Travelers’ Tales Books – The Best Travel Writing 2010

Inside Kumano Kodo


Isn’t it time that your drifting was consecrated into pilgrimage?

You have a mission. You are needed. The road that leads nowhere

has to be abandoned … It is a road for joyful pilgrims intent on the

recovery of passion.            –Alan Jones


The road for this pilgrim has been leading nowhere but down for quite some time. I drift in uncertainty. It has been a treacherous year full of hard edges. Cancer has taken parts of me, chips away at my father’s insides, and threatens my brother. The family finances spiral forever downward and worry consumes. I desperately need to recover more than passion. I need to rediscover infinity, and scream a Holy Yes that reverberates through my pores and pushes me over the edge into the world of poetic traveling – longing to see within the ordinary, everyday mud and muck, poems and stories sacred to the core; to live awake; to recover, to reconnect, to respond, to rejoice with each breath I take … over and over and over again … despite the depth of the darkness.

So, when I receive the call inviting me to walk the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route into the heart of Japan, I dash to my closet’s abyss and dig for my bag. Buried in a box, I pull out my REI duffel, consecrating myself in closet dust; pilgrim I become. This journey will take me home to a culture coursing through my life since my early 20s when I taught English in Nagoya.

The Cave

we disappear in

tunnels dark, through mountains deep

camellias kiss sky


All paths lead to the sacred center of the Kumano Kodothe Hongu Taisha Shrine. We will end up there after our two day walk through the yamanami, mountain waves, of the Kii Peninsula. Through cedar forest and deserted rice paddy, down intricate stone steps under dense canopy, through small villages etched into steep terraces, we will walk this vertical world full of legend and history.

My pilgrimage begins today with renewal, with a birth into the Land of the Spirits, also known as the Land of the Dead. This is the start of the Kumano Kodo. I am on the “Way,” following a thousand years of pilgrims trampling toward Enlightenment. This ancient road, first walked on by emperors, embodies the heart and soul of Japan.

We enter Kumano through the Torii gate of Takijiri-Oji, a place of rebirth. We climb up and over roots and stones oozing with antiquity, under giant Japanese cedars wrapped in the mystery of age, to a rock cave where many have gone before in search of this elusive Enlightenment. I am just one more seeker, spiritual in a skeptical way.

But for what am I searching? After a hellish year of cancer gymnastics, I come here for healing; for acceptance of my impermanence; to dance with my immortality. This is a perfect culture in which to immerse myself for such a journey, a culture in which impermanence and the passage of time are revered and seen as beauty in the ancient weave of generations. All is impermanent, even solid rock. Through wind and water, time leaves its mark on stone. It is here, in this seemingly forever cave, that we begin practicing refreshment, recovery, renewal, recollection, rebirth.

Brad, my traveling companion and Canadian guide who is more Japanese than the Japanese, removes his pack and heads into the cave first. He disappears. Suddenly I am alone except for the sound of scraping. I soon hear a muffled voice: “Take off your pack, come in and pass up the bags.” So off goes my camera, off goes my jacket, off goes my pack, and in I crawl, dragging all of this stuff behind me through the dirt. Inside, darkness slaps me with a terrifying hand. The air ceases. Breath leaves me. “It is cancer,” slams into me off the rock from all directions, echoing from months passed. Panic rises.  Suddenly, light washes down over a rock above me and hits my face. The way up and out. A deep sigh escapes.

Turning within tight quarters, I scrape my hand. Is this enlightenment? In the dark? In the dirt, groveling on my stomach? Crashing my head against rocks? A hand reaches down from the hole above me, a small hole, a very small thin hole. I’m supposed to go through that? Is this how a fetus feels on the way down the birth canal? Stretching up as far as I can reach, I pass our bags up through the hole one at a time and then it’s my turn. On my stomach, I begin my ascent, inching along the rock face smoothed by many centuries of belly wriggling. First my head pops into the light. A cold breeze takes my breath away. I’m alive! Breastless, but alive! Hallelujah.

My elation seeps back into the cave as I realize I’m not fully out yet. You’re never really out yet when you have joined the cancer club. “I hope my hips will squeeze through this,” I groan to Brad who perches outside, camera clicking. Using my arms, I wriggle my torso through the hole, pelvic bones rubbing on rock. I scream, triumphant. With knees dirtied, hands scraped, hips bruised, I slide upward into the Land of the Kumano Kodo Spirits, the land of welcome. The journey begins.  

