Wow & Zen

A walk­ing tour of Ja­pan is the per­fect way to re­con­nect with na­ture and nour­ish the soul, writes

Australian House & Garden - - News - Anna John­son.

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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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…

Day 4

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.

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