Peaks and bless­ings

A tour of the high­lights of mystical and mag­i­cal Japan.

Good - - TRAVEL - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy Carolyn Ent­ing

Rain­drops leap off my um­brella like nin­jas, soak­ing my shoes but I couldn’t care less. I’ve made it to Mt Koya – a 900-me­tre high plateau sur­rounded by eight peaks, said to rep­re­sent the eight petals of a flow­er­ing lo­tus. It was this rea­son that Japan’s founder of Shin­gon Bud­dhism, Kobo Daishi Kukai, se­lected this place in 816 as a sa­cred cen­tre – the core of a man­dala with its eight deities ar­rayed on the eight petals of a lo­tus around Bud­dha.

To­day, Mt Koya (Koy­asan) re­mains the heart of Bud­dhist teach­ing and prac­tice in Japan, and visi­tors like us can even stay in a Bud­dhist monastery.

Stand­ing in a for­est of cedar and um­brella pine, it’s the first day of rain that we’ve had on our tour so far but it’s ac­tu­ally per­fect. Chant­ing monks hum un­de­terred by claps of thunder as the storm rages above us, mak­ing ev­ery­thing seem more con­nected and alive de­spite the fact I’m stand­ing in front a mau­soleum. It’s Kukai’s mau­soleum, how­ever, where

he’s said to have en­tered eter­nal med­i­ta­tion and be­lieved to be alive here to­day at Okunoin, giv­ing aid to all be­ings.

Okunoin is the largest ceme­tery in Japan and the two-kilo­me­tre path lead­ing to the mau­soleum passes 200,000 tomb stones be­long­ing to feu­dal lords, prom­i­nent monks and well known Ja­pa­nese com­pa­nies.

By now we are soaked to the skin and re­treat to our Bud­dhist tem­ple lodg­ing for a soak in the com­mu­nal hot bath, then re­tire to our rooms af­ter our sho­jin ry­ori din­ner – a de­li­cious veg­e­tar­ian meal, pre­pared and served by the monks, of hot miso soup, pick­les, rice and koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu).

It’s early March so it’s chilly up in the moun­tains, which is why each room has a ta­ble called a ko­tatsu that comes with a heater and blan­ket. The blan­ket is placed between the ta­ble-top and frame, and heater lo­cated on the ta­ble’s un­der­side – ge­nius. A very cosy way to keep warm and I’m more com­fort­able

“[Shinto] has no founder, no holy book ... but val­ues har­mony with na­ture and virtues such as magokoro (sin­cere heart).”

re­lax­ing here than on the fu­ton bed rolled out on the floor. We wake to find the court­yard gar­den en­chant­ingly covered in snow.

Depart­ing early by pri­vate van, I’m grate­ful to be trav­el­ling with Wendy Wu Tours. Get­ting to Koy­asan by train takes sev­eral con­nec­tions and much longer than by car. I’m lucky to have made it here, be­cause so many don’t for this rea­son.

Koy­asan is the po­lar op­po­site of Tokyo where our tour be­gan days ear­lier. Touch­ing down at Narita Air­port we hit the ground run­ning on ar­rival, mak­ing me thank­ful for Cathay Pa­cific’s on-board yoga pro­gramme which helped pre­pare me for a non-stop walk­ing tour of the city.

Tokyo is a bustling me­trop­o­lis, where you’ll find cat cafés, su­per-sized candy floss, vend­ing ma­chines of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from hot drinks to beer and sake, de­signer fash­ion stores and ro­bot restau­rants – though you can find na­ture in the city too. At pedes­trian cross­ings, record­ings of chirp­ing birds sig­nal it is time to cross. You can also walk among tall cedar trees past a bub­bling brook and in­hale fresh air at the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu, be­side a busy shop­ping precinct.

Meiji Jingu (1852-1912), the 122nd em­peror, laid the foun­da­tions for modern Japan. The for­est was cre­ated in his hon­our and that of Em­press Sho­ken for their souls to dwell in, and ev­ery tree is planted by hand. It is the first of many Shinto shrines we visit along the way, and our in­tro­duc­tion to Japan’s an­cient orig­i­nal re­li­gion, which has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of re­li­gious con­ver­sion, but val­ues har­mony with na­ture and virtues such as magokoro (sin­cere heart).