The Kite

wings outstretched in blue

a kite circles overhead

deep wrinkles laughing


Up we walk through a small burg surrounded by rice paddies, mikan orange trees, and tea bushes – all on terraces. Stopping at a help-yourself roadside stand, I buy some mikans and organic  ocha green tea, dropping 500 yen into a pay box. Frost still lines the contours of the nearby tea leaves. A denuded persimmon tree stands alone with a few withered fruit left hanging. I stand soaking in the morning sun, glad for the warmth on this wintery day. It has been snowing lightly all morning.

Good to be out of the woods for a while. Brad agrees. We meander within the gentle hum of human activity, over a hill to a pass overlooking our final destination, the first of the big three – the Hongu Taisha Shrine. Down below, Japan’s largest Torii shrine gate marks the original site of the famous shrine grounds, flooded out and destroyed in the late 19th century. Still holy land, pilgrims walk the Kumano Kodo back up the hill to the “new” site, safe from the Kumano River.

We pause at the pass to feel the yamanami, mountain waves, rolling off into the distance. A single stone on the pass memorializes the life of the female poet, Izumi Shikibu, who walked all this way a thousand years ago, only to see her destination unattainable as she began her monthly cycle. Now impure due to her bleeding, she was forbidden to enter the Shrine. She sat right in this very spot and wrote a poem of her deep sadness. But a Kumano deity came to her in a vision and told her that all are welcome in the Kumano Kodo, the heart of Japan, no matter in what condition. She was invited to complete her journey. Rejoicing, she rose and descended into the valley.

Since my ovaries got yanked prematurely, thanks to the cancer, I don’t have the blood obstacle, but I definitely have a condition that warrants a sad poem if I let self-pity in. But today I only let in a bit of disbelief over my last year, and feel quite skeptical and unspiritual about these legends swirling ‘round.

I take my skeptical self and join Brad for our walk down into the Shrine. Two old farmers, lounging in the sun in their mikan orchard, corral us, just waiting for walkers like us to tarry at the rest stop nearby. Seeing my need to wash my hands, sticky from the mikan I just devoured, one of the farmers offers his well water. A wizened gent, skin darkened and wrinkled from years outside, he turns on the tap. He insists on my drinking some as well – fresh mountain well water, cool and delicious. I splash some on my face and squeal with the cold. He’s delighted. I’m refreshed.

Anxious to keep moving, I thank him and begin putting on my pack. But again, he insists that we see the view from above his orchard on the hill. Brad and I exchange a “we need to get going” glance. But with a raised eyebrow or two, we silently agree to leave chronos time behind again, for is this not what pilgrimage is all about? We drop our bags and our anxiety about achieving our goal for the day and follow him.  Rewarded by a nearly 360 degree view of the disappearing yamanami, we share a sweet juicy mikan freshly picked off a nearby tree. Suddenly, a large bird, a ‘kite’ tonbi, soars over our heads. The old farmer laughs, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling as he says, “even if you have no money, you can always have a bit of fun.” He grabs onto an imaginary kite string attached to the bird and begins to fly the bird. Out over his orchard it flies, then he pulls his string back around over his head, and here comes the tonbi, circling back above our heads. Did he know the play on the word ‘kite?’ Did he know how much I worry about money? He knows no English and he certainly doesn’t know me and yet, mysteriously, the moment gives me a gift, a message of grace, internalized forever.

I begin to realize that this pilgrimage in Kumano Kodo, designated as a World Heritage Site, classified as a cultural landscape – where people and nature meet – truly mixes the power of people and the power of nature into a mysterious, potent elixir of health. I am refreshed from the mountain water. I am refreshed by the mountain farmer. I am refreshed by the kite that flies above my head. I am thankful. 

The Tree

from inside the trunk

deep tree energy rises

breathing in cedar



It is cold and snowy today. We huddle behind a shelter high up on a ridge watching the snow zoom uphill on gusts of air as we eat our sushi obento in haste! I want mittens, NOW! Chopsticks in cold fingers don’t work well. It is freezing up here! Pilgrims of old used to purify themselves in the cold Kumano River during an enlightenment process. Brad muses that perhaps the snow & the cold act as our purification for the day. We are more than prepared – wind pants, heater packs, hiking boots, thermos – no straw sandals like pilgrims of old.  Actually, the blasts revitalize my pink-cheeked Scandinavian soul and get my blood moving.

