Joseph Anderson

Japan: Koya-san

We leave for Japan in about a week, and amid the general hubbub of trip preparation are making some more detailed plans. Most of the time we will be in Kyoto, but last night we made plans to spend a couple of days in Mt. Koya (“Koya-san”) in Wakayama prefecture, about a 3-hour trip south of Kyoto. This is a famous and beautiful pilgrimage site, just past the 1200th anniversary of its founding, the home of Shingon Buddhism (one of my favorite sects – very similar to the Buddhism of Tibet and full of mysterious wonders) and the largest cemetery in Japan. This burial place (pictured to the right, with the main worship hall below) is considered a particularly auspicious and spiritually powerful location. I am so excited to be going there!


Japanese culture has a rich and resonant relationship with death: in the widespread use of Buddhist ceremonies to honor those who have passed (recent and not-so-recent) – see the film Departures to capture the full impact of these traditions in everyday life; in the most wonderfully creepy ghost stories like those depicted in Kwaidan; in the importance of mono-no-aware, a sensitivity and pathos in the presence of change and loss most famously expressed in the cherry blossom, lingering on the branch and about to fall. There is plenty of shadow there as well, with hari-kiri and kamikaze lurking in the background.


Working with the process of dying is becoming increasingly important to me – it keeps showing up in my life in all sorts of ways, and always makes my experience richer, fuller, more meaningful. And I’m finding that is starting to show up as part of my shamanic work with others.


So I look forward to the opportunity to visit the many mausoleums, cemeteries, and other homages to the deceased that we will find in Koya-san and also in Kyoto – for example, the house we are renting near Gion is on the site of an extensive historic cemetery, once part of the temple just up the hill from us at Kiyomizu-dera.


This is all appealing to me for a lot of reasons and it is worth some explaining:

  • I have found that when death has touched my own life it has been an opening up to transformative possibilities: most particularly with the passing of my mother in 2011, but in very vivid ways at other times as well.
  • In the evangelical church that raised me I was taught not to fear death but to see it as a transition to a better, more expansive and happier state. Though I have shed much of the theology of my childhood, I think this fundamental emotional relationship with death continues to exist: without having a dogmatic view of “what exactly happens”, I’m optimistic about it.
  • I’ve been blessed by deep relationships (mostly through Gregorian chant) with practitioners of music thanatology, who provide support for people in transition using harp music. They are, as a group, some of the most wonderfully sane, calm, healthy and spiritually awake people I have known. I think their line of work has a lot to do with that: they spend a lot of time on the edges of what we call “normal” life, and are the richer for it. I admire that and aspire to such qualities myself.
  • As a practitioner of shamanism my work is to “walk between worlds”. This does include, not infrequently, interacting with those who have passed on from their physical bodies. This also includes, from time to time, helping those who have recently passed find their way to the next place they need to be. It includes bringing comfort to those who remain behind and struggle to understand the meaning of what has happened. In each of these experiences, my sense of death as the seed of unique and extraordinary blessings just grows and grows.


One theme in these Japan posts is that I don’t know how my imaginal musings will relate to the experiences I will actually have in Japan. What I do know is that I am going with an intention to learn what Japan has to teach me about the meaning of death. I welcome that learning as essential to my practice of healing (particularly for those who are experiencing loss), to the emergence and unfolding of my own being, and to my relationship with a cosmos that is ever birthing, ever dying, ever transforming.