint thread hanging down from his wrist, and at the end of it, a translucent spider clinging to it.
I grabbed the line with my hand and lifted it upward, watching the spider clamber up, and moved him and his web to the wooden ledge surrounding the building. We watched him crawl along the surface, this little life in the hall of the dead, until we could no longer make out his tiny translucent body from the wood of the building.

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