Back down into the trees we walk, relief for a time. Slippery footing slows us down, but it feels timeless here. We float in kairos, a Greek notion of being outside time. Goals become phantoms. Worries evaporate.  There is only wind and snow and tree and path. We both breathe from our toes. Our shoulders drift down like cats puddling in the sun.

But once again, into human activity we trudge, a bit tired from the verticalness of it all. This time we pass an old tea house that, tomorrow, will be rewarded with a new thatched roof and will once again invite pilgrims to rest their weary feet and revive their flagging spirits with a cup of steaming ocha green tea. But today, its roof needs repair and its paper doors have holes, so we pass on by to another shrine along the way – Tsugizakura Oji – where we suddenly descend up a long stone staircase into the holy presence of deep tree energy. Hobbits would be happy here. I am happy here.

I look up and up and up into the branches of an 800-year-old Japanese cedar with thick branches reaching south, all of them. Oddly wonderful, this particular species is called ippo sugi and grow arms only on its side facing another holy shrine of the big three, Nachi Taisha, the Shrine of the holy waterfall. Is this coincidence or divine design or the cunning technique of a good arborist?

I put my ear to its rough bark and listen for sap rising. Is it my imagination or can I feel the energy of this alive entity emanating, touching me? I close my eyes and commune. Clock time stops and again I float into kairos. My heart beats strong. My palms feel enlivened under the bark. I can now believe Tolkien’s talking trees. I slowly back away, craning my neck to see if I can see the top – out of sight. Suddenly, to my delight, I spy a hole in its trunk down alongside the stairs. Without hesitation and to Brad’s dismay and delight, I take off my pack and climb down and in.

Unlike the cave’s cold rock, the tree’s insides calm me, warm and quiet. The hole leads me into a cavern where I can stand. I look up and see a bit of sky. I am standing inside this 800-year-old tree and feel protected, safe.  I am in its heart. Closing my eyes, I breathe cedar, reaching out with palms, touching wood, touching old, feeling the power of nature; the power of a living being who will be here long after I am gone and who was here long before– the passage of time personified in living matter. It calms. It gives perspective. It gives infinity. Rooted, I long to stay here, but like all of life, impermanence crashes in and the moment is over. Brad coaxes me back out into the light and the cold – rebirthed again. Back to journey ever onward, I sigh in the moment and walk back down the stone steps to the path.      

The Bath

morning light bathes as

steam rises through chilly air

yellow plum blossom


Steam rises like wraiths off the river rushing beside us. Our tired feet bring us into the town of Yunomine Onsen just as the shadows begin to gobble the light. Arriving at Adumaya, an inn or ryokan which has been in the family for sixteen generations, we are greeted by a graceful kimono-wrapped woman who gently bids us follow her into the land of hospitality.


Make a delicious bowl of tea, lay the charcoal so that

It heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in

The field; in summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth;

Do everything a head of time; prepare for rain; and

Give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.

Soshitsu Sen, Master of Tea Ceremony


Living by this essence of Japanese codes, our hostess gathers us up and sweeps us quietly into our rooms. The slippers come off in honor and care of the tatami mat floor. Our sock feet sigh with relief as we step onto the luxurious spring of the grass mat. Sitting on zabuton cushions on the floor, I am close to the mat and get a waft of freshly mown field, a fresh, natural dried grass smell that calms the spirit. My eyes close and I breathe in deeply. Let me live in the smell of tatami, out of time, in peace and tranquility, away from the march of my culture’s crazy-making demands of busyness.

A knock, a slide of a paper door, and our hostess arrives kneeling with some steaming green tea. The hot liquid warms not only the weary body, but the restless spirit. Sipping, I smile as I know what comes next – the bath before dinner.

With no central heating in a drafty antiquated building with paper doors, the bath becomes ever more necessary and inviting. I change into a yukata cotton robe and slip into the padded jacket that accompanies it. Stepping off the tatami back into my slippers, I reach for a towel and head back down the stairs and down the hall to the onsen bath where Brad waits pointing to the women’s side.

