Asia Japan Stories

Places of the Mind | Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trail, Japan

February 20, 2018

By Anna Souter

In the mountains, the weather changes so quickly it can feel as if you are experiencing all four seasons in as many days. This was our experience when my partner and I walked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail in Japan’s Kii peninsula a couple of years ago.

When we got off the tiny bus at the sharp curve in the road that indicated the bottom of the mountain pass, the sky was full of wispy scudding clouds. The climb was steep and the path was almost obscured by drifts of dry autumnal leaves, even though it was already January. At one point, we pushed our way through a tiny crack in a rock face. The passage is meant to be a charm for good fortune in child birth. Despite being deeply uncomfortable in confined spaces, I thought it worth a try.

That evening, we lounged in the scalding thermal baths in our ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn). The baths had views of the mountains opposite, which were bare and brown but were quickly covered by darkness. Compared to the bone-warming heat of the baths, the dining room was distinctly chilly, and we shivered as we ate our way through several courses of locally sourced vegetarian food. The flavours were crisp and surprising; I didn’t recognise a single vegetable on my plate.

We woke up on our tatami mats the next morning to a surprise: it had snowed overnight. The world that had seemed so autumnal in the sunshine of the day before had now been bathed in midwinter. We marvelled at the icy gleam as we ate our breakfast (more unidentifiable vegetables) and packed a bento box for lunch.

The other three guests at our ryokan had only hiked up to spend a single night in the mountains, and were preparing to trek back down to the bus stop. We were the only ones going on to the next valley. Our journey took us through woods of tall, perfectly straight pine trees. The path – carved out by the passing feet of pilgrims over hundreds of years – was mercifully easy to follow, despite being covered with six inches of perfect, untrodden snow.

The snowfall deadened the usual sounds of the forest. The rustlings of animals were replaced with the tinkle of a shower of snowflakes giving in to gravity and releasing the bent branch of a tree. The crisp crunch of yesterday’s dry leaves gave way to the creak of snow compacting under our boots.

We walked quickly in the cold, unable to pause and sit down because everything was shrouded in snow. Occasionally a small red shrine would loom out of the whiteness, punctuating our route and breaking up the uniformly straight trunks of the trees.

It was a day of discoveries. We watched a monkey scamper down a branch, eating a fruit with yellow flesh. We followed deer tracks over a ridge and found a natural theatre in the hillside, with an altar set against a snow bank and a semi-circle of tree stumps that served as seats. What such a place might have been used for, we couldn’t fathom.

Unexpectedly, the next day dawned with a pale misty light, bringing with it a mild breeze that soon had dollops of snow falling from the trees. As our icy surroundings thawed, the ground revealed spring-like green shoots that had previously been hidden under the mantles of leaves and snow.

By the time we had reached the first temple on our route, the snow had almost completely disappeared, lingering only in corners of cool shadow. By the following day, the sun was travelling through a cloudless sky and we were sweating in our thermals and fleeces. The ground had dried out and we were able to sit and eat our bento boxes in the sunshine, looking out at unimpeded views that had been obscured by drifting snow and mist for the last couple of days.

The final destination of our journey was a temple set against the backdrop of Japan’s tallest waterfall, a setting worthy of the Romantic poets and Edmund Burke’s understanding of the sublime. After several days spent almost entirely alone in the forest, it was something of a shock to see other people here, eating ice cream and browsing the souvenir shops. In our opinion, it was still too cold for ice cream, and we hurried back to our final inn, where we were the only guests. That evening, as we sat in our room, there was a small earthquake that caused the windows to rattle; with this most unsettling of experiences, we prepared to return to reality.

To be a pilgrim is a strange thing. Whatever your reasons for making a pilgrimage, the experience of walking for miles across several days makes you acutely aware of the deeply personal and previously unchallenged spaces of your mind and body, as well as of the fact that your experience is shared in some way with all of the pilgrims, known and unknown, who have walked the route before you. The process of walking through a landscape towards a chosen destination allows you space for contemplation and reflection.

At the time, however, very little of this actively crosses your mind. While I was walking the Kumano Kodo, I thought a lot about how cold I was, how hard work it was to tramp through the snow, and what we might be given to eat at the next ryokan. Now those aspects have faded for me; I still remember how my body felt after a day of cold and tiring walking, but I remember it more as a feeling of satisfaction at having worked hard to achieve a goal.

And while some of the individual details of the journey have faded, others have only become clearer: the monkey, for instance, and the perspective-bending vistas that opened up between lines of brown-barked pines in the snow. My sense of place connected to the Kii peninsula has become stronger, especially since returning to the UK and the routines of everyday life in London.

In some ways, physical and temporal distance allow an experience of place to grow in the mind, until the place almost becomes a conceptual metaphor for the subconscious mental processes you went through there. For me, the physical and spatial experience of walking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail has become a mental metaphor for contemplation and reflection, and now if I ever need to find a moment of calm or reflection, I can think myself back there. I realise now that I sorted out some important psychological issues in my mind during that trip, even though I rarely actively thought about them while I was walking, and this helps me to approach other challenges.

You don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to achieve this on a smaller scale. A walk in the countryside or a visit to a park can have a similar effect on your mentality, even weeks or years afterwards. Through this process of being and walking in landscape, a place – experienced through physical motion as much as through the eyes – can become a valuable space in your mind which you can inhabit when you need a momentary break from everyday life.

Anna Souter is a writer and editor based in London. Her research interests include contemporary art, landscape and walking.

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