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Mount Osorezan: Background information when reading People from My Neighborhood

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People from My Neighborhood


by Hiromi Kawakami

People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi  Kawakami X
People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi  Kawakami
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    Nov 2021, 176 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Mount Osorezan

This article relates to People from My Neighborhood

Print Review

Bodaiji Temple at Mount Osore Mount Osorezan, or Mount Osore, is located on the northern end of Honshu, the largest of the four main islands of Japan. An active volcano, its name translates to "Fear Mountain." It's a popular pilgrimage site because of its Buddhist temple and because of the occasional presence of the itako — female mediums believed to be able to contact a visitor's deceased loved ones. In People from My Neighborhood, the narrator's best friend's sister becomes one of these mediums. The itako are usually blind (a tradition that dates back to the medieval period, when such an occupation was one of the few avenues for the blind to pursue) and undergo extensive spiritual training. They are sought out in particular by attendees of the Bodaiji festival on the mountain, held each year in July. The itako are, according to the New York Times, "among the last remaining adherents to ancient shamanistic beliefs that predate Buddhism." In 2009, when a Times journalist visited Osorezan, there were only a handful of itako present, and those who wished to speak to the dead waited in lines for six hours to see one.

The mountain is associated with the afterlife because it has topographical features similar to descriptions of hell and paradise in Buddhist texts, including eight surrounding mountains and Lake Usori, a stream from which represents the river Sanzu no Kawa. In Buddhism, this river is crossed by the dead, much like the River Styx in Greek mythology. There is also a spring on Mount Osore that visitors often drink from that is compared to the Fountain of Youth. According to one guide, "It is said that drinking one cup of the water will make you 10 years younger, drinking 2 cups will make you 20 years younger and after the third cup you will get younger and younger – until you die."

The mountain's Bodaiji Temple is believed to have been founded in 862 AD by a Buddhist priest named Ennin, who studied Buddhism at length in China and brought spiritual knowledge back to Japan. It sits beside the acidic Lake Usori, so poisonous that only one species of fish can survive in its waters, the Japanese dace. There is a statue outside of the temple in the likeness of Jizō Bosatsu, a bodhisattva (enlightened being) who is the patron deity of dead children. It is believed that Jizō Bosatsu protects the souls of the dead attempting to cross the river Sanzu no Kawa into the afterlife.

In her book Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan, anthropologist Marilyn Ivy writes that one reason many visit Mount Osore is "to see and experience a vanishing Japanese mode of encountering death." It is a "powerful site for the enactment of allegories of loss," a place where it is deemed natural and appropriate to grieve outwardly, and to speak to the dead through the itako. There is a long folkloric and spiritual history associating death with mountains in Japan, so Mount Osore serves as a grieving place and a window into the country's past.

And many simply visit because of the mountain's atmosphere. As another travel guide humorously notes, "the area offers visitor accommodations for those who don't mind sleeping on an active volcano in the land of the dead."

Bodaiji Temple at Mount Osore. Photo by Daderot

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Lisa Butts

This article relates to People from My Neighborhood. It first ran in the November 17, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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