feature image kumano

I arrived at the village on foot, slowly emerging from a land of ghosts. As I left behind the thick forest and crossed the cement bridge into Chikatsuyu, I became conscious of the dirt smeared across my face, the brambles caught in my hair and the vagabond look in my eyes. This place meant humans – and civilisation. But after three days hiking the sacred mountains behind me, I didn’t feel particularly human. Bit by bit I had begun to believe in the kami spirits said to reside in the rocks, animals, streams and trees around me. And I admit that in my crazier moments, I had started speaking to them out loud.

A few hours’ train ride south of Kyoto lies one of the world’s most ancient pilgrimage routes. The Kumano Kodo is a network of narrow trails winding through the dense mountains of Japan’s Kii Peninsula, with a unique fusion of Japanese Shintoism and Chinese Buddhist beliefs at its heart. Back in the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced to much of Japan by China. Instead of ousting the indigenous Shinto religion, the two faiths melded to create a set of beliefs revering the natural environment, which is believed to hold kami spirits. Practitioners of the faith set up their base deep in the Kii Mountains, marking the beginning of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route.

Kumano beckoned to me as a nature lover, and I was fascinated by the idea of a tangible path to a sacred realm. As I began my travels through Japan in April, I decided it was time to explore a different side of myself; to embark on the physical act of pilgrimage in order to uncover my own spirituality. In Japanese, the word for ‘walk’ is synonymous with the word for Buddhist practice – the walker is thus a practitioner, and his faith is the path. As I was soon to learn, each step across these holy mountains would sink into my psyche, bringing me closer to a world of spirits.

I set out on my first day of the Kumano Kodo from Kii Tanabe, and spent the night in a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn). I woke at the break of dawn to watch from my futon on the floor as the thick mists which coat the mountains overnight dissolved to uncover the forest below. I remember thinking that if spirits had to choose one place on earth to reside, this would quite possibly be it. I took a hot bath in the ryokan’s steaming onsen springs, nibbled half-heartedly on a pungent Japanese breakfast of miso soup and fish caramelised in soy sauce, strapped on my backpack and set off.

The trail started right by the ryokan and the morning was mild, sunlit and warm. Around an hour into the hike, I passed a stream on my right, which reflected burgundy leaves and a cherry tree’s pale-pink blossoms like a watercolour. I placed my palm on one of the trees – all dizzyingly tall, yet hardly a hand’s width in diameter – and wondered how the thin trunks could possibly manage to withstand such weight. The ground under my feet was damp from a night of rain and formed a dark-red blanket, which smelled of wet earth and moss. As the narrow trail wound up the mountain, birdsong echoed, and I tried not to slip on the roots, which poked out to form varying shapes of veins, organs and deer horns.

The focus of the Kumano pilgrimage is to worship at the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, but there are also smaller subsidiary shrines known as oji, and there’s something both pure and touching about their simplicity. They’re usually made out of stone or wood and decorated with scattered coins, cups of tea, blankets to keep the spirits warm as well as other trinkets pilgrims offer as they pass. Coming across my first one, I placed a coin in the wicker basket, and its metallic clink sounded out across the hushed forest. I realised the same action had been performed by countless pilgrims before me – from retired emperors to samurais and rural farmers – who had walked these paths for thousands of years. In their time, they would have undertaken rigorous rites of worship and purification, including cold-water ablution (washing) followed by elaborate ceremonies of sutras, prayers, dancing, sumo and poetry. It felt odd, but somehow comforting, to now be part of that story.

My moment of serenity was disturbed by a screaming pack of uniformed schoolgirls who came charging up the path towards me. I was a little annoyed, a sensation which jarred with my supposedly serene state of pilgrimage, but as they passed by they stopped and chatted to me for a while, offering me some of their dried fruit and nuts and even helping me book a homestay in the next town. (This was all done via frantic typing on no less than seven mobile phones, before animated phone calls I had no chance of comprehending.)

I asked them to explain the deities of the shrines to me, and they told me the kami come in many forms: the landscape, forces of nature, spirits of ancestors, cheeky (and sometimes wicked) beings or deceased souls. Kami are believed to be hidden from this world, inhabiting a complementary existence which can mirror our own. When you walk through their lands in harmony with all the awe-inspiring aspects of nature, you are said to be conscious of ‘kannagara no michi’, or ‘the way as it is with the gods’. After the girls had continued on their hike, speeding through the trails ahead of me, I noticed a series of bright white and yellow orchids quivering on an imperceptible breeze, and listened to the sound of a faraway waterfall. I tried to turn off my thinking mind and sink into a true state of kannagara no michi.

A few days before, this state of mind had come to me in Koyasan, a Buddhist temple complex perched on top of an alpine basin. Koyasan was founded 12 centuries ago by Kobo Daishi, one of the most famous monks in the history of Japan and the father of the Shingon school of Buddhism. (In the true manner of the greats of old, he was also an engineer, calligrapher and a poet.) Today, Koyasan can be reached by a creaky old cable car, and is the best place in Japan to stay overnight at a Buddhist monastery – here you can enjoy delectable kaiseki meals cooked by monks as well as watching their morning ceremonies. It is also home to a vast cemetery called Okunoin, where I walked in reverent silence under colossal 500-year-old cedar trees, their boughs swaying and groaning above me like brittle doors, as I passed beside more than 300,000 mossy statues, altars and tombstones called gorintō. The entire cemetery, with its ancient trees and labyrinthine paths, vibrated with a profound sense of energy.

Deep in a meditative state, I arrived at a clearing at the uppermost point of the Koyasan path. Dappled sunlight fell in coral tones through the leaves overhead, and their shimmering reflections made me feel as though I was swimming inside a fluid cloud of light. Dazed, I strolled off the main path into another smaller clearing, lay down my bag and stretched my aching back. Then some reflections in the distance caught my eye. They were coming from a part of the forest just beyond the clearing which was shrouded in shadow, but they appeared as darting lights I could only catch out of the corner of my eye. I walked over. As I came closer, the lights were duller, but my hairs were standing on end as if all the air around me was electrified. I wasn’t scared. I felt the right thing to was to offer a token of respect, and I took some beads out of my pocket, placed them on the ground and said: “Thank you.”

Right before nightfall, I heard a sudden noise just behind me. I whirled around, my heart pounding, because although it’s said to be rare, it would be just my luck to come across a bear on an isolated mountain path. Instead I saw a short, slim Japanese man dressed in white pilgrim robes with a walking stick and a conical straw hat marching up behind me, eyes doggedly fixed on the road. As he passed me, he turned and with an expression of surprise asked me: “You so tall, where you from?” I grinned and answered: “Switzerland… a little far from home.” His entire face lit up as he exclaimed: “SWI-ZA-LAND! I went there last summer – the Matterhorn, I climbed Matterhorn!” The conversation continued for a while until we bid each other goodbye, and I smiled to myself, at the realisation that here I was on his mountain – while only recently, he had been on mine…

It has been said that walking for days on end is one of the best ways to get acquainted with your own mind. I have to agree, but I believe there is far more to it than that. The trail inspired me to consider other forms of energy, other beings, and whether parallel worlds brush up against our own. Many times on those mountain paths I found myself staring into the distance, hearing strange sounds, sensing that I was in the presence of something else. And when I finally cleared out my backpack at the end of my adventure, I found a handful of colourful, mottled green stones lying right on top of my clothes. I had never seen them before. There could well be an explanation for their presence, but I chose to believe in the possibility of a more magical interpretation. I now have them piled up on my nightstand to remind me of that journey; to remind me every day of the way of the kami.

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