A shrine-seeker’s accidental pilgrimage
An hour from packed Kyoto, Nara makes for enlightening overnighting
For nearly two decades, I have eagerly collected Japanese tea and sake sets, woodblock prints and geisha figurines. They delight me with their elegant and distinct design, with depictions of intricately shaped maple trees and dazzling silk kimonos and the I-know-something-you-don’t-know gaze of the women wearing them. My collection started spontaneously with a love-at-firstsight purchase of colorful geisha bookends from the 1950s. Stamped “Made in Occupied Japan,” they were at a flea market near the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California, where many Japanese immigrants once worked in the orchards, and they led me to muse about another world and era.
Yet it was only in November that I finally made it to Japan. My tour started in Tokyo and included Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto. Like so many visitors before me, I thought I would make Kyoto the centerpiece of my visit, but I was also keen to veer from the traditional tourist’s path and discover Japan for myself, to see if or how it reflected my deep and rather mysterious affection for the country.
As it turned out, the dozen or so ryokan, or traditional Japanese guesthouses, in Kyoto that I contacted were fully booked. Discouraged and disappointed, I eventually resigned myself to overnighting in Nara, about an hour’s train ride to the south.
I knew Nara had its own bragging rights. As Japan’s first permanent capital, it easily maintains its noble stature with eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Daibutsu — or giant Buddha — bronze statue housed in an imposing wooden temple, as well as the tame and friendly descendants of sacred deer, which are anointed as national treasures, that roam freely among the temples, pagodas and forested parks. It sounded dreamy.
Staying in Nara, too, would put me close to Ise, or so I thought. My California friend Hiroko, who is a Tokyo native, had visited the small town a year earlier, and told me of its Shinto shrines — an astonishing 125 in all, making it essentially Japan’s version of the
Vatican and a principal pilgrimage destination for many Japanese people. Spread out around Ise and its outskirts, the shrine area is the same size as Paris. Knowing very little about the Shinto religion, I was curious about how so many shrines could exist in a place I hadn’t heard of until Hiroko had mentioned it, though I later learned that the 2016 G7 Summit had been held there in April.
I related this to Kayoko Kuwa- hara, my host at the tiny Guesthouse Sakuraya situated along a quiet residential street, as we sat sipping tea on my first evening. A fierce wind had picked up by the time my train from Kyoto had pulled in, and after a short bus ride to the suburb where Sakuraya is, I had to walk some 10 minutes in the cold to reach the guesthouse. But upon entering, I was enraptured.
After Kayoko showed me to my room — one of three she rents to guests — I took in the heavenly view from the sliding glass doors: an enclosed courtyard and dimly lit garden, a carefully shaped arching pine and a palm tree among moss-covered steppingstones. Kayoko later told me that she had bought the building in 2008 from a married couple who had operated a workshop on the grounds to produce calligraphy ink. Neither of their two daughters was inclined to carry on the family business that had existed for 130 years.
When the aging couple put the property on the market, there was intense interest in the traditional wood-and-stucco structure in this attractive district where mostly merchants had lived and worked. Kayoko felt very lucky to be the selected bidder; she had dreamed for years of opening a ryokan and saw great potential in the home. She set about clearing the enclosed garden area — “It was a jungle,” she told me — and remodeling the interior. y, the Sakuraya is at once modest and dignified.
From the moment I set foot inside, my perch felt privileged — so much so that when Kayoko cautioned me that reaching Ise would require a very early start and three hours of travel on four different trains, I was loathe to book an overnight’s stay closer to the shrines. I wanted to return to my oasis. Moreover, it occurred to me that in the spirit of religious pilgrimages, the long and complicated journey to Ise and back would be fitting, if not adventurous. Part of the trip, Kayoko told me, would be through picturesque canyons and pretty countryside.
Before the long journey, however, I took a day to explore Nara, first indulging in some shopping along the open-air Higashimuki Shopping Mall and practically squealing with delight at the fine ceramics, brightly colored kimonos and fans on display. From there, walking eastward, I was gradually greeted by some of Nara’s ubiquitous and cordial deer, making it clear I’d reached Nara Park and was near i-ji temple.
I had seen photos of the temple and what’s known as the cosmic Buddha housed inside it, but these don’t prepare the visitor for the awesome, towering bronze sculpture, flanked on each side by the golden Kokuzo Bosatsu — or bodhisattva of memory and wisdom — and Tamonten — called the lord who hears all. Completed in A.D. 798 and arguably one of Japan’s most striking sights, the three towering figures held my attention. I took my time walking the perimeter, considering meanwhile what I’d read earlier, that the construction of these mighty sculptures had employed, legend has it, some 2 million laborers and had nearly bankrupted the country, in part because the statues were covered in gold leaf.
But more impressive to me was the 8th-century Kasuga Taisha Shrine, tucked deeper in Nara Park and painted a jolting red. Entering the complex, I was immediately riveted by a long passage filled with hundreds of golden and bronze lanterns, all of which surprised me, because from what I’d read of Shinto shrines, they are mostly austere edifices, void of color and decor.
After that, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Ise. The next morning, soon after departing eastward from Nara, the train passed through a long and misty corridor of bamboo stalks and then hugged the edge of a plunging forested ravine covered in radiant fall foliage. Part of the journey wound through farmland punctuated by snug villages with black-tiled roofs, small groves of crimson-colored Japanese maple trees, well-tended family gardens and solemn pagodas and temples atop grassy hills, some with simple cemeteries encircling them. In this remote corner of Japan, on this clunking rural train, I saw no tourists and few residents.
But once I reached Ise and found my way to Geku, or the
Outer Shrine, I was surrounded by other pilgrims. I was among them as we crossed the wide bridge leading to the shrine area, washed my hands alongside them at long stone vessels with wooden ladles and followed them under soaring torii, or gates, marking the sacred entry.
Following a map here and later at the Neku, or Inner Shrine, some 20 minutes away by bus, I came upon shrine after shrine, quickly seeing that visitors could only get so close to the forbidding and venerated wooden structures dating to the 3rd century, all unadorned, fenced in and removed from the pathways bordered by impenetrable Japanese cedars. Shinto tradition also dictates that the shrines be rebuilt every 20 years, using wooden dowels and interlocking joints instead of nails, and only priests and members of Japan’s imperial family are allowed inside the inner sanctums. I watched, almost spellbound, as families lit votive incense sticks and young couples timidly approached the picket gates before slowly bowing in silence.
The prayers, I understood later while reading about Shinto philosophy, are for prosperity, a bountiful harvest and, above all, peace in the world. These are noble and compelling gestures, now more than ever. But my own reflections, as I sat on the lumbering train back to Nara, were of gratitude: for no vacancies in Kyoto, for seemingly commonplace yet beguiling views of Japan — not unlike the everyday scenes of maple trees and pagodas depicted on my sake sets, tea cups and saucers — and for that inexplicable and curious pleasure upon seeing those geisha bookends which still, years on, move my imagination to peacefully and happily wander to other worlds, into other eras.
TOP: At the Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan, one of the tame descendants of sacred deer, anointed as national treasures, roams freely. LEFT: Visitors browse the charms in the Todai-ji temple.
TOP: In Nara, the towering bronze Buddha statue in Todai-ji temple, completed in A.D. 798, dominates the space — and the attention of its visitors. BELOW: At the temple’s entrance, people cover themselves with incense smoke, hoping that it will convey good health and fortune.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The open-air Higashimuki Shopping Mall features fine ceramics and brightly colored kimonos, among other wares; the Kasuga Taisha Shrine is tucked deep in Nara Park; inside the shrine, hundreds of lanterns made of gold and bronze light the passageways.