We turned off our flashlights, letting our eyes adjust to the moonlight. Profound silence settled, words muted by the sacred beauty of the place. We waited, pausing at the graveyard’s arched bridge.

We were a week into our trip to Japan, leaving Kyoto’s cherry blossoms behind and arriving at Mount Koya by funicular. The town is home to more than a hundred Buddhist monasteries and a thousand years of history. We spent the afternoon exploring temples then savored the subtle flavors of vegetarian temple food, shojin-ryori, in the tatami-covered dining hall in the pilgrim’s lodgings, the shukubo, where we were staying for the night.

As we stretched life back into our complaining knees and started to head off for an early night, our guide, Nana, pulled three of us to the side. My husband and I and Mollie, an energetic Chicagoan, had shown a propensity to get ahead of the rest of the group and a desire to explore. “We are all going in the morning, but if you are up for it, let’s do a night walk.”

Ten minutes later, wrapped for the cool evening, we set off for Okuno-in. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed site surrounds the mausoleum of a monk, Kobo Daishi, the founder of the community at Mt. Koya whose resting place has been lit for more than a thousand year with memorial candles. And resting place is the right term: the souls in the 200,000+ graves at the site are said to be waiting spirits, not dead. While we returned the next day, cameras in hand, it was the nighttime visit where we most felt their presence.

Flashlights stowed, we stepped on to the bridge, bowed deeply, and entered.

Tall cedars, fat with centuries, dwarfed the mostly-unlit stone lanterns that lined the path. Moss-warmed pillars marked most graves, packed close like a community meeting. The eroded stones extended a dozen feet back from the path, varying in size and climbing the slope. Statues of Buddha, carvings of a mother with children, pillars inscribed with text, monuments small and large—most old, some sharply new—resided side-by-side. Some wore vermilion scarves, others a hand-crocheted hat or a vase of fresh pine sprigs showing their ancestors had paid their respects recently.

The moonlight lit the stone path in patches, lent a hallowed light. Nana led us deep into the grave-filled forest, following stone paths until we reached the mausoleum. Candles kept vigil, lighting a few quiet pilgrims. We bowed again, washed by monks’ murmured chants, and turned away.

Deborah Knuckey, MT Sobek Guest

MT Sobek Trip: Walking Japan, 2015