Head to the hills in rural Japan
Japan | December 11, 2017
Away from the bright lights of Japan’s cities, Flora Ioannou embraces zen culture in attempts to truly find herself.
‘Naked? Me? In public? Sorry, but that’s never going to happen.’
This was my reaction when I faced my first Japanese onsen experience.
But sure enough, 20 minutes later I had disrobed and was submerged in a hot spring with dozens of flesh-baring strangers.
This was just one of the many things I thought I would never do in my lifetime, but on a wellness trip to Japan, I ticked many things off that list.
My journey began in Japan’s third- largest city, Osaka, which lies slap-bang in the middle of Honshu, the biggest of the nation’s 6,852 islands.
It’s here that we met our guide Keiko Hirose, who was dressed head to toe in Issey Miyake, Japan’s most successful fashion designer. “You,” she said to me, “will find yourself in the next five days”. I didn’t know I was lost.
To find my lost self we headed to Mount Koya, an hour-and-a-half south of Osaka. The area is home to Shingon Buddhism, founded by Japan’s most famous Buddhist Kobo Daishi, and the immensely spiritual Garan temple complex.
It was Daishi who began building the Kondo Hall and Daito Pagoda – although he died in 835AD before both were complete. Fortunately, others stepped into the breach and finished the job.
These are just two of the magnificent shrines here that Buddhists visit to pay their respects by cleansing their hands, clapping, wishing and praying. Another unusual ritual for pilgrims is to stand coins on their edges and leave them. So of course, I embraced all aspects of Buddhist traditions. When in Rome, or in my case, Japan.
Following my first cleansing session at the Garan, I embraced the Japanese love of zen with 40 minutes of ajikan meditation at Kongobuji Temple. The temple is ordinarily closed to the public, but can be booked in advance (koyasan.or.jp/en). The meditation began and as I sat cross-legged breathing deeply, I was swiftly transported away from my hectic London life into complete tranquillity.
This baptism to cleanliness left me feeling hungry, so it was just as well that the Shingon Buddhist monks had prepared a five-course shojin ryori (vegan) meal. Harmoniously presented with seasonal roots, vegetation and copious amounts of tofu (to which I have an aversion), it was prepared with a balance of five colours and flavours. Nothing went to waste; every last piece of each local ingredient was incorporated into this meal. So as we sat cross-legged, once again, our delicious meal was gracefully served – and ungracefully polished off. I have never mastered the art of using chopsticks. And, sadly, I still can’t stomach tofu.
Staying in the spiritual heart of Japan, Wakayama, we began our Mount Koya trek; navigating the dense humid forest of giant cedar and cypress trees on the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo route. It’s one of only two pilgrimages in the world registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site (Spain’s Way of St James is the other). We followed in the footsteps of ancient emperors who had embarked on pilgrimages thousands of years ago to purify themselves. Having been cleansed, I was going to be purified. ‘I’ll be squeaky clean soon’, I thought.
Joining us on this purifying walk was our very own ‘forest therapist’ who, after an hour of hard slog in the airless heat, encouraged us to rest and experience the calming scent of trees, the sounds of the birds and the slight beams of sunshine through the foliage, while lying on cedar log-like beds that seemed to magically appear as we stumbled across a clearing in the forest. They call this ‘forest bathing’ or, in Japanese, shinrin-yoku.
As we settled on our logs to meditate, our therapist pulled out her flute and began to play a melancholy tune. While the experience seemed surreal, and far from any usual holiday experiences, I quickly realised that money couldn’t buy
the incredible sense of ease I was feeling. These sessions can be booked by contacting email@example.com.
After our so-called bath, we limbered up for the 538 stone stairs leading up to the Seiganto-ji Temple. ‘I can do that’, I thought to myself, but what I didn’t expect was the 70-degree incline (which felt more like 90 in the heat) and the intensely suffocating humidity.
For a frizzy-haired, unfit gal such as myself, this climb couldn’t have been more out of my comfort zone. And believe me, I really didn’t mind being overtaken by local pensioners, who smiled at me, encouraging me to keep climbing. I
was also glad for their morale-boosting support because with every step I took, the mountain views got better and better, and somehow gave me the strength to carry on.
I was euphoric as I reached the top, and the awe-inspiring views were certainly reward enough for my hard work.
I could have spent hours here, but I had to move on, as the showstopper – Nachi Falls – was still to come. With a drop of 436ft, it’s one of Japan’s tallest and most spectacular waterfalls. There are two rocks at the top of the falls, known locally as the guardian spirits of nature, called kami. Shingon Buddhists believe that if you look after nature, nature looks after you, so it was no surprise that in this most beautiful place sits a spirit that they applaud and adorn with love. Purified at each temple and having made wishes to every kami under the sun, I felt relaxed and rested.
Hugging trees for energy and being fed the healthiest food I’ve ever eaten – was this a new me? Had I actually found myself in the middle of a Japanese forest? Fascinating, magical and a little crazy, these experiences seemed to be everything that makes Japan unique. And the people are the most courteous, genuinely good-mannered and friendliest you will meet anywhere in the world. They are what makes Japan so beautiful.
I certainly found myself in Japan, and I’m already plotting my return so I can delve a little deeper.