The day began early, much before sunrise, but that’s how the days start atop Mount Koya, or Koyasan, not far from Kyoto in Japan. Neatly combed and well kempt yet drowsy people walked in a deadly silence down the wooden halls of the shrine Muryoko-in, one of the 117 shrines atop Koyasan. Among these people were Buddhist monks in grey robes and laymen from all over the world. They kneeled in the shrine’s prayer room where for generations people have been coming to keep and worship the holy fire. For half an hour they sat motionless in a state of serenity, between meditation and dozing. Then the monks around the fire began mumbling mantras.
Voices reciting in unison “Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo” rang into the Japanese morning. The head monk explained in several world languages to the guests how this mantra is spoken in order to achieve oneness of mind, body, and the spoken word. When harmony is achieved, the people are invited to start the day. And that day in Koyasan was spectacular. With the first rays of sunlight, monks from numerous shrines and monasteries came to form a great procession along the main street. With their heads held high, they walked in silence towards Dai-to, the Great Stupa. Hundreds of shaven heads gathered and lined up before the pagoda at the square.
Right here, 1200 years ago, the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi founded this seminary community. Kobo Daishi brought a new sect of esoteric Buddhism from China to Japan. He requested that the emperor in Kyoto grant a piece of sacred land where monks could gather to study Buddhism, record wisdom, and pass the tradition on to next generations. All land in Japan is sacred, the emperor said, and then granted him the most beautiful part of the surrounding mountains. Until then, most people in Japan practiced Shintoism, an animistic religion that believes the gods live in nature, that is, in the universe. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, it did not suppress or replace the old way of worshiping higher forces. Instead, it fused with it. Even today, 1200 years later, the syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism are the dominant intellectual and spiritual characteristic of Japan. Before my departure to the land of the rising sun, a professor of Japanese and a businessman that lives and works in Zagreb, Yasuo Yamamoto, told me, “If you want to understand Japan, you must understand how Buddhism merged with Shintoism. And nowhere is that connection as complete as in the Kii Peninsula, where the gods had descended to earth.”
If you want to understand Japan, you must understand how Buddhism merged with Shintoism. And nowhere is that connection as complete as in the Kii Peninsula, where the gods had descended to earth.
South of Kyoto and Osaka is the Kii Peninsula, which is the largest peninsula on Japan’s largest island, Honshu. This peninsula is completely encompassed in mountains, forests, and fog, and is considered the most humid region in Japan. From the beginning of time, Shintoists have believed that the gods first descended on Earth near an unusual rock in Kamakura, in the region Kumano at the southeastern part of the Kii Peninsula. Ever since then, the gods can be found throughout the peninsula, residing in the magical waterfalls, mystical forests, gigantic ancient trees, impressive mountains, and picturesque rivers. More than anything, they especially reside in Kumano, where people had built them the three largest shrines: Hongu, Shingu, and Nachi.
People have been coming to Kumano on pilgrimage since ancient times, and have trodden down numerous paths. Even “retired” emperors from Kyoto traversed the entire pilgrimage route after having completed their royal services. Some of them, enchanted by Kumano’s spirit, remained there to their death. Thus numerous pilgrimage routes were created in the Kii Peninsula. Ochechi Route follows along the western coastline and Iseji Route the eastern. Nakahechi Trail partially crosses inland as a shortcut, and the whole length of the Kohechi Trail is in the peninsula’s center, crossing over the mountain range. This is the most difficult trail, yet it is the quickest route between Koyasan and Kumano. In addition to Koyasan and the trinity of shrines in Kumano (Hongu-Shingu-Nachi), there is one more region that is sacred in its own way, Yoshino, the center of the ascetic Shugendo Buddhist sect. Leading to Yoshino is another pilgrimage route, 170 kilometer long Omino-Okugake-Michi. These three grand shrines and the numerous trails that connect them and lead to them from all directions were recognized in 2004 by UNESCO as world heritage. The Kii Peninsula’s greatest asset is its fusion of religion and culture, which has been influenced by its verdant rich landscape. This coexistence of religion and culture are also the reason why the Kii Peninsula was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. With a history that reaches thousands of years back, the spiritual tradition of the Kii Peninsula formed an exceptional cultural landscape with a unique symbiosis of nature, religion, and people.
With intention to traverse some of these pilgrimage routes, I began my journey by foot from Koyasan. I headed up the 70 kilometer Kohechi trail towards Hongu – the first of three shrines in Kumano. At first, the tangle of numerous trails and shrines seemed quite confusing and unclear. The fact that all the signs and waymarks were written in Japanese kanji symbols did not help at all. But I recalled what Mr. Yamamoto had advised before I had left Zagreb, “To foreigners, the Japanese culture seems quite complex and impossible to understand, but if you try just a little, you will see that it is actually simple and beautiful!”