A warmly lit entrance with a red door hanging invites me in. I slide another door, this time wooden with glass, and step into a changing room. Off go the clothes into a locker. It is cold in here and I feel shy of my scars for the first time, so I hold a small hand towel to my chest. I don’t want to freak anyone out. Already to be bathing with a foreigner is novel enough. I slide yet another door and step into another world, a steamy sensory paradise – the sound of running water; the faint smell of sulfur and wet wood; the feel of steam beading on the face; the clunk of shampoo bottles being set down. I sit on a small bamboo stool on the floor. Here, I am to thoroughly scrub myself from top to bottom. I watch what others do and follow their lead. They smile and gently instruct when I fumble. Which is the shampoo? How do I turn on the hot water? Where do I put the bucket after I’m done?

After this complicated matter of cleaning, it is time to immerse; the moment I have been waiting for since the last few miles. I walk out into the outdoor sanctuary of this hot spring bath. I sit on the side and dare a toe before risking my whole body. These baths are known to be hot on this volcanic island. It is dark now, and steam rises from the pool up through the light of a lantern. An arm of an asymmetrical pine, held up by a thick bamboo pole, reaches out and over my head. I slide into dark, wet warmth, a “hush profound” swirls into my body. A sigh escapes. The tension in my sore calves from 13 miles of walking begins to melt away. I close my eyes and remember, reconnect with the eight hundred year old tree energy – the sap coursing through my veins. I am the tree. I am the water.

I am hungry. My rumbling stomach snaps me out of my oneness with nature. I suddenly realize that my awareness of time has once again returned and dinner beckons. Reluctantly, I ease my bright pink body out of the pool, the towel still to my chest, and head for the changing room. I dry quickly and don the yukata for my trip back to the room. Sliding the door open, a blast of cold air urges me to hastily shuffle back to my quarters where my smiling Brad, my now-pink traveling companion waits in yukata drinking an Asahi Beer.

We sit on zabuton, our feet under a warm kotatsu table, a low-blanketed table with heat underneath. Soon dinner arrives in waves of small courses artistically placed in small dishes – an infinite variety of fish, and fish parts, prepared in every form imaginable – filleted, whole, diced, raw, boiled, raw, wrapped, raw, fried, raw, … I stop asking and just revel in the subtlety of flavors and colors passing by my tongue. Our hostess proudly announces that everything that is cooked is done so in the hot spring water of this famous onsen town known for its healing waters. Emperors and peasants alike have stayed here to gain rejuvenation from the water.

Tomorrow morning at 7:00, I have reservations to get purified in the most special of baths – Tsuboyu – a bath with so much history and legend that it has made the World Heritage roster as one of the only baths in the world of its kind. For only 750 yen, you too can have a half hour of solo bathing experience in Tsuboyu.

My watch alarm gently jingles me awake at 6:30am. I sleepily dress and head out into the early morning sun just touching the tops of the surrounding vertical hills. Frost still clings white to the tile roofs. Crossing the river to the old wooden pay booth, the bubbling steam wraps me in its blanket of moisture. I breathe deeply the sulfured air. The old gentleman in the warmly lit booth knows I am coming, the gaijin writer. He bows. I bow. We exchange morning pleasantries, a bit of yen, and off I descend into the legend of Tsuboyu and the story of Ogurihangan and Terute, the Romeo and Juliet of Japan.

Ogurihangan and Terute married against their families’ wishes. Her family sent a spirited horse as a “gift” to Ogurihangan, hoping it would throw and kill him, but he tamed it. Foiled, they invited him to dinner and poisoned him. He died and descended to the land of the dead. A powerful judge reviewed Ogurihangan’s misdeed of marrying against the family wish and decided that the family’s misdeed of murdering him was a far greater offense, and sent him back to the land of the living, but with a slap on the wrist. The judge returned Oguri deformed and blind.  Around his neck, the judge placed a sign that read, “if you help this man to get to Yunomine Onsen, he will be healed.” A monk found Oguri by the side of the road and added a sign that read, “Anyone who helps this man along his journey to Yunomine Onsen will gain a thousand karmic prayers of power.” People began carrying him across Japan to Kumano’s Yunomine Onsen. His beloved wife, having been thrown into the river by her family and sold downstream into slavery, even helped to carry him, though they did not recognize each other. He finally arrived at the Onsen and bathed in a pool, now known as Tsuboyu, and was completely healed. He returned to his aristocratic family who gave him land to oversee. And, of course, that happened to be where Terute lived as a slave. They saw each other, reunited, and lived happily ever after.

