Unique and carefully preserved traditions help make Japan one of the world’s most captivating destinations
As rain pounded the roof above us, we sat barefoot and shivering. My 14-year-old daughter and I had woken before sunrise to join the monks’ morning service and fire ritual. We wrote our wishes on wooden planks, which we then tossed into the ceremonial fire to send to the deities. For a teenager who is impossible to get out of bed at home, this uncharacteristic enthusiasm set the precedent for a week of surprising interest in all things Japanese.
A blanket of incense enveloped the few hardy winter tourists staying at the Ekoin Temple lodging in Koyasan, a temple settlement located less than 100 kilometres south of Osaka. We chose shukubo (temple lodging), high up in this alpine village because this is how pilgrims have honoured the Gods and deities of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines for thousands of years. We slept on thin futons laid out on impeccably clean straw tatami mats by monks each night and we dined on shojin ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. What’s good for the pilgrims, is good for us, we thought.
The smell of zuko, a body incense used to purify hands, and the sounds of Buddhist chanting intensified as the sun began to warm this ancient town. Koyasan was founded in the early 800s by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most revered figures, now widely considered the father of Japanese culture. It seemed fitting, then, to begin our pilgrimage here.
Temple lodging is just one way to enjoy Nara and Wakayama, two of Japan’s less-travelled prefectures, sitting to the east and south of Osaka respectively. I am travelling with Isa, and it is authenticity we seek. Those willing to experience guest lodging in traditional ryokans are richly rewarded with an authentically Japanese experience. Ryokans can be found in most small villages and are typically family run with just a few rooms for lodging. The food is strikingly local and served generously by hosts who welcome you like family.
In Gojo City, we were hosted by a chef and farm owner known to serve upwards of 75 different vegetables on a single menu. Yamato beef melted in our mouths while sips of shiso juice, complete with anti-infective properties, kept our digestion in check. This proved helpful given Isa’s new-found willingness to challenge her Western palate. Once proclaiming to “hate anything from the sea,” night after night she pushed her culinary boundaries, tackling sea urchin, octopus, sea cucumber and eel. The food presentation demanded nothing less. We were frequently served more than a dozen colourful dishes all boasting flavourful and textural punch. We were encouraged to dine wearing the provided yukatas and couldn’t resist the beautifully soft cotton bathrobes. Meal times were never so alluring at home.
Most ryokans boast a traditional onsen, a public hot spring believed to restore youth and good health to weary bodies. The nightly after-dinner soak sends you towards a relaxing slumber, overpowering even the thinnest of futons and hardest of pillows – yes, even those filled with rice. In Tanabe, a coastal city on Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula, we bathe in a naturally occurring geyser while listening to the rush of the river exploding down the adjacent mountainside. Tanabe’s onsen water comes in to play in the kitchen, too. Many dishes are prepared with it, so your body is literally steeped in good health from the inside out.
Winding through the small rural towns of Japan takes you to places hidden from travellers focused on the more popular destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto. In addition to the many temples and shrines, you can experience the depth of Japanese culture cultivated over thousands of years.
A visit to Hasedera, a beautiful temple built in 686 on the slope of a mountain and sitting in harmony with nature, allowed us the chance to chat with a studying monk of the Shingon sect. Hasedera is home to Japan’s largest wooden statue of Kannon Bosatsu, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The 11-faced seated statue stands almost 10 meters high and, to reach her, you must ascend the Noboriro, or climbing corridor – that’s 399 stairs or, in ancient Japanese units, 108 ken. Buddhism holds that there are 108 defilements of the spirit, each fading as we reach the next ken.
Our monk acquaintance told us he followed his father’s footsteps to Hasedera and was nearing the end of two years studying the sutra, ceremonial tea service, chanting and calligraphy. With the arduous 19-hour days coming to a close, he reflected on his joys and challenges, and it was a privilege to listen.
Our travels continued to Kushimoto, Yousa and Sakurai and into the backrooms of miso, soy and saké factories where we observed rituals passed down through generations. We spent a day riding electric bicycles through rice fields and picked varieties of local strawberries in Asuka. In Katsura, one of the largest tuna ports in the country, we ate sashimi so fresh, it put daisies to shame.
If countryside scenery is a little too sleepy for your taste, swords and sumo wrestling await. In Tenri, situated in the eastern part of the Nara basin, we met one of the few remaining sword masters. As we learn, this dedicated master takes almost a year to turn a hunk of high-end steel into a bladed weapon, and it is time well spent. They sell for $12,000 or more.
In Katsuragi and on to another martial art – the revered tradition of sumo wrestling. Not only can you meet sumo wrestlers, but they invite you to join them in the ring to perform the traditions of ‘cutting the dust’ and ‘throwing the salt’ before trying your hand at pushing these nearly nude, 150-kilogram martial artists off balance and out of the ring.
In Nara City, the original capital of Japan, the Noborioji Hotel was a blissful way to punctuate our adventure. Located at the edge of Nara Park, the Noborioji is a member of the award-winning ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group and deservedly so. From the comfort of your room, spotting deer grazing near the temple and pagoda in nearby Nara Park is a soothing pleasure. Spend an afternoon walking through the Naramachi (downtown) shopping area where you might be lucky enough to hear the voices of the mocha-makers singing while they pound out the fresh rice cakes and serve them moments later – warm, sticky and delicious. Before you leave, be sure to pick up a jar of umeboshi, the amazingly tart, highly addictive sour plums that promise to bring youth and beauty.
Then, when each of your senses has been inundated with Japanese goodness, indulge even further with a visit to the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple. Perhaps the most memorable of all of the Buddha statues in Japan, this powerful sight sits at more than 15 meters high. In his presence, you can’t help but feel the waves of energy he emanates while sitting silently, welcoming people with his right hand and granting wishes with his left. He has done this for hundreds of years and will hopefully continue for hundreds more. But you won’t want to wait to see it for yourself.