Shimokita Peninsula is located at the northernmost part of Honshu, in Aomori Prefecture, Tohoku Region. Apart from being an area flourishing with nature, it is unremarkable except for the presence of Osorezan, or “Fear Mountain” – known as the gateway to hell. It is so named because the landscape strongly resembles the Buddhist depiction of hell. Osorezan, together with Osaka’s Koyasan and Hieizan in Kyoto, is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan.
Travelling to Osorezan from Tokyo via public transportation is a long and costly one. Taking the Shinkansen will get you as far as Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture, after which you have to transfer to a local train twice until you reach JR Shimokita Station, the station nearest to Osorezan in Shimokita Peninsula. Then, you need to take a bus before you finally reach Osorezan.
Near the foot of Osorezan lies a water spring called Hiyamizu. Hiyamizu looks just like an ordinary water spring you might find at any shrine or temple, but there’s an interesting legend behind it: If you drink a cup of the water here, you would “remain young” (若返る: wakagaeru. This could mean “become younger” or “get your youth restored”, but “remain young” is the most suitable translation in this context) for 10 years. If you drink two cups, you would remain young for 20 years. If you drink three cups, you would remain young until you die. Sounds like a woman’s dream come true…
If you take the bus to Osorezan, the bus driver will make a brief stop at Hiyamizu, and allow the passengers to alight. They can look at the water spring, and drink from it before resuming the journey.
At the second last bus stop, there’s an arched bridge over “sanzu no kawa”, a river where dead souls have to cross on their way to the afterlife, somewhat similar to the River Styx in Greek mythology. As impressive as it sounds though, the bridge itself is rather short and mundane-looking. Furthermore, the so-called “river” is only a few metres long…
Whether you get off at this stop or the final one, the moment you alight from the bus, you’ll be assailed by the smell of bad eggs – which is actually the smell of toxic vapors. Nearby lies Lake Usori, which is interesting for the fact that part of the water is yellowish – evidence of sulfuric content.
Bodaiji Temple is located near the final bus stop. It looks pretty nice, but the temple itself is not the main attraction. The expanse of barren wasteland in its backyard – that’s the highlight. The landscape is strikingly similar to Unzen Onsen Hells in Kyushu. Grey and black rocks and stones adorn the entire place, with not a single blade of grass around. Toxic vapors can be seen – and felt - rising from the ground, and that smell of bad eggs is ever-present. As you walk around the wasteland, you can find a number of small ponds containing yellowish, sulfuric water. Like the Beppu Onsen Hells, these ponds have fancy names like Blood Lake Pond, though they do not look as impressive.
Among some of the more prominent landmarks scattered all over the place are stone Jizo and Kannon statues, as well as offerings of real money and paper windmills. Things that have been left there for some time have been blackened, including the money. All in all, the place is awesomely depressing.
As Osorezan is a volcano, there is a number of hot springs in the vicinity. Within the temple compounds, there are four small free hot baths for visitors who wish to soak in “hellish” water. One is for males, two for females, and the last one is a mixed bath.
Accommodation is available for those who wish to spend the night at the temple. In typical Japanese marketing style, outside the temple, amidst the restaurant and souvenir shop, there are ice cream vendors that sell “Fear” ice cream – which is basically vanilla ice cream with a fancy name.
Being a popular tourist destination, Osorezan has no lack of regular visitors (except during the winter months when it is closed), but it’s in late July every year, during what is called Inako Taisai Festival, when the place gets really packed. For a couple of days in July, Itako, or mediums, set up shop at the temple. They are usually blind, old women who can supposedly speak with the dead. Every year, these mediums attract thousands of people hoping to communicate with their dead loved ones, and charge a fairly high price for their services.
Osorezan, being comparatively secluded and quiet, has a nice, natural atmosphere to it. The temple and its surroundings can be explored in half a day, even at a leisurely pace. It’s pretty popular despite its remote location, but even with the crowds - except perhaps during the Itako season – the place does not feel stifling, mainly due to the spaciousness of it. It’s definitely worth a visit for people with a sense of adventure looking for a unique experience, but due to the difficulties in getting there, casual travelers might want to give it a miss.