Seek­ing en­light­en­ment in Ja­pan in­volves hik­ing back in time.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY JOHN MADDOCKS

Ifeel ap­pre­hen­sive. I’m about to en­ter the ‘gate of awak­en­ing of the as­pi­ra­tion to en­light­en­ment’. That sounds like a heavy concept. Am I seek­ing en­light­en­ment? Am I up for the chal­lenge?

Be­yond the gate of awak­en­ing, called Hossh­in­mon-oji, lies a seven-kilo­me­tre sec­tion of the rugged Ku­mano Kodo pil­grim­age trail. I’m in the heart of what’s known as ‘mys­tic Ja­pan’, a re­mote region on the Kii Penin­sula, 150 kilo­me­tres south of Osaka. It’s a moun­tain­ous place of dense cedar and cy­press forests dot­ted with pic­turesque agri­cul­tural vil­lages. Im­por­tantly, the Ku­mano area also boasts three of the country’s most sig­nif­i­cant shrines, or san­zan. One of them, Ku­mano Hongu Taisha, is where our trail is headed.

Pil­grims have walked the Ku­mano Kodo, now a World Her­itage trail, for more than 1,000 years. At times, num­bers were so great that pil­grims were de­scribed as a ‘pro­ces­sion of ants’. Orig­i­nally a favourite of em­per­ors, no­bles and samu­rai, the Ku­mano even­tu­ally be­came widely pop­u­lar as a pil­grim­age route for or­di­nary peo­ple, re­gard­less of gen­der, sta­tus or be­liefs.

As I walk, I re­flect on the peo­ple who have fol­lowed this trail in the past. The pil­grims sought peace, for­give­ness and even sal­va­tion through their Shinto and Bud­dhist be­liefs.

They thought that pay­ing re­spect to the kami, or gods, of this sa­cred place would bring pu­rifi­ca­tion and pro­tec­tion. When Bud­dhism came to Ja­pan in the 6th cen­tury, the kami sa­cred to Shinto were re­garded as man­i­fes­ta­tions of the Bud­dha and Bod­hisattvas, en­sur­ing har­mo­nious co­ex­is­tence be­tween the two re­li­gions.

The fu­sion of Bud­dhism and in­dige­nous re­li­gion in this area leads many to claim that Ku­mano is the heart of Ja­panese spir­i­tu­al­ity. Pil­grims shared the moun­tains with yam­abushi, or wan­der­ing as­cetics, who prac­tised an es­o­teric mix­ture of Bud­dhism, Shinto and Tao­ism. But most im­por­tantly, Ku­mano spir­i­tu­al­ity was mas­sively in­flu­enced by women. The Ku­mano bikuni, or nuns, were itin­er­ant teach­ers and per­form­ers who over­came the op­pres­sive at­ti­tudes to women pre­dom­i­nant in early Ja­pan. Lit­tle won­der that women are well rep­re­sented on the Ku­mano Kodo trail to this day.

Open­ness and ac­cep­tance, hall­marks of Ku­mano, still per­me­ate the region and pre­dom­i­nate over any solem­nity or piety. There are nu­mer­ous small shrines called oji and rock carv­ings along the for­est route, some ded­i­cated to worldly as­pi­ra­tions such as avoid­ing toothache and back pain, while oth­ers are memo­ri­als to pil­grims who died along the way.

We emerge from the for­est at the small set­tle­ment of Fush­iogami, no­table for its green tea plan­ta­tions, veg­etable gar­dens and ter­raced rice fields. Stalls by the trail offer wood

“The fu­sion of Bud­dhism and in­dige­nous re­li­gion in this area leads many to claim that Ku­mano is the heart of Ja­panese spir­i­tu­al­ity”

carv­ings and a va­ri­ety of agri­cul­tural prod­ucts. A local wo­man walk­ing in the other di­rec­tion smiles as we pass. There’s a sense that these tiny out­posts have wit­nessed a great deal over the cen­turies.

Not long after­wards we reach Fush­iogami-oji, where there’s a look­out over the val­ley be­low giv­ing the first glimpse of Ku­mano Hongu Taisha. Ap­par­ently de­vout pil­grims fell on their knees at this point, tear­fully grate­ful to see the shrine that has been the ob­ject of their long trek.

Even this rel­a­tively short sec­tion of the Ku­mano pil­grim­age walk cre­ates a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence from vis­its to most of the world’s re­li­gious sites. Apart from the phys­i­cal ef­fort re­quired, you com­mune with na­ture be­fore ar­riv­ing at the ma­jor shrines, which changes your per­spec­tive. The only com­pa­ra­ble trek is the Camino de San­ti­ago and now, un­der a new ini­tia­tive, peo­ple who com­plete both World Her­itage routes can be­come ‘dual pil­grims’. Australia boasts the sec­ond high­est number of dual pil­grims.

When we reach Ku­mano Hongu Taisha, Ja­pan’s sec­ond most important shrine, we par­tic­i­pate in a Shinto pro­tec­tion and pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­ual. The priest chants and then brushes a rod with a mop of zig-zagged pa­per at one end lightly over our heads as we kneel. Ap­par­ently demons can’t stand the hiss­ing sound of the pa­per. Cu­ri­ously, you can also have your car blessed for good luck.

Feel­ing purer, we drive past Ku­mano Hay­atama Taisha on our way to Ku­mano Nachi Taisha. These are the other two grand shrines in the region. Nachi Taisha is the stand­out be­cause of its stun­ning pagoda near the na­tion’s high­est wa­ter­fall. We visit the Nachi Shinto shrine, built to hon­our the spirit of the wa­ter­fall, and the ad­join­ing Bud­dhist tem­ple, San­seiganto-ji.

This is also hot spring (on­sen) ter­ri­tory. Nearby Yunomine on­sen is the old­est in Ja­pan, while Kawayu on­sen is lo­cated at a part of a river where heated water per­co­lates through the gravel of the bed.

As I re­lax that evening in the hotel’s on­sen, I have a chance to re­flect on the day’s events. I feel a deep sense of sat­is­fac­tion. While I may not have pro­gressed on the path to en­light­en­ment, I’ve cer­tainly been im­mersed in an an­cient spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence that’s dif­fi­cult to find in our fast-paced world. •

Open­ing im­age: The Ku­mano Kodo trail has nu­mer­ous small shrines and rock carv­ings along the way. Clock­wise from top left: The view of Ku­mano Hongu Taisha from Fush­iogami-oji. Tear­ful pil­grims fell on their knees at the first glimpse of this sa­cred...

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