It is into this stone bath I go swirling with Kumano Kodo themes­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—healing; traveling arduously, gaining merit along the way; accepting everyone no matter their condition; connecting to the underworld, the power of nature, rebirth. This is quite the responsibility I am given in this next half-hour! I walk down cold stone steps to an old weathered door which creaks as I open it and descend even more steps into a womb-like rock-surround.

Steam rises from cloudy, thick water bubbling in a small pool in the corner. Warned that it would be scalding from the hot spring waters rising up right there beneath the stones under foot, I turn on the cold tap wide open while I undress. I tip toe on the cold rock over to the one-person pool trying to wrap my imagination around the long healing history of this water. God knows I need the healing after the year that I’ve had. Gingerly, the toes go in, the calves, the hips. I sink up to my shoulders in the thick mineral water. A sigh of the hush profound yet again escapes my lips. The eyes close as I wave warm water toward my chest. It feels like silk being drawn across my body ever so slowly, caressing, fluttering over my scars. Deeply the breath draws in. I am alive. Hallelujah! Ichi go ichi e – once in a lifetime chance – Beauty lies in a fleeting moment which passes quickly. Live fully. Melancholy beauty seeps into my pores. I sink deeper into the pool, wanting to stay, but in thinking so, the moment leaves as I try to hold on to it. My eyes pop open, almost on cue, and focus directly on the big clock on the wall – back in chronos. Damn. It is already time to get out.

Am I healed? Time will tell. Am I relaxed? Definitely! Back into the cold and light, I have once again experienced the gift of Japan – restored and revitalized to continue the journey.

The Priest

a secret smile spreads

on a kneeling green-robed priest

a camellia blooms

Through this vertical world we walk—

Up through primeval forest, monkeys hiding in the trees,

Down through reforested rice paddies where wild boars dig in the earth,

Up and over roots of ancient stands,

Down stone paths beneath dense canopies of farmed trees, a red pheasant explodes   out of the woods,

Down through deserted remnants of villages long gone,

Up by a woodworking shop whose owner feeds us sweet dried persimmons,

Down past a woodcarver who sells cedar walking sticks to pilgrims on their way by,

Up into a bamboo grove on the way to the top of a blustery ridge where we huddle behind a shelter to eat our onigiri rice balls,

Down we plunge into an onsen hot spring town and walk the street.

The variety of terrain and experience given to us on this ancient path is pure gift; the stories, rich —a fukai deep place full of shinpiteki mystical beginnings.

It’s almost dark. Snow has slowed us down, the footing treacherous on wet mossy stones. The hiza warau knees laugh and the feet cry from all day maneuvering in a vertical landscape. We agree that it is time to bail and hitch a ride into town with a maintenance man going home for the night. There’s a feeling of sadness that pervades, like the female poet who was almost there and wrote a poem about her disappointment. But this journey is not about completion, it is about the Way, the process, the refilling of the heart, and we certainly have done that today. So I let go and enjoy the chance to sit in a warm van as we snake down the hill to our Inn, arriving in hospitality’s embrace.

The morning brings sun, a new chance, and a ride back up the mountain to the point where we stopped last night. With refreshed knees and spirits, Brad and I head down into this holy center of Japan. A young Shinto priest greets us as we walk into the grounds filled with sculpted trees, plain wooden buildings, statues of three-legged crows and lion-type growlers, praying pilgrims dressed in white, amulet booths, giant rice-straw braids, and Torii gates with their inverted arches, stones under foot, moss immaculately kept even in January, and an office full of quiet people dressed in robes busily taking care of the business of running a Shrine. The priest has been waiting for our arrival and leads us into the office to register us for purification.

Today we get purified, for we have been walking in the land of the dead, and it is here that we will be reborn. I thought we already had done rebirthing through the cave, but more than once can’t hurt. Do I believe this? Not really, but does that matter? I feel American today, from a young country unable to fathom the depth of antiquity surrounding this place. Thousand-year-old paths. Ancient ritual passed down through generations beyond count.

Who am I to be standing here, from a Lutheran protestant weave, about to enter this place of Shinto worship? Far too simply put, Shintoism, translated, “the way of the Gods,” is used in the everyday to pray for good grades, healthy kids, a prosperous fishing season…; used for life cycle events such as marriages, coming-of-age celebrations, harvests…. And deifies the power of nature, worshiped in waterfalls, rocks, trees…. And here I am a believer of Christ’s Way, full of grace and forgiveness.

