Gate­ways to the Past and Fu­ture

Dis­cov­er­ies beckon in the lesser­known re­gion of cen­tral Ja­pan.

Asian Geographic - - CONTENTS -

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.

ABOVE A sea of clouds shroud the moun­tains of the Ho­taka moun­tain range in Takayama. BoT­Tom riGhT The re­stored Jo-an Tea­house in Inuyama dates back to 1618 and was des­ig­nated as a Na­tional Trea­sure in 1951.

aBove The en­trance to the tea­house at Urakuen in Inuyama op­po­siTe paGe Vis­i­tors are treated to spec­tac­u­lar views at rest stops along the wooden walk­ing paths of the Ho­taka moun­tain range in Takayama.

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