Fire Rituals and Futons: Finding Peace in Rural Japan

Fire Rituals and Futons: Finding Peace in Rural Japan

Travellers are drawn to Japan’s sightseeing spots: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Yet there’s much more to the country. Stepping off the tourist trail in rural Nara reveals a warmth that goes deeper than fire rituals and the blaze of autumn leaves.

at Shigisan was like being plucked from real life and
dropped into a fairy tale. Stone lanterns flickered in the evening
air, lighting pathways leading up into the mountain. A dark silence
settled, broken only by the last few chirps from nestled birds
before settling into a night of slumber. I was staying in Gyokuzoin, a shukubō (temple
lodging). In years gone by, such accommodation would have been
reserved for pilgrims, but today shukubō have opened their doors to
any visitor who wishes to embark upon a spiritual retreat, giving
them the opportunity to join practices usually reserved for monks:
praying, copying religious scripture and meditation.

The check-in process was smooth and as the soothing, peaceful
setting washed over me, I immediately felt at ease. All rooms at
Gyokuzoin are the same: simple, tatami-matted spaces decorated
sparsely but deliberately with a futon and buckwheat pillow, as if
to encourage a shedding unnecessary modern excesses. Here I could
approach a contemplative state.

After taking time to relax, I tucked into a dinner of shojin
ryori, traditional Buddhist vegan cuisine that this evening
featured tofu steamed in kombu (seaweed) broth and tempura mountain
vegetables. Delicious and wholesome, dinner was as nourishing for
the body as the rest of the stay was for the soul. Afterwards, in
preparation for my 5am start (and to tackle said futon and
buckwheat pillow), I soaked in the onsen-style bath, let any
stresses of the day wash away and, for the first time in my life,
felt excited for my 4.45am alarm.

It was still dark when I woke. Stone lanterns shone as,
somewhere in the black, leaves rustled in the wind. I pulled on a
few layers to fend off the 5am chills and set off for the
experience I’d been waiting for: the goma fire ceremony. Walking
along illuminated pathways, the air was still and cold, but the
warm glow from the lanterns somehow seemed to warm the body.

The head of the temple was waiting when I arrived at the hall,
beckoning me (and two other temple guests) inside, motioning for us
to take a seat on the floor. The room was beautiful. Ornate iron
lanterns hung from the ceiling and a stone hearth decorated with
glistening gold candlesticks was in the middle of the wooden room.
We entered, the sutra chanting began, reverberating against the
wooden walls of the tiny room, the stillness outside enhancing
every second. Incense, dried herbs and wishes, written on cedar
goma sticks, representing human desires and thus the root of our
worldly suffering, were fed to the fire producing gloriously
sweet-smelling smoke that filled the room, floating between the
flickering lanterns above. Embers shot out as smoke rose, dancing
to the chanting of the monks and the beating of the drum. It was
transformative. A feeling of fascination and contentment washed
over me and I basked in it. The flames died down and the chants
became softer. The temperature of the room dropped while the
morning air drifted back inside, the warmth of the fire immediately
noticeable now that it was gone.

From here we had half an hour to explore the mountainside before
morning prayers in the main hall. The sun was just rising and an
ethereal glow crept slowly over the mountainside. The quiet was
deafening. Birds began to sing and insects buzzed, breaking the
silence to form a hive of activity. After a spot of exploration, I
followed the monks to the main hall for morning prayers. The sun
was still creeping over the horizon and the view from the main hall
onto the valley below was like a scene from a watercolour painting,
pastel colours bleeding into each other. Morning prayers were
louder and more energetic than the fire ceremony; drums, chants and
written sutras clapping together with an almighty crack. As it drew
to a close, the sunlight grew outside and my breath became less
visible. Leaving Shigisan I felt calm, purified almost.

I caught a train to Kashihara to explore the charming little town of
Imaicho. Arriving here reminded me of the
beautiful old parts of Kyoto, only undisturbed. The streets were
quiet, locals were going about their business and the few tourists
that I did see were investigating the area in hushed adulation.
Imaicho had such a friendly buzz that I could have spent hours more
wandering, but alas, after chatting to some locals over lunch in a
local kissaten (tea-drinking shop) I had another train to

This time the rails would lead me to Sakurai and out into the
countryside for a stay that couldn’t be more different to Shigisan.
Set on a hillside overlooking the farming valley below, L’Auberge de Plaisance is a luxurious French-style
inn, which focuses on fine food. Where possible, its restaurant
uses produce grown in Nara and picked when perfectly ripe. Flavours
were built to complement the ingredients on its very doorstep.
Sated after an evening of multi-course mastery, I slipped into the
cloud-like comfort of my bed, content.

My final day in rural Nara greeted me with blue skies, fluffy
clouds and sun beaming on the surrounding farmland. It dawned on me
that this was the part of Japan I love the most, the natural
landscape, so far removed from the neon lights of the cities. The
land, open and green, is backdropped by mountain peaks instead of

My reluctance to leave Sakurai was abated by the fact that I was
about to witness autumn leaves in nearby Tanzan Jinja, high in the
mountains. The floor was a carpet of crimson and the sky a rustling
of copper-toned, crisp leaves that shook in the breeze,
occasionally breaking free like embers from a flame, drifting down
to the ground to thicken the blanket underfoot.