A Spiritual Pilgrimage to Shōnai, Japan

A Spiritual Pilgrimage to Shōnai, Japan

In partnership withwondertrunk & co.

I later meet Daizaburo Sakamoto, a manga illustrator turned
professional Yamabushi. With his man bun, MacBook and loose linens,
he looks like the ultimate hipster – an impression that only
intensifies when I learn that he made his backpack out of animal
hide and forges his own steel knives from iron-ore dust. Daizaburo
moved here from Tokyo and began gathering mountain survival
techniques into material for a best-selling book. “Human life used
to be indistinguishable from nature,” he tells me, “but today it
has become so developed that we don’t need nature to survive. The
perception of culture in cities is spread so thin that you can
barely feel it, whereas in the mountain it has evolved vertically –
it’s deep-rooted. When we reconnect with these ancient cultures, we
can rediscover who we are.”

With these words ringing in my ears we make our way to the
former temple of Saikan on Mount Haguro, where all three mountain
deities are enshrined and where our training will take place.
Arriving by night I can just make out the shadowy outlines of
mighty trees and the triangular peaks of temples, and the next
morning when I slide back my room’s screen door I’m greeted by
huge, reddish-brown trunks crawling with greenery and the sun
streaming through the branches in a scene that feels almost

We drive to Daishobo, another pilgrim lodge and the home of
Master Hoshino, the sendatsu (mountain master) who will lead us
through our training. The only word permitted to be spoken is
“uketamo”, which translates as “I humbly accept with an open
heart”, so before silence descends we receive our shiroshozoku.
These are the white garments worn by the dead, as in order to be
reborn we must first die. We’re also given a paper necklace called
a shime, which just like the ropes across the torii gates that mark
an entrance into divine ground, signifies that we are temporarily
becoming sacred. The Master and his assistant wear colossal conch
shells strung around their necks which they blow regularly to ward
off evil spirits and call us to action. As it sounds for the first
time Master Hoshino enters the room and we bow and chant in front
of a shrine before lining up and marching to Mount Kinbo.

Cut to me standing in front of the waterfall, where
unfortunately it seems there’s a ladies-first policy. Master
Hoshino beckons and I nervously wobble over the rocks on my dodgy
ankle and duck under the ice-cold stream. We’ve been given a
shortened version of a heart sutra (prayer) to recite, but as soon
as the water hits my mind goes blank and it’s all I can do to stop
myself from squawking and flapping like the drenched goose I must
resemble. Emerging a few moments later, however, I feel strangely
refreshed, and Master Hoshino later tells me that it’s here he
feels a shift in me from fear to acceptance.

After a quick break back at the lodge – in which I’m told no for
reading as it takes me out of the present moment – we follow up a
session of meditation with a night walk. Fortunately it’s a full
moon and the way is bright, but I still can’t help stabbing the
stone- studded ground with my walking stick and frantically waving
my lantern. The Master walks ahead, his ghostly form shimmering
dustily in the darkness, until we reach a bridge from which we can
hear the river roar and fireflies blink on and off. It’s a lesson
in trusting your senses and from this point on I give in more
readily to the path, the meditative pace of putting one foot in
front of the other lulling me into a state of peace.

Returning to the lodge we cram into a small room for a smoke
meditation, meant to symbolise passing through the world of hell.
I’m sworn to keep the details secret, but suffice to say that my
head is reeling when I emerge and am told to go to bed, but to be
prepared to leave on the second sounding of the conch. When it
blares an inestimable number of hours later, I stagger to my feet
and into a fierce downpour to tackle Mount Haguro’s ancient
pilgrimage route, Ishi-Dan.

The next few hours pass in a blur of sodden splendour as we make
our way up the 2,446 stone steps cut into the side of the mountain.
Gargantuan cedar trees and bushes dotted with milky-blue hydrangeas
fringe the path, while slabs hewn with runes hide among them. We
stop to chant sutras at various shrines and temples, most notably
the 600-year-old, five-storey Go-Jyu-No-Toh pagoda, where I look up
and see sheets of raindrops bouncing off the edges of its roofs as
if I’m in a video-game cutscene. We pass a 1,000-year-old redwood
known as the “Grandpa Tree” which has a tasselled shime tied around
its trunk as a reminder of the longevity of the natural world.
Finally we reach the network of shrines at the top of the path and
enter the largest, Sanjin Gosaiden, for another round of worship
and a ceremony that concludes with us drinking a bowl of sake. I’m
spared the journey down due to my injury and after waiting for the
rest of our group to navigate the steep route back, we return to
the lodge for our “graduation”.

After a much-needed shower – washing is prohibited throughout
the training in order to put participants in a more animalistic
state – we sit down for a celebration brunch of shojin ryori
cuisine and I’m finally able to chat to Master Hoshino. “The
training is about learning from nature and the gods around us, just
as those in ancient times did,” he tells me. “We used to learn
everything from nature and therefore our ability to sense was
highly developed, whereas today we are taught to ‘think’ rather
than ‘feel’. As a result, we all tend to think and see the world
the same way. I know that ‘mindfulness’ has become a popular term
in the West, but it’s the wrong way of looking at things – we need
to ‘feel’ first and contemplate later. Being reborn on the mountain
is about getting back to our original state when we’re born, before
we lose our ability to sense.”

Before we leave Master Hoshino takes us to the ocean for a final
meditation, although the waves stirred up by the previous day’s
downpour are a little too savage for true reflection. As I’m
slapped repeatedly in the face by spray and swallow lungfuls of
salty water, I spot Master Hoshino gleefully bobbing up and down,
laughing, before he disappears off into the distance. Clambering up
to a nearby lighthouse, I sit and gaze across the sea back towards
the West. It would be wrong to say that I feel like a different
person entirely, but I do feel a certain sense of calm, trust in my
intuition and acceptance that I definitely didn’t possess before.
“Uketamo,” I think, as I stare across the water, towards home.