Shinto is deeply in­grained in day-to-day Ja­pa­nese life and at each Shinto shrine we visit my ad­mi­ra­tion and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Shinto grows. It is, as one of our guides ex­plains, a highly tol­er­ant re­li­gion, sit­ting com­fort­ably along­side Bud­dhism and other re­ligons. In fact, when Kukai de­cided upon Koy­asan for his base, the first thing he did was in­vite the lo­cal peo­ple to build a Shinto shrine be­fore erect­ing a Bud­dhist tem­ple.

Our whirl­wind tour of Tokyo also takes us to Takeshita Street in the Hara­juku district, fa­mous for its quirky street fash­ion and sub­cul­ture; and Senso-ji, the cap­i­tal’s old­est tem­ple – older than Tokyo it­self. The shop­ping is good here too. The busy street lead­ing to the tem­ple is filled with bou­tiques and tourists wear­ing hired ki­monos.

Tokyo’s Sky Tree is next on the list. It opened in 2012 as the world’s tallest ‘free-stand­ing tower’ at 634 me­tres. An outdoor ice rink at the en­trance is filled with laugh­ing skaters, and we pass by many invit­ing stores and eater­ies be­fore rid­ing the lift to the main ob­ser­va­tion deck with views of Tokyo and, if you are lucky, Mt Fuji – called the ‘shy moun­tain’ be­cause only 30 per cent of visi­tors get to see it.

We are lucky to see Mt Fuji on our trip the next day to Hakone, a day trip from Tokyo by train, tram and then gon­dola, which passes over steam­ing vol­canic fu­maroles to reach Owaku­dani. Here we dine on hot soba noo­dle soup (the lo­cal spe­cialty) while

watch­ing the lo­cal tourists line up to have their photo taken in front of a statue of a lucky black egg with Mt Fuji as a back­drop. Up here, the shells of eggs, when steamed over the fu­maroles, turn black and it’s be­lieved you’ll add seven more years to your life if you eat one.

Catch­ing an­other gon­dola from Owakun­dani to Lake Ashi­noko, we board a pi­rate ship to cruise the lake and be­fore dis­em­bark­ing are re­warded by the pic­turesque view of Mt Fuji ap­pear­ing over the red torii (gate) of Hakone-jinja Shrine.

The walk up to the shrine takes us through a cedar for­est, planted more than 400 years ago to pro­tect trav­ellers from the weather. Cedar is com­mon in Japan and, ac­cord­ing to our guide, 25 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion suf­fer hay fever from cedar pollen and cherry blos­som – which is why, it turns out, so many peo­ple here wear face masks out of con­sid­er­a­tion to oth­ers.

The multitude of steps lead­ing up to the shrine is hot work on the sunny, blue-sky day we have been blessed with, so we stop for a cone of se­same ice cream. Our taste­buds suit­ably piqued we seek out matcha ice cream the fol­low­ing day in Ky­oto.

We travel fast to Ky­oto from Tokyo by bul­let train (365 kilo­me­tres in two hours and 20 min­utes) and don’t have to go far with our lug­gage. Our ho­tel is lo­cated within the rail­way sta­tion.

Our next guide is wait­ing to greet us and by the end of the day we re­alise we’ve walked 17 kilo­me­tres but we hardly no­ticed as we took in the city’s de­lights: bam­boo for­est at Arashiyama; groves of plum blos­som; the Golden Pavil­ion, Kinkaku-ji – its gold leaf

ex­te­rior re­flect­ing beau­ti­fully in the pond that sur­rounds it; and Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. You may re­mem­ber the scene from the film Mem­oirs of a Geisha, where a young girl runs through seem­ingly end­less shrine gates – well, there are ap­prox­i­mately 10,000 gates along a four-kilo­me­tre path up the moun­tain. Here, as well as in the bam­boo for­est, tourists are dressed up as geishas. Hir­ing ki­monos to tourists is pop­u­lar but if you want to see a real geisha, Ky­oto is the place to be.

There were around 80,000 geisha (fe­male en­ter­tain­ers who act as hostesses) in Japan at their peak in the 1920s. To­day there are ap­prox­i­mately 1000 (in­clud­ing ap­pren­tices, maiko) with nearly half work­ing in Ky­oto. We don’t see a real geisha but we do get to meet and see a maiko per­form, and our guide takes us down Kosode Street in Gion (the geisha district) where there is a geisha board­ing house. The land­lady is stand­ing out­side so we scurry by, keep­ing our mouths shut on the in­struc­tions of our guide. It’s so nar­row, any­thing said in the street can be heard in­side the house.