I squirm a bit while waiting for Brad to register us. I resonate with the power of nature, that I understand, but a shrine for toothaches, a shrine for heartaches, a shrine for headaches – this I do not understand. It feels superstitious. The young priest, in a hushed calm, begins to explain to us the process. He stands there, dark eyes, soft lilting voice like seseragi, the sound of a creek, dressed in an immaculate white robe over which lies a light poncho of bright green gauze. On his head sits a coffee bean, a strangely stiff, black-woven vertical hat that has a chinstrap that moves as he speaks softly. It seems I need to choose from a laminated vertical menu of prayers written in kanji, Chinese characters; a prayer specifically for me for which he will pray for 5000 yen. I choose “family health.” He bows, accepts the money, and leads us into the sanctuary of the main worship building.

Two Japanese pilgrims accompany us on this journey. Handing us white cotton jackets, he asks us to put them on to become clean and pure.  We sit on zabuton cushions on the red, carpeted floor, cold.  Brad hangs back to take pictures. The priest steps up to the altar area to a large taiko drum, kneels, and begins a chant in a deep melodic voice. He then begins a drumming sequence that fills our bodies with vibration, especially in the chest cavity. With crescendos, we wake. With decrescendos, our hearts grow still. He captures all of us with the rhythm. I could live in the beat all day. This I can do. This I understand.

Suddenly, he stops, bows, stands, and lifts a gohei from a holder, a stick on which hang bright-white lightning bolts of paper that represent the gods. He moves towards us and shakes this paper over our heads, chanting all the while. He asks us to bow twice and clap twice. I half-heartedly bow my head and skip the clapping as I still feel uncomfortable, though wanting to be respectful.

With precise sliding steps, as in tea ceremony, he moves to the plain wooden altar in the center of the room where he sits on a square of tatami grass mat facing the offerings of salt, rice, water, and fish. This time, he begins to chant not by heart, but from a scroll with specifics – our names, the date, the time, and the prayer we requested from the menu. He periodically asks us to bow. I bow my head thinking of Jesus.

The waft of fresh tatami greets my senses and brings instant calm. I love that smell. It transports me back to my first time living in this country. A cold breeze passes through the room as there is only a curtain of white gauze hanging behind the altar between us and the outside to obscure the objects of worship – three buildings in which the Kumano Deities reside. Down the step behind us is also wide open to the outside where other pilgrims come to pray, pulling on a large rope with a bell attached then bowing and clapping twice. It’s distracting.

But the priest is on the move again to yet another pole to the right of the altar. This time, hanging, are long lines of golden metal tabs with bells attached to the bottom of each. He once again rattles this holy contraption over our heads, chanting all the while. It rattles me. I prefer the quiet swoosh of the paper gods. We bow. It is over.

And here comes the hospitality. Brad and I are immediately invited to a side table behind which sits a robed woman offering shallow bowls of ume plum wine to sip after our long journey to rebirth. The young priest comes over to speak with us. I, for some reason, tell him of my need to bring Jesus in with me for my comfort. He responds, “Shintoism is open and free. Be what you are. Christian? Be Christian. Muslim? Be Muslim. All are welcome.” This is the spirit of Kumano. Banners flutter in the icy wind with a vertical word, yomigaeru, which means, “return from the mythical land of the dead.”

Now, do I feel purified and reborn? Perhaps many times over on this trip so far. I’m reborn every day for that matter. Why so cynical?

It’s a synchronistic place. After we are purified in the Shinto ceremony, we head to the Buddhist Temple at Nachi Taisha, the 3rd of the big three, to spend the night at the temple’s lodging house overlooking the holy Shinto waterfall of Nachi. We are met in the parking lot by a smiling Buddhist priest with mischief twinkling in his eyes and a Dalai Lama calm. We are late for our appointment. He lets Brad know and walks us to our lodging. Tomorrow morning we will wake at 4:30 a.m. to attend a sutra chanting service the priests perform twice, daily.

Over yet another elegant meal of sakananami, my term for ‘waves of fish,’ knowledgeable Brad tries to explain the difference between Shintoism and Buddhism, so intermingled here in this land that it is hard to separate them, although it has certainly been tried. I’m going to try, again, oversimplified … Unlike Shintoism, which deals with the everyday of the living, Buddhism, Japanese-style, takes care of the dead ancestors, the afterworld, and stores up karmic power to aid the dying and dead on their journey across the river to the other side.

