Gateways to the Past and Future
Discoveries beckon in the lesserknown region of central Japan.
In Japan, torii gates that commonly mark the entrances of shrines and temples are said to be gateways to the sacred world. Crossing them is to leave mundanity behind and take a step from the earthly realm toward a transcendent space. To travellers, setting foot in new landscapes can have a similar transporting effect. On a trip around central Japan, I found my own version of these gateways in the most unexpected places.
In the central region of Inuyama, I came across my first gateway. Standing before the Jo-an Teahouse in Urakuen Garden, one may be perplexed by the structure that has been described as “one of the finest teahouses in all of Japan”. is, in reality, an unassuming cottage with pale yellow walls, a dark wooden roof and small windows. The size of a large living room, the teahouse is unembellished and could easily be hidden by the garden’s lush greenery. To enter the courtyard, one needs to first stoop to cross the low doorway. A type of entrance conceived by the Japanese philosopher
Sen no Rikyu, it was built by his disciple Oda Uraku in 1618.
In a time he perceived to be the height of consumer excess, Sen no Rikyu promoted the concept of wabi-sabi. Roughly translated, this refers to satisfaction with simplicity and austerity and appreciation of the imperfect. In opposition to ostentatious teahouses where people gathered to flaunt their wealth, Sen no Rikyu advocated small and simple teahouses hidden away from the world. It is said that he wanted people to meander through trees and stones to break ties with the
Wabi-sabi refers to satisfaction with simplicity and austerity and appreciation of the imperfect.
ordinary realm before entering the teahouse for a solemn ceremony imbued with ascetic symbolism. Indeed, the doorway is deliberately disproportionate, compelling all visitors to bow while entering. It is an equalising structure whereby both nobility and commoner have to first humble themselves to enter.
Gazing at the structure while sipping warm matcha in the drizzle, I thought of the countless numbers of people that had lowered their heads at the entrance and strolled down the same path: from kimono-clad ladies from days
Every path is a continuous story: Each walker adds a new note to a route... A well-worn footpath is a message...
of yore stepping delicately on the grey tiles to eager foreign tourists hoping to capture the moment. Across time, this space has played host to visitors from far and wide. The gateway gave people entry to a shared experience — one that was crafted specifically as a utopian ode to simplicity.
The next gateway came upon me unexpectedly on a cable car ride up to the Hotaka mountain range. Ten minutes into a steady climb, the vehicle was engulfed by grey mist. Thinking that it was due to bad weather, I steeled myself for a wasted trip. Yet, within a matter of seconds, the cable car rose above the gloom and was suddenly filled with bright light. I took a few seconds to register that we had actually passed through a layer of clouds. This ethereal gateway framed the mountains and verdant forests below. From such a vantage point, one would be hard-pressed to suspend one’s awe.
As I ventured along onto the hiking trails of the mountain range, the musings of British writer Robert Macfarlane came to mind. Macfarlane espouses the idea that every path is a continuous story: Each
walker adds a new note to a route, which over time evolves into a trail. A well-worn footpath is a message — one that advises people on the best route that others have trusted and trod. By using it, you are using the knowledge of people before you and adding to that of those after you.
The carefully crafted paths of the Hotaka mountains illustrate this. Each step has been carefully reinforced by fastened branches. Footpaths meander around boulders and tree trunks, up hills and along rivers. Much like entering the teahouse in the garden, walking atop the mountains creates a sense of tranquillity. I like to believe that the places we visit are as changed by us as we are by them. In the laughter echoing through the trees and the joy of shared meals and experiences, a part of us remains in that realm.
As with most journeys, the end is a return to normalcy. While quests for meaning and rest serve the individual, the traveller should take heart in the idea that the gateways they crossed have been changed by their presence. In passing through different worlds, visitors join a fellowship of travellers from both the past and future, and perhaps therein lies the fundamental pull to journey far and wide.