TRANSLATION: dark way; the underworld

APPEARANCE: When someone dies, they either go to Tengoku (heaven) or Jigoku (hell). If they lived an exceptionally good or an exceptionally evil life, they may go straight to Tengoku or Jigoku. However, for most people—who have done both and good and evil in their lives—the soul travels to Meido. There they face a test by the judges of the dead, each of whose true form is that of a buddha or a god. They are then sent either to Tengoku or Jigoku. Meido is a terrible place—though nowhere near as terrible as Jigoku. It is dark, windy, and full of horrible sights, sounds, tests and trials. It is a long journey, with no place to rest or find comfort.

To enter the underworld, the soul much first find and cross the Sanzu River, the River of Three Crossings, which marks the boundary between this world and the world of the dead. The Sanzu River is said to be located somewhere on Mount Osore, literally Mount Fear, a desolate volcano located in northern Japan. Despite its appearance—covered in blasted rocks, bubbling pits of dark liquid, and open vents spewing out toxic gas—Mount Osore is one of the three holiest places in Japan. Itako, blind shamanesses, communicate with the dead as they approach the mountain. The itako take hallucinogenic mushrooms known as skull mushrooms (ōdokurodake—big skull mushrooms; himedokurodake—princess skull mushrooms; and onidokurodake—demon skull mushrooms) which sprout only on the crags of this caldera.

INTERACTIONS: There are many variations on what exactly happens after this life ends. These are often depicted in graphic hell scrolls kept at temples. The depictions differ greatly from tradition to tradition and place to place. A typical explanation may go like this:

Upon dying, souls are visited by three oni who escort them on a seven day journey to Meido. The journey is harsh and terrible. It is dark, and a strong, howling wind rages constantly. The corruption of the living world materializes into swords on this plane, which pierce the bodies of the travelers, turning the surrounding terrain into a sea of blood.

A few days along the way, the souls are assaulted by horrible birds, which tear at their skin and pluck out their eyes. All the while the birds taunt them and scream at them to hurry up. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I would have hurried from the start!” cry the souls of the dead. “What is this stupid soul saying!” cry the birds. “We were perched on his roof since three days before he died, warning him to start saying his prayers! That fool only said, ‘The crows are being extra noisy today. The old woman next door must be dying. Go bring her some sugar.’ Well the old woman is still alive, happily licking her sugar!”

Next, the souls come to an enormous mountain which scrapes the clouds, covered in sharp thorns. The path up the mountain is steep and impossibly long. The souls cry out, “I was sick and weak in life, how can you expect me to climb such a mountain now?” To which the oni reply, “What is this stupid soul saying! This is the mountain of your greed! Every time you wanted something your neighbor owned, or desired some earthly possession, you added to this mountain! You built it, now you can climb it!” Anyone who lags behind gets hit with the oni’s terrible iron club.

Finally, after seven days, the souls arrive at the Sanzu River and face the first trial put forth by the first judge, King Shinkō (whose true form is that of Fudō Myōō; who is known as Acala in English). Shinkō judges the souls on how much killing they have committed, down to every bug that was squashed and every fish that was caught. Those whom Shinkō judges to be wicked go straight to Jigoku. Others may cross the river depending on how well they fared in the trial. To cross the Sanzu River, a toll of 6 mon (an old form of currency) is required. This is buried with the deceased during the funeral. Those whose funerals were not properly performed and did not receive the 6 mon cannot cross. This is the reason that the seventh day after death is an important day in Japanese funerary services. The services and prayers performed for the deceased aid them in this trial and allow them to cross the river.

One part of the Sanzu River is crossed by a great bridge. Another part of the river is shallow and fordable. The rest of the river is wild and deep, and filled with poisonous snakes. The souls with the most good deeds are allowed to cross the bridge. Those with a mixture of both good and evil may ford the river in the shallow part. The worst of the souls may only cross by swimming through snake-filled rapids. The crossing of the Sanzu River takes seven days.

After crossing the river, the souls encounter Datsueba and Keneō. These two oni take the heavy clothes from each soul, wet from the crossing of the river, and hang them on a tree. The amount the branch bends under the weight of the clothes serves as a measure of the weight of the sin on each soul, to be used as evidence in the trials to come. If a soul arrives with no clothes—perhaps having discarded them while swimming in the river—Datsueba flays his or her skin and hangs it from the tree instead.

The second trial takes place fourteen days after death, and is overseen by King Shokō (whose true form is Shaka Nyōrai, or Siddhartha Gautama). Shokō judges the souls on how much they have stolen. As with the previous trial, he sends the most grievous offenders straight to hell, while allowing the good to pass on to the next trial. Again, the fourteenth day after death is an important day for family members to perform ceremonies in honor of the deceased, in order to help him or her pass this trial.

Before the third trial, each soul must pass through a fortified gate which is guarded by a fierce oni. The oni wields large blades, which he uses to haphazardly chop off the arms and legs of the souls, saying, “That hand helped you to sin. I’ll cut if off for you!” The souls must then cross an enormous bay, wider than the Sanzu River, and filled with boiling liquid. The river gives off foul smelling fumes in all directions for many miles.

The third trial takes place 21 days after death, and is overseen by King Sōtei (whose true form is Manji Bosatsu, or Manjusri). Sōtei judges the souls on their sins of lust and sexuality, using a cat and a snake. The cat judges the souls of men; it bites at their penises, and the degree of the injury—from a slight scratch to completely severed—is used as a measure of one’s sexual sin. The snake judges the souls of women; it is inserted into the woman, and the depth to which it can enter is used to determine the depth of her sin. As before, some will go on to hell, while others—with the aid of funerary services from their surviving family members—will pass on to the next trial.

The fourth trial, 28 days after death, is overseen by King Gokan (whose true form is Fugen Bosatsu, or Samantabhadra). Gokan judges the dead on the number of lies they told in life. He weighs each soul against a large, heavy stone. The number of stones it takes the balance the scale determines the weight of one’s sins. Excessive liars are damned—those who are not may continue on to be judged again. Once again, the family holds a funerary service to aid their beloved departed in this trial, hoping to sway the mercy of the judge.

Next, the souls must cross a vast blasted, desolate landscape of unfathomable length. Balls of red-hot iron fall constantly like rain from the sky, burning the skin of the souls and causing their feet to blister as they walk the path to the next trial.

The fifth trial, 35 days after death, is overseen by Great King Enma, the ruler of the underworld (whose true form is that of Jizō Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha). Enma’s judgment is the final chance to appeal one’s fate through the prayers and memorial services performed by the living relatives. Enma shows each soul a large mirror, in which the individual’s former life is reflected back at them, with all of their sins and transgressions clearly laid out. Enma’s job is to decide, based on his and the previous trials, which of the six Buddhist realms each soul will be reborn into: the realm of heaven, the realm of humans, the realm of ashura, the realm of beasts, the realm of gaki (or hungry ghosts), or the realm of hell.

After 42 days, the souls which have made it this far now face the judgment of King Henjō (whose true form is Miroku Bosatsu, or Maitreya). Henjō decides the location of each soul’s rebirth based on the reports from Enma’s mirror and Gokan’s scale.

Next, the souls must cross a dark land, full of strange animals whose cries pierce the darkness and fill the atmosphere with dread. Strange birds attack the souls, breathing flames at them and piercing them with their sharp beaks.

On the 49th day after death, the souls reach the trial of King Taizan (whose true form is Yakushi Nyōrai, or Bhaisajyaguru). The 49th day memorial service is an important one, with many family members attending to pray for the deceased; Taizan’s trial is the final chance to avoid going to hell. He uses the information from the previous judges to determine the remaining conditions of each soul’s rebirth.

Upon completion of this trial, each soul moves on to a road with six unmarked torii gates, each representing one of the Buddhist realms. There is no way to tell which gate leads to which realm, and each soul must decide for him or herself which gate to choose. Upon passing through the gate, the soul travels along an enormous frozen river, and leaves Meido for the next world, whichever one it may be. For many, the journey ends here. Those who have been judged worthy may find themselves in Tengoku. Others are reborn as humans, animals, or worse. For those deemed unworthy for even the lowest forms of rebirth, more trials await in the realm of Jigoku.

ORIGIN: The origins of Meido are strongly rooted in Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism was brought from India to China it took on a structure of its own, merging many aspects with Chinese philosophy and Taoism. This mixture of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism was imported to Japan, after which it began to develop its own uniquely Japanese features as well.