Within Japanese Buddhism, there are many schools, one of which is called Shugendo that believes in the power of nature to reach enlightenment. Shinto fusion swirls. Through a ten step process, these special yamabushi, mountain ascetics, move to enlightenment from the base to Buddha by training arduously in the rugged mountains, chanting, “sange sange rokon shojo” –  look back upon yourself, repent, confess, be one with nature and feel its power, get rid of past lives and go deeply into the purity of all six senses.

A practicing yamabushi, the smiling priest who met us in the parking lot last night, sits in a frigid waterfall every January to meditate for 40 minutes before he continues his maniacal mountain training in straw sandals. Does he leave his body for a zone beyond? Beyond my comprehension, certainly! And I wince at getting up at 4:30 to sit in a freezing cold temple to hear chanting I don’t understand. But I do understand a couple of things – the power of a chanting voice, regardless of the words, to reach deep down and bring the listener to her knees, and the sense that this Cheshire Cat ascetic smiles with light shining from his lips and a secret teasing in his eyes. He knows something. He has been in touch with a force I cannot even imagine. He tells me that to become an enlightened person, hokote ni naru, we must lose our egos. ‘Humans,’ he continues, ‘have huge egos and impurities caused by desires and needs. The whole idea of the enlightenment process is to erase the needs and desires, hence the ego. When we are born, we all are the same, but as we grow, the chains of ego pull us down. We need to train ourselves to turn in the right direction away from the ego. We are all of one mind in this universal longing to turn.’  He smiles, bows, bids us bring peace to the world, and walks briskly away to attend to his priestly duties for the day.

I turn to look off into the hills beyond. What to make of all this? Kumano. Pilgrimage. What did I come here for, besides responding to an invitation? How does all this relate to my western spirit’s yearnings for Emerson’s notion of an undersong, Basho’s idea of an underglimmer, Anne Lamott’s rhythm and blues, and William Stafford’s belief in a river running beneath all of life, a river full of something much larger than all of us that we can access? Must we sit under waterfalls and deny our physical body to do so? I wonder if the yamabushi rises above it all and truly turns away from his ego? Does he do so only in the extreme of the frigid water? Is that accepting self or trying to eradicate self?

I hope to embrace Kumano, to come to terms with my mortality, to become more heart and less head, to move beyond the stuckness of me, to be turned in the right direction away from the ego, to head towards the light, to become more enlightened, at least a millimeter closer…but I still feel like the woman who has had cancer and who worries about money until she’s paralyzed; still the woman who agonizes, who feels tired and disappointed.  Is this the lesson? We are who we are. Accept and transcend. All are welcome in Kumano no matter the condition of body or spirit. There’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. I came with yearnings. I leave with yearnings unanswered, ever-present. By the grace of God, may I have the wisdom to let it be as it is and move beyond, accepting the now and the here with more than just resignation. In the Kumano spirit, let me turn in the right direction toward mythical rebirth and move down into the river of renewed life, celebrating in the flow.


2009 Bio & Credits

Amy Greimann Carlson wears a silver ear cuff with a dangly and eats grilled Hummel’s hotdogs from New Haven when she’s not reading Basho or pilgrimaging in Japan. She adores cutting words out of National Geographic and the Smithsonian to appease her language obsession and believes in an extensive word pool as well as in haiku’s depth in few words. She also has taught magically-inclined children for years who have shown her the way back to enchantment. On occasion, she dabbles with the adult right brain in workshop settings around the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and yes, she has proudly worked for a local independent bookstore, with occasional forays into the classroom as certified English teacher, and weaves travel anthologies for Travelers’ Tales, a San Francisco-based publisher. Ms. Carlson has written for and co-edited an anthology on Japan entitled Travelers Tales’ Japan, about which Time magazine said, “Readers will be equipped to plot a rewarding course through the bewitching cultural landscape that is Japan.” She has also written for and edited other anthologies in the award-winning series: A Woman’s Path, The Gift of Birds, and Australia and has pieces in A Woman’s Asia.   Her writing also appears in Guidepost’s Sharing the Earth and in a monthly series of musings on life & faith called Wanderings. She lives in the Cascade Mountains with her husband and rabbit.

Leave a Reply