The trail to Hongu was very nice, but not that easy. It ascended up hills and descended into valleys, cutting across several mountain chains. The forest was so fresh and ancient at the same time, that at times I would forget how I was situated in one of the most developed and densely populated countries in the world. At the start of my trek, I would come across mountaineers. I’d hear them before I’d see them, since bells hung from their backpacks to scare off hungry bears. No one on pilgrimage was to be seen. Only two signs that I came across were written in English. Written on the first, which was situated on one of the more difficult inclines, was a haiku poem that two pilgrims had sung in the seventeenth century: “How ever maintained / endless slope and / summer rain.” The second stood by a rice field atop a mountain, explaining how this is the most humid mountain in Japan and these rice fields are the only ones that are wetted exclusively by running streams formed from rainwater. In this solitude between two villages, I came across more golden-furred raccoons than people. But fresh flowers set alongside small stone statues of Buddha were a sign that pilgrims had passed by here. Stone statues of Buddha and deities such as Jizo or Kannon, are set at intervals along the way so pilgrims could rest for a moment and gather strength in meditation. That is how I met one young man with a shaven head and a white robe. Young Kotaku Hirao was traversing the pilgrimage routes with a light and playful step. An expression of wonder and a childish grin never left his face, so out of a friendly adoration for him, I nicknamed him Little Buddha. We walked together for the whole day and tried to understand each other with his patience and poor knowledge of English. He belongs to an esoteric sect of Buddhism on Shikoko Island. A family of monks in a small shrine had raised him during his early years, and he is expected to one day take over running the shrine. After having completed a three year study at a large Buddhist monastery, he was sent by his father to spend the next two years walking across Japan, to learn about life and visit the numerous holy places, since later on he will not have time for traveling.
When I walk alone, I think a lot. I find the bad in me, why I don’t love myself, so I pray to Buddha to help me exchange this bad with good.
When we sat by the fire in front of a shelter atop a mountain in the evening, I asked Little Buddha what he thought about while walking solo across Japan. “Before I began my pilgrimage, I often felt lazy and liked comfort.” He spoke with a moderate tone enriched with a lot of warm smiles, “and now I’ve realized how grateful I should be for everything, how many wonderful people I met and how many times they have helped me. When I walk alone, I think a lot. I find the bad in me, why I don’t love myself, so I pray to Buddha to help me exchange this bad with good.”
Little Buddha also explained how one should think about the past, present, and future during certain stages of this pilgrimage. “The three shrines are dedicated to various elements and periods. The shrine Hongu is dedicated to earth and the past, so along that route you need to think about the past. From Hongu, the route leads along the river Kumano to Shingu, a shrine dedicated to fire and the present. The river flows like time, so there you need to think about the present. Nachi, the journey’s goal and the end of the pilgrimage, is dedicated to water and the future.”
The shrine Hongu is dedicated to earth and the past, so along that route you need to think about the past. From Hongu, the route leads along the river Kumano to Shingu, a shrine dedicated to fire and the present. The river flows like time, so there you need to think about the present. Nachi, the journey’s goal and the end of the pilgrimage, is dedicated to water and the future.
The next day, while we continued walking in silence, I thought about the history of Japan as had been explained to me by Mr. Yamamoto after noting that in order to understand a place and its people, first of all I needed to understand their past. The entire seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century, during the era known as the Tokugawa Period, Japan was in a state of peace and stability, and was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Diligent and hard-working inhabitants cultivated their own gardens, keeping to themselves and not bothering others. Other people did not bother them, either. However, in 1868, a new and completely different era began in Japan’s history. Mr. Yamamoto called it “an exception”, yet it is officially called “The Meiji Restoration”. In a world where imperialistic battles for colonies were prevailing, Japan woke up and wanted its piece of the cake. Japan opened up to America and tried to learn everything about the world from it. Shinto became the national religion, and the emperor – God. With proverbial dedication to work and devotion to authority, Japan soon hopped on the bandwagon and within a few decades it developed in every aspect, to become ready to join the world scene in the battle for power. Military victories against the great China and Russia encouraged Japan so much, that it went too far. In the evil mania of the Second World War, the Japanese fought on the side of the adversary. Atomic bombs exploding in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had them defeated and instantaneously sobered. Thus was ended the crazy era, “the exceptional period of