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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.
Arriving 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 catch.
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 skyscrapers.
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.
Marveling at autumn colours is a hugely popular Japanese pastime and this turned out to be the busiest stop in my three-day exploration – though it was more of a gentle bustle than the huge crowds seen in Tokyo or Kyoto. There were few international tourists among the sightseers; most were locals, including elderly couples and small children, one of whom proudly hollered her age as passed me, “ni–sai desu!” (I’m two years old!), holding up two fingers and pointing at herself. In the distance, a group of around 20 slightly older school children waved and smiled at me from behind lilac caps. The atmosphere here was wonderful, I could feel the joy in the air, the sense of excitement and the warmth which came from the both the people and the autumnal glow alike.
Leaving the beauty of the Japanese countryside behind, I was sure to be heading back to Kyoto a changed person; more complete, contemplative and even more in awe of this amazing country and its people.
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