This article appears in Volume 24:
The Slow Issue.

“HUARGH HUARGH” As our motley band of pilgrims thrusts our arms
back and forth in unison in a move more naturally associated with
drunk dads at weddings, I have what can only be described as a
momentary out-of-body experience. I’m balanced on a rock in the
middle of the Japanese forest, the lone woman surrounded by men
dressed in nothing but loincloths. In front me is our leader, a
tiny force of nature topped with a moon-white beard, while the man
we’ve nicknamed “the Spartan” – a six-foot-six, tattooed CrossFit
trainer – towers over me to my left. Our chants ring into the trees
as we prepare to step under a waterfall and purify ourselves, the
first stage in our quest to be reborn.

It’s a spectacularly weird moment, and one that only makes sense
in the context of the previous few days of mental, physical and
spiritual preparation in the northern region of Shōnai. A far cry
from the Western world’s readiest notions of Japan – all
neon-saturated cities, bullet trains and robot waiters, perhaps
punctuated with the odd cherry blossom-shrouded temple – this rural
province is known for both farming and the ongoing practice of
Shugendō, an ancient form of folk religion centred on the three
sacred mountains of the Dewa Sanzan. A hybrid of Zen and Esoteric
Buddhism, Shintoism and nature worship, Shugendō emphasises
immersion in nature as the pathway to enlightenment. Its mountain
priests, the Yamabushi, embark on extended periods of pilgrimage
which often involve incredible feats of endurance, such as
traversing perilous terrain, meditating in enclosed spaces filled
with acrid smoke, leaping over fire and, in times gone by, even

I’m here because for the first time in its 1,300-year history
Shugendō is becoming available to non-Japanese speakers, who
perhaps hope to find some sort of truth of their own and an
antidote to the artificiality of modern living. Arriving fogged
with jet lag and having sprained my ankle the week before, I’m
relieved that my experience begins at sea level – the Yamabushi
believe that all life trickles down from the mountains before we
ascend to their peaks in the afterlife and then join with the
essential nature of the universe, so my journey is to take the same
shape of ocean, mountain, ocean.

Zipping along Shōnai’s roads I gaze out over a vast, flat
expanse of swaying rice paddies, the light bouncing o the
waterlogged rows of seedlings like silk stretched tight on the loom
or stitched-together spiderwebs. Tsuruoka City in Shōnai is the
only place in Japan to have been awarded the status of Unesco
Creative City of Gastronomy, an achievement made possible by the
region’s rare topography as a broad and windy plain surrounded by a
plentiful supply of fresh water from the mountains.

Our destination is Naa, a family-run farmstay and restaurant
recently voted the best in Japan. Strolling through patches of
aubergine, chestnut and watermelon, the restaurant manager,
Norimasa Onodera, tells me how after the Second World War farmers
were encouraged to use pesticides and so today less than 0.5 per
cent of all farming in Japan is organic. His father, Kisaku, made
the pioneering decision to return to organic farming over 40 years
ago and now both father and son are dedicated to convincing others
to do the same. “The soil is like a person – it needs to be fed the
right things in order to thrive,” Nori explains. Having only picked
up a knife five years ago, he tells me, “What I learned from my
mother and my knowledge of the vegetables we grow are my only
weapons. Every family should pass down this knowledge – it forges a
connection to the land”. All the vegetables he serves in the
restaurant are produced here and anything else is sourced locally.
I feast on leaves blanched in boiling water and dipped in a tangy,
mustard-like sauce, sweet aubergine in miso paste and, of course,
bowls of sticky rice from the family paddies.

A similar tale emerges at Chikeiken, founded by 69-year-old
Mitsu Chonan. Born into a farming family, at the age of 23 her
mother fell seriously ill and she was entrusted with caring for her
in addition to working on the farm and raising her young family. My
jaw drops when I hear that the beautiful calligraphy, ceramics and
tapestries that decorate the walls are her own. When I ask how on
earth she managed to develop these skills in addition to running a
home and business, she laughs, “The gods give everyone 24 hours in
a day… I only focus on the present moment and what I can do. I
couldn’t travel but I wanted to experience the world, so I opened
the restaurant to bring the world to me.”

As we tuck into shards of bamboo shoots festooned with tiny
sardines, shiny slices of mackerel balanced atop golden root
vegetables and miniature clusters of mushrooms, Mitsu tells me how
she believes we should eat seasonally and locally to maintain our
health. “Globalisation means that we are losing the idea of local
flavours. I don’t use medicine – I eat what I grow on the farm and
forage from the mountains, whether that’s bitter spring herbs to
detox or cool summer melon to regulate body temperature.” I smile
as I think about how this powerhouse grandmother has been quietly
practising terms like farm-to-table and foraging long before they
became foodie buzzwords Mitsu’s attitude of squeezing the marrow
out of each moment starts to make sense at the Zenpo Temple. We
wash our hands and mouth before passing several pagodas and walking
up the steep steps to the main temple, a peaceful network of shaded
corridors and rooms for worship and meditation. Zen Buddhism is a
compacted version of the teachings of the Buddha that emphasises
the now, the here and the self, with Shugendō allowing us to
concentrate on these three things. Seated meditation, or zazen, is
a core part of familiarising ourselves with the state of emptiness
that we came from and to which we will return, so we settle on to
the straw-matted floor in as close to lotus position as we can
manage. I struggle with the concept of stillness but am told that
the aim isn’t to clear your mind entirely, but rather to observe
your thoughts and let them go. It’s a task my iPhone-addled brain
can’t quite grasp, yet provides a vital understanding of the
intuitively accepting nature of the people here.

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