Spiritual Japan

A journey of well-being and discovery in the land of the rising sun

By Adam Waxman

In the early morning mist of the Arashiyama region of Kyoto, our boat meanders along the Oigawa River. Our hosts, waiting for us at their dock, bow as we approach. The quiet of the valley is only sweetened by the soft chime and hum of a Buddhist altar bell set that welcomes us to the Hoshinoya ryokan. While our bags are whisked ahead, we are escorted up a path to our private guesthouse.

Austere by design, there are no modern-day distractions at the Hoshinoya Kyoto ryokan, only modern comfort and cozy sleeping. Sliding doors of woodblock- printed paper open to a tatami room with an inspirational window onto the cherry blossom trees sloping the mountainside and the pristine waters below. A preserved area, Hoshinoya was originally the library of a ship merchant who built a temple on the mountain. The value in its seclusion is that its distance from the city enables time for us to acclimatize and appreciate the journey.

Ayano, our kimono-clad hostess, arrives with breakfast: a copper hot pot prepared with fresh spring and mountain herbs and vegetables, accompanied by an assortment of pickles, rice and fresh salmon. A good chef is determined by the purity of his broth. This chef’s signature is a clear broth, made from dried bonito, seaweed and local mineral water that bring out the qualities and flavours of the vegetables. We happily sit, sipping and meditating on the natural beauty outside the window.

General Manager Masae Kikuchi tells us that, before arrival, guests are researched. “We think of what you would like to do here, and what would please you,” she shares. “And when you arrive, we choose a room for you for this particular season. That is the hospitality mind.” A hospitality that is traditionally gentle and close. It emphasizes the initial welcome and greeting, the decoration and warmth of the room, and friendly interaction. Kikuchi-san tells us her staff is chosen based on honesty, purity and their inclination to do something for another person. Their genuine enthusiasm and sincerity is both endearing and humbling.

With the aim of introducing guests to culture unique to Kyoto, tea tasting, flower arranging and Buddhist rosary making are activities brought to us in our room. There is also a Zen internal purification program that includes consultation, teas, baths, meditation and diet therapy. Much attention is paid to ingredients, preparation and the idea that mealtime should be a time of happiness.

With each activity, the goal is simply “to appreciate.” There is no end other than that. It is not the result, or even the process, just the moment. The incense ceremony is about “hearing the scent,” and reflecting on how scents affect us. Rather than thinking of it as difficult or complicated, it is about being delicate and appreciating that there is always something new to discover.

Before dawn, our host escorts us to the Myoshinji Temple to experience morning meditation with a monk. After chanting, he makes tea and tells us there are many ways to climb Mt. Fuji—from the ocean side, to the landside. Each path leads to the same peak, but we must be self-reflective, appreciate subtlety and purity, and remember: “good posture leads to good breathing, which leads to good mind, spirit and energy.” This monk was raised in Kumano, to the south of Kyoto, where the Imperial family once made spiritual pilgrimages. Legend has it that the Kumano region in the Kii Mountain Range of Wakayama is a place where deities descended and now reside within trees, mountains, rocks and rivers.

Following in the footsteps of nature-worshipers, we step back in time and visit the “Land of the Gods” that have been the focus of spiritual pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years. We begin at a creek. In the middle is a small wooden cabin around a piping hot natural mineral bath, the Yunomine Onsen. We are allotted 30 minutes immersion before our hike, but it takes me about 20 minutes of pouring and raking cold water to bring the scorching temperature down. Soaking in this cloudy, sulphuric spring feels disconcerting, but for 1,800 years it has been a medicinal source of health, well-being and purification rituals.

Hiking into the forest of sweet smelling cedar, the enormity of the vibrant trees, some large enough in which to build a house, give me a spooky feeling that there is indeed some other energy here. Temples and shrines seem to be high above hundreds of steps, but my energy level has never been higher. After just one day of walking through these woods and climbing up these steps, I feel a rejuvenation that I have not felt in years. Lunch is a bamboo leaf box of simple, indigenous ingredients like shitake mushrooms, yams, burdock root, bamboo, rice, fried tofu and trout that can mostly be found along the pilgrimage route, and provides healthy fuel during our walk above the yamanami “mountain waves.”

While resting by the river at Kawayu Onsen, we are handed shovels. As we dig a pit, hot water bubbles to the surface. The confluence of flowing cold water and rising hot thermal water is the height of organic luxury. The hot sulphuric spring water also extracts impurities from food, and brings out colours, sweeter flavours and a softer texture when used for cooking. We drink sweet shochu from a bamboo shoot, made with this hot spring water and medicinal herbs. Local cattle also drink this water, so even the beef nabe pot of roots and vegetables is nourished by these magical waters.

Registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Kumano Kodo is more than a nice walk in the woods; it is a gateway into 3,600 mountains of shinboku “divine trees.” According to the Wakayama Health Centre and the Japanese Ministry of Health, there are quantifiable human effects from “forest bathing” in this region of highly concentrated phytoncides—active antimicrobial compounds that prevent rotting in plants and are used in aromatherapy and holistic medicine. Breathing in this negatively charged air results in positive health benefits, from a relaxed heart rate and increased mental acuity to decreased levels of the stress-produced hormone cortisol, and increased immunoglobulin A antibodies that enhance human immune functions.

Reflecting on our spiritual journey, its simplicity and extraordinary nature, we recall the Myoshinji monk’s words during our stay at Hoshinoya: “When you return home, please remember to keep breathing in what you have learned.”

Web reference: www.ilovejapan.ca

Partial Japan travel provided by Carlson Wagonlit Travel / Journeys of Discovery. For travel to Kumano and tours to Japan visit www.cwtjapan.com

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