Walk­ing through Gion and nearby Nak­agyo-ku at night is a pretty sight, with pa­per lanterns dan­gling at the doors of restau­rants. We chow down at Chao Chao, which lives up to its Tripad­vi­sor Five-star rat­ing for its gy­oza. Spe­cialty fill­ings in­clude cheese and chicken, and cho­co­late, es­pe­cially nice washed down with sparkling sake.

As we en­joy the am­bi­ence of this small, friendly restau­rant I’m struck by the clev­er­ness of the Ja­pa­nese when it comes to op­er­at­ing in com­pact spa­ces. A shelf has been thought­fully pro­vided above the ta­bles for pa­trons to stow bags.

Ja­pa­nese cul­ture is in­cred­i­bly con­sid­er­ate. You’ll even find toi­let pa­per in public loos folded into a neat tri­an­gle by the per­son who’s last used it, so that it is eas­ier for the next per­son to pull down. Toi­let seats are heated (even on the bul­let trains) and come with mod­esty set­tings which al­low you to con­jure up the sound of a water­fall at a push of a but­ton to spare any em­bar­rass­ment over noises. And when shop­ping, ev­ery­thing is wrapped so beau­ti­fully it seems a shame to open the par­cel. Even tooth­picks in restau­rants come in origami sleeves.

We find strings of thou­sands of coloured origami cranes hang­ing at the Chil­dren’s Peace Mon­u­ment in Hiroshima, in­spired by Sadako Sasaki, who was just two years old at the time of the atomic bomb. At age 11 she de­vel­oped leukaemia and de­cided to fold 1000 pa­per cranes in the hope she would re­cover. Sadly, she died be­fore reach­ing her goal but her class­mates folded the rest. And to­day chil­dren from around the coun­try and the world con­tinue to fold and send colour­ful cranes here.

Walk­ing through Hiroshima Me­mo­rial Peace Park, it’s hard to imag­ine that on 6 Au­gust 1945 an atomic bomb oblit­er­ated 90 per cent of the city in­stantly killing 80,000 peo­ple. In the fol­low­ing months, 130,000 died of ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure and other se­condary ef­fects. It is sober­ing but highly rec­om­mended to visit the Hiroshima Peace Me­mo­rial Mu­seum here. It may move you to tears, like it did me, but it’s im­por­tant we never for­get.

To­day Hiroshima is a friendly, bustling city. For lunch we head to Okonomi-mura for savoury pan­cakes made in front of us on the hot grid­dle. We also visit nearby Miya­jima Is­land and its fa­mous float­ing torii gate which is best seen at high tide. Maple leaf-shaped pan­cakes filled with sweet bean curd, cho­co­late and other fill­ings are a spe­cial­ity on Miya­jima. I get dis­tracted by these tiny pan­cake treats and nearly miss meet­ing the group to catch the ferry back to the main­land, sprint­ing the last 500 me­tres.

Our Wendy Wu tour is scaled as ‘ac­tive’, which means they pack a lot in and you’ve got to fol­low the pro­gramme but it means you do get to see the high­lights. We even man­age to squeeze in a visit to Himeji cas­tle on our way to Osaka (our fi­nal stop). With its white façade and winged roof it’s easy to see why it’s nick­named Shi­rasagi-jo (white heron). Built in 1580, it was orig­i­nally a pow­er­ful sa­mu­rai war­rior house.

Our last night of the tour takes in the neon lights of Osaka’s Do­ton­bori pedes­trian-only restau­rant area where we sam­ple street food and try not to lose each other. The streets are jammed with hun­dreds of well-dressed Ja­pa­nese and tourists, ei­ther eat­ing or tak­ing selfies. We es­cape the throngs, step­ping off the main street and down an al­ley­way – it leads to a Shinto shrine, and moss-covered statue of Bud­dha. It’s wa­tered reg­u­larly by bless­ings of passers-by who use a la­dle to throw wa­ter upon it.

I too feel blessed. g

Good vibes View from Senso-ji, Tokyo’s old­est tem­ple, which is older than the city it­self. The smok­ing caul­dron of in­cense is con­stantly sur­rounded by peo­ple waft­ing the smoke over their bod­ies as it is said to be­stow good health.

Mak­ing an im­pres­sion With its white façade and winged roof it’s easy to see why Himeji Cas­tle is also known as ‘white heron’.

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