To­gakushi, Ja­pan

Asian Geographic - - Front Page -

There is a Ja­pan beyond the hec­tic city life of Tokyo, the tech­nol­ogy, and the stereo­types of geishas and men in suits. We often speak of look­ing at the big­ger pic­ture, and rightly so. In Ja­pan, this means ven­tur­ing beyond the com­forts of the cities, ex­plor­ing the ru­ral hin­ter­land, and hav­ing the lux­ury of time to do so.

I found Takuya in the labyrinth that is Tokyo Station. Once you’ve been swal­lowed up in­side this gar­gan­tuan maze, you have no idea whether it is night or day. A guide at Walk Ja­pan, Takuya, too, is far from at home in this epi­cen­tre of ur­ban chaos, and so he spends the win­ter months out in the moun­tains, shar­ing the qui­eter parts of his home­land with guests.

From Jan­uary to March, and some­times after, Ja­pan’s aptly named snow coun­try is a win­ter won­der­land. Though there are some ex­cel­lent and well-pub­li­cised ski re­sorts in the coun­try, few for­eign­ers realise that Ja­pan re­ceives some of the heav­i­est snow­fall in the world, com­pa­ra­ble to that in Patag­o­nia, Alaska, and the Cana­dian Rock­ies. The dif­fer­ence is, how­ever, that whilst those ar­eas are sparsely pop­u­lated, one-third of Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion lives in ar­eas where at any one time the snow can be up to seven-me­tres deep. The en­vi­ron­ment is ex­treme, but peo­ple liv­ing here have adapted re­mark­ably well, and Takuya is pas­sion­ate about re­viv­ing an­cient pil­grim­age routes and forg­ing new paths through Ja­pan’s mag­i­cal, win­tery won­der­land.

A party of 15, we boarded the Shinkansen bul­let train and raced north­west from Tokyo to Nagano, the con­cen­tra­tion of sky­scrapers giv­ing way to low-rise de­vel­op­ment and then ul­ti­mately to ru­ral ar­eas. The hills around Nagano city were al­ready dusted with snow. As we left the train tracks be­hind and zigzagged by bus into the moun­tains, the snow be­gan to deepen.

Our des­ti­na­tion was the an­cient pil­grim­age site of To­gakushi, a thickly

Cedar Av­enue of To­gakushi, Nagano pre­fec­ture, Ja­pan


forested plateau whose trees cloak five Shinto shrines. Cut off to ve­hi­cles in the win­ter months, the only way to reach th­ese shrines is on foot through the snow, so we donned flat plas­tic snow shoes over our walk­ing boots, sink­ing into ev­ery step. At first it felt like walk­ing in div­ing flip­pers – un­gainly and hi­lar­i­ous for on­look­ers – but as we slowly mas­tered the tech­nique, stamp­ing our toes into each snow drift so that the me­tal teeth gave grip, progress be­came no­tice­ably eas­ier.

Gin­gerly, we tromped on to the pil­grims’ guest­house, a large reg­is­tered cul­tural prop­erty with a thick thatched roof and tra­di­tional guest rooms fur­nished with bam­boo mat floor­ing. The priest in charge, a for­mer rally driver, wel­comes rel­a­tively few pil­grims th­ese days, but he greeted us with warmth and tea. Cast­ing off our boots and snow shoes in the dry­ing room, there was an ini­tial urge to scram­ble to en­ter the on­sen, a com­mu­nal bath fed by a nat­u­ral hot spring. But as you’re ex­pected to bathe ‘au nat­u­rale’, we curbed our en­thu­si­asm in ex­change for bash­ful hes­i­tancy. Not know­ing ex­actly where

To­gakushi – the des­ti­na­tion of the pil­grim­age – has five shrines

Beyond the bright lights of Tokyo is an­other Ja­pan – older, more beau­ti­ful, and in­fin­itely more in­trigu­ing be­low right

to look, and un­able to make eye con­tact with one an­other, we slid into our own cor­ners of the bath, won­der­fully hot, but feel­ing some­what em­bar­rassed. In the days to come, we’d have to get over such ju­ve­nile prud­ish­ness.

To­gakushi’s cen­tral shrine, Chusha, is set amidst a grove of cedar trees. A strik­ing build­ing with a grey­ish-white wooden fa­cade, it is un­usual in its ex­tent of dec­o­ra­tion; Shinto shrines are typ­i­cally plain. The rea­son for this com­par­a­tive op­u­lence is that it was orig­i­nally a Bud­dhist tem­ple, but the devo­tees who wor­shipped here were pres­sured by po­lit­i­cal forces to change their faith some time in the 19th cen­tury. Here, both tra­di­tions are in­ex­tri­ca­bly, and beau­ti­fully, en­twined.

With ev­ery step of this snow trek pil­grim­age, we learnt new sto­ries. Each tree, each river, each hum­ble shrine, has its leg­ends, and Tokuya re­calls them with en­thu­si­asm. A wild woman, who was both a bandit and a mur­derer, was feared by pil­grims who thought her to be a demon. She was pur­port­edly trans­formed on this very spot and be­came a Bud­dhist nun – the god­dess of pil­grims and trav­ellers. An­other leg­end has it that a hunter pur­su­ing a bear wounded his tar­get and failed to kill it, but it led him through the snow to a spring with heal­ing prop­er­ties. And so, the tales go on.

Peo­ple here have snow­shoed for cen­turies, but with far sim­pler shoes. At Mori No Ie (‘The House in the Woods’), we cast our plas­tic snow­shoes aside for a few hours, and in­stead wore bam­boo kan­jiki. Far lighter, we could move nim­bly over short dis­tances, but our legs soon grew weary; as with a smaller sur­face area, each step sunk deeper into the snow.

Beyond the bright lights of Tokyo is an­other Ja­pan, older, more beau­ti­ful, and in­fin­itely more in­trigu­ing. Na­ture, not man, dic­tates the rhythm of the sea­sons here, the snow­fall cre­at­ing strik­ing, dra­matic vis­tas, and also shap­ing a unique form of Ja­panese cul­ture. When you em­bark on such a pil­grim­age, there is a ten­dency to think that you are stepping back in time, but such places, th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences, are time­less – as much a part of Ja­pan’s present as of its past.

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