The Imperial Pilgrimage Tour
Drinking a bowl of frothy, fresh green tea ( matcha ),
contemplating the stillness of the temple garden at Taimadera, was
the perfect way to start this tour. The longer we sat, the stiller
we were, the more we began to notice in the garden; the two 3-storey
pagodas, the koi carp weaving slowly around the still
pond, the small, offset stone bridge, the occasional falling leaf,
the clear, bell-like echo of water as it dripped into a clay pot
The temperature fell as we ascended Mount Koya to our temple lodging.
Rain fell in the night. Last year it snowed at this time. We were
the only guests attending the morning sutra recitals this time,
so we were able to ask the Buddhist priest questions quite freely
afterwards. A chance to get to know a little bit more about the
mysteries of the mikkyo, or Shingon (‘Pure Word') Esoteric
Buddhism. We of course discovered more the deeper we trekked in
the Kii mountains in the days that followed.
For the first time on a tour, we spent the morning walking the
Nyonindo path around the rim of Mount Koya . We did about half of
the route. Women were formerly not permitted to enter into the centre
of Mount Koya where the Buddhist monasteries were established, so
had to content themselves with a visit to the Nyonindo temple and
a stretch of pilgrimage around the mountain. Times have changed
though, and women can not only access Mount Koya freely, but can
now be priests. Signs of the times were also clearly evident among
the cedar trees alongside the path, where we noticed a small forest
of domestic TV antennae, planted high on the hill above the monasteries
to get better reception.
As well as the thousands of memorials to the great and good in
the cemetery on Mount Koya, there are also memorials to creatures
including lice who have been exterminated by Japan's equivalent
of Rent-to-Kill, a space rocket installation (see photo), and a
huge UCC coffee company mug of coffee (a memorial to those who overdosed
on caffeine?). The more conventional monuments are to poets, priests,
shogun and daimyo , politicians, wealthy merchants, and
members of the imperial family.
Well fed and rested, despite midnight gasping clearly audible from
an adjacent room through paper-thin fusuma sliding doors,
we set out on the Imperial Pilgrimage Route hike. Our mid-morning
coffee break on Day 1 found us looking down on cloud-filled valleys
and shadowy peaks as we listened to jazz - John Coltrane – coming
from inside the home of the friendly couple who run the café
above the village of Takahara .
There were few other walkers that day, except for a young ‘salary
man' who told us he worked for an internet-based educational resource
company which provides on-line distance learning. Our paths crossed
several times over the course of the next few days. It was great
to meet several young professionals this time who had taken a few
days off work to visit Kumano and walk the old Kumano Kodo path..
We arrived at Chikatsuyu in time to drop into the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi
Museum , where we saw an exhibition of paintings by the Japanese
artist Watase Ryoun. The museum building, a simple, jewel-like glass
box, was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA,
the same architects who designed the 21 st Century Museum of Contemporary
Art in Kanazawa , and who have apparently won a competition to design
a new Louvre museum in Lens in France .
The night's accommodation in the natural hot spring resort of Yunomine
was, as usual, wonderful, and our hosts as generous as ever.
We may walk the same route time and time again but, like the water
in the constantly flowing river which is never the same, our experiences
along the way are always new and exciting. The photograph of Commander
H (aka Bob the Builder) apparently taking a light-hearted break
from building a temple in the forests above Nachi waterfall, and
posing with a traveller we met along the way, Asayo (sanding the
pillar), was taken on a new hiking course to the small Okunoin temple.
On clear days, early in the morning, there is a point along this
trail where you can see Mount Fuji . It is about the southernmost
place in Japan from which the volcano can be seen. But you have
to be up early, normally in the winter, to see it.
We managed to wake up at 4.30am the night we stayed at the temple
in Nachi, to participate (for the first time at Nachi) in the morning
ritual o-tsutome sutra recital. Although it is always a
bit of a challenge to keep ones eyes open at that time, the incense,
gonging of the bell, chanting, and simply sitting, help focus the
mind. The head priest was particularly warm and friendly. We went
home with carrying gifts of oranges and cakes.
That day the sky was blue and it was warm so we agreed to drive
down to Shionomisaki, the southernmost point on the main island
of Honshu . Looking out over the glittering ocean we talked about
how people living in the cities in the big cities in Japan , whilst
at some level they must be aware of the fact, tend to forget that
they are living on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean . The ocean
has a constant influence on life here, even in the densely populated
urban areas, whether it's food (the abundant seafood), the weather
… or tsunami tidal waves. The mountain cherry blossoms
were in full bloom.
Knoppar i väntan
På vårens första värme
Utan en tanke
Cherry buds waiting
For the first warmth of spring
Without a thought
Robert (from Stockholm )
The journey through the mountains of Yoshino took us to the ancient
capital of Asuka, where we stayed in a minshuku run by a friendly
lady no less than 76 years old. We enjoyed scooting up and down
the low hills in Asuka on electric motor assisted bicycles, only
falling off once (see photo!), as well as exploring the ancient
stone burial chambers of emperors.
From Asuka we travelled in time, as well as by road, on to the
next capital of Japan , Nara . Yoko, a good friend and knowledgeable
local guide, showed us the gardens and temples in and around Nara
Park . It was great to have Marc, a friend and long-term Kansai
resident, join the group for lunch
And so to Kyoto , and some sightseeing (including Ginkakuji – the
Silver Pavilion), before a farewell dinner and exploration of some
of the darker alleyways downtown. Hike Japan friend and guide Meg
accompanied us, kindly explaining how to wear a cotton yukata
and tie the belt properly. Arigato!
The food, as on all Hike Japan tours, was truly excellent. Other
companies who run tours in Japan sell what they describe as ‘gourmet
tours'. Fine Japanese cuisine comes as standard on ours. See the
Click to read haiku poems
from this tour.