From sub­lime to the ridicu­lous in Ja­pan

Seek spir­i­tual sal­va­tion or wit­ness a fire-breath­ing go­rilla fight­ing a ro­bot, Kate Ho­dal gives you the low­down on world of con­trasts

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - GLOBE TROTTING -

THERE’S a Ja­panese proverb that warns, ‘The nail that sticks out gets ham­mered down’. And it’s this phrase I’m think­ing of as I trip over an an­cient spike on a 1,000-year-old pilgrim path in the Kii Moun­tains.

Hik­ing along the an­cient Ku­mano Kodo trail – which con­nects tiny ham­lets with wind­ing for­est paths, bab­bling brooks, thatched tea­houses and stun­ning views – the rusty spike is my in­tro­duc­tion to Ja­pan’s ‘abode of the gods’, a re­gion con­sid­ered so sa­cred that ev­ery­one from Edo em­per­ors to con­tem­po­rary oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans has graced its paths.

While still rel­a­tively un­known to in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors, the Ku­mano Kodo is a par­tic­u­larly well-trod­den trail: Ja­panese have been hik­ing th­ese moun­tains for more than a mil­len­nium, and an­tique rice pa­per paint­ings de­pict crowds of Sa­mu­rai, Ky­oto em­per­ors and ki­mono-clad women in veils and straw san­dals, travers­ing the rocks and cedars, in search of en­light­en­ment.

There are seven sa­cred trails in the Kii moun­tain range, tak­ing in Bud­dhist and Shinto shrines where trekkers have his­tor­i­cally come to pray, re­fo­cus and en­gage in pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­u­als.

It’s one of only two pil­grim­ages in the world with Unesco world-her­itage sta­tus – the other be­ing Spain’s Camino de Santiago – and its cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance shouldn’t be over­looked.

Ja­pan can some­times seem over­whelm­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble to Western vis­i­tors. It’s a place steeped in an­cient rit­u­als, yet also for­mi­da­bly alien. There are ghost-faced geishas duck­ing into al­ley­ways, toi­lets with heated seats that flush au­to­mat­i­cally and cafés where you can pay women in py­ja­mas to give you a cud­dle or re­move your ear­wax.

But the na­tion’s stag­ger­ing beauty, de­li­cious cui­sine, and op­por­tu­nity to step both back and for­ward in time, are truly a rare treat.

We be­gin our trip in Tokyo, at one of the cap­i­tal’s new­est and most chic ho­tel ad­di­tions to the sky­line. Built on the site of a for­mer cas­tle in the up­scale To­ra­nomon neigh­bour­hood, the An­daz Tokyo is an ear-pop­ping el­e­va­tor ride up Tokyo’s sec­ond-high­est build­ing.

By day, the city stretches out as far as the eye can see, the Paris-in­spired Tokyo Tower and lus­cious royal parks serv­ing as land­marks. At night, the glit­ter­ing cap­i­tal be­low is best en­joyed with a cock­tail from the 52nd-storey rooftop bar.

Around the An­daz are tiny ves­tiges of old Ja­pan: a sa­mu­rai sword shop sell­ing 11th-cen­tury swords with glo­ri­ously in­tri­cate de­signs and a 400-year-old Shinto shrine where lo­cals give thanks to the god of fire, and tourists sit amid koi ponds and flut­ter­ing but­ter­flies.

But Tokyo wouldn’t be Tokyo with­out a trip to some of its wack­ier des­ti­na­tions, so we spend a day in Shibuya, hob­nob­bing with Ja­panese teens dressed as Vic­to­rian dolls, then head to the na­tion’s only ‘goat café’, where the two res­i­dent beasts stare cu­ri­ously as we sip our bub­ble tea. We end the evening at the Ro­bot Restau­rant, where a fire-breath­ing go­rilla swings on to the stage on a trapeze and bat­tles a spi­der ro­bot.

It’s a mad fu­tur­is­tic mix­ture of kabuki the­atre, Ja­panese an­ime, Lib­er­ace se­quins and retro Ve­gas decor – the best fun I’ve had out in ages.

After a few days in the city, it’s time to seek some spir­i­tual sal­va­tion, so we take a bul­let train to Osaka, and con­nect to another train to Tan­abe city in the Kii penin­sula, to start our Ku­mano Kodo hike.

Our five-day, 25-mile (40km) trek fol­lows one of the most popular routes, start­ing at Tak­i­jiri-oji (just a short drive from Tan­abe) and end­ing at the wa­ter­fall shrine in Ku­mano Nachi Taisha.

While much of the Ku­mano Kodo is ac­ces­si­ble by car or bus, our goal is to take in as much as pos­si­ble by hik­ing, while sleep­ing in tra­di­tional ryokan (Ja­panese inns) and min­shuku (fam­ily-run guest­houses).

We hike along dap­pled paths by day and at night, ex­hausted, are treated to eight-course kaiseki din­ners by our kind hosts-cum-chefs, gorg­ing on a splen­did mix of freshly pre­pared sushi, lo­cally grown vegetables and home­made soba noo­dles.

Th­ese days, it’s mostly for­eign­ers who en­gage in the longer treks that can take any­where from four to 14 days, de­pend­ing on the route, am­bi­tion and amount of time one has. The Ja­panese pre­fer week­ends or day-long hikes, sim­ply be­cause of their long work­ing hours, says Tan­abe city’s Ku­mano tourism man­ager Brad Towle.

“The Ja­panese con­sider th­ese shrines ‘power spots’ where they can recharge with good en­ergy,” he says, as we be­gin our steep hike up into the moun­tains, a cush­ion of cy­press leaves at our feet.

The fi­nal leg of our jour­ney is an an­cient one, as we travel like pil­grims on a tra­di­tional boat along the turquoise Ku­mano river. When we ar­rive at the spec­tac­u­lar Ku­mano Nachi Taisha shrine, set against a 133m-long wa­ter­fall cas­cad­ing over a huge gran­ite and cy­press out­crop, hun­dreds of lo­cals have gath­ered to pray to the ‘mother god­dess’, ask­ing for help try­ing to con­ceive or to bless newly preg­nant women.

As I take in the scene, a Shinto priest comes over to of­fer prayer ‘tips’. “You must pray with your full name and ad­dress so that the god­dess can find you and de­liver your wish,” she tells me with a know­ing smile.

I throw a gold coin into the box, ring the big bell, bow twice, clap twice, tell the god­dess my prayer (along with my ad­dress, qui­etly won­der­ing if she de­liv­ers in­ter­na­tion­ally), and bow again.

Let’s just say the Ja­panese have their rules for a rea­son: if you follow in­struc­tions, some­times you’re lucky enough to get what you’re look­ing for.

Shrine on the an­cient Ku­mano Kodo Taka­hara, left, and, be­low a night of rau­cous fun, dance, mu­sic and ro­bot­ics at Tokyo’s Ro­bot Restau­rant

Rooftop bar at the An­daz Tokyo – the city’s sec­ond high­est build­ing

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.