Wow & Zen
A walking tour of Japan is the perfect way to reconnect with nature and nourish the soul, writes
A walking tour of Japan.
Most Westerners arrive in Japan with pretty strong preconceptions. But what no one can fully appreciate until they visit this incredible Asian country is how everything is so considered, from tea ceremonies to toe socks to toilets with soundtracks of waterfalls. Yet this is also a culture of sensual simplicity and ritual that lingers long after the karaoke has faded.
And what better way to experience it than a four-day walking tour in the stunning Kunisaki Peninsula on the island of Kyushu, following in the footsteps of local monks? For anyone who’s time-poor and culturally hungry (which is probably most of us), this micro-trek on the country’s third-largest island is just the tonic.
By day we tramped up carved stone steps to crumbly Buddhas, and at dusk we floated like Champagne corks in natural onsen baths. And every morning we photographed our sprawling, esoteric breakfasts. Not because they were ‘so Japanese’, but because the ‘everyday’ was beautifully elevated to the sacred wherever we went.
Lesson number one in Japan: silence. Quiet is the gift everyone shares and it makes time feel deeper and personal space richer. Meeting my group on the platform at Hakata Station in Fukuoka is refreshingly subdued, but there’s a brief break in the collective hush when our guide, Julia Maeda, leads us on to the town of Yanagigaura, where we stay at a local ryokan (guesthouse).
The etiquette of the ryokan is strict: you bathe (usually in wooden tubs but here in onsens, hot springs with healing properties); you feast on kaiseki (courses of ultra-fresh, delicately presented dishes); and you rest. The rooms are spartan, but the minimalism helps reduce head clutter. Tucked into fluffy futons on the floor, I wake up refreshed and outrageously chill. Gazing out at a single maple tree in a gravel garden, the solitude tastes sweeter than chocolate.
We transfer to Kimano Magaibutsu to begin the walking part of our tour. Bells line the forest trails (to warn bears of human approach) and there are bamboo poles and walking sticks on offer for even the gentlest climbs. I take advantage of one as the incline here is steep and long, and the stairs strewn with boulders said to have been tossed there by angry gods. My reward for reaching the top is a wall of 11th-century Buddhas. Next stop is Tashibu-no-sho, a quirky little village where the streets are lined with scarecrows in
tuxedos, roadside altars, wafting clouds of incense, cat bowls and plaster frescoes designed to ward off fire and bad luck. The Shinto temple complex of Usa Jingu, one of the country’s grandest shrines, is our last sight for today. Broad, foot-polished stairs disappear into the surrounding forest, beckoning a future visit, but we must press on to our accommodation at the Fukinoto Inn, a ryokan in the hamlet of Fuki-ji. Next door is a temple dating from 718AD.
Rising at dawn, I sit painting the temple with a small watercolour set before joining the daily Zen Buddhist zazen meditation session. After breakfast we tour the temple, a lovely wooden structure that’s surely as captivating today as when it was built. As we enter, we are handed steaming green tea in handmade cups by head monk Junyu. It’s a heavenly way to start the day.
Today’s hike begins in nearby Coton-mura. As we traverse a dam to the Choan-ji, once the most powerful temple in Kunisaki, I begin to understand the visual and feudal overlays in Akira Kurosawa’s films. After lunch, we brave a sheer climb to reach Tennen-ji, a tiny temple carved into the cliff face, before making our way to the ruins of the Kyu-Sento-ji temple. Next we transfer to Imi, a port town with a growing population of artists, where an old sake brewery has been transformed into a multi-level art gallery and cafe. This is my kind of place…
We visit Ota and the local farmers participating in Walk Japan’s Community Project. Who knew shiitake farming was so compelling? Next, we set off for Kitsuki, an historic town without power lines or commercial signage to drag you into the present. I’m reluctant to leave the Edo romance to head for our final destination, Yufuin. But what’s not to love about Yufuin? More onsen to soak weary muscles, shopping for cult items at cute kiosks and a sneaky glass of French Champagne at Nicol’s Bar in the Tamanoyu Hotel. Travel is all about balance, after all. #
Built in the eighth century, the Fuki-ji temple is the oldest wooden structure on the island of Kyushu and one of the highlights of Walk Japan’s Kunisaki & Yufuin walk. It’s of moderate difficulty and daily walking time varies between two and three-and-a-half hours.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Junyu, head monk at Fuki-ji, one of the oldest temples in Kyushu. Cherry-tree lane. Some of the Buddha statues you’ll see. The historic town of Kitsuki, a step back in time. Traditional Shinto torii gate at Usa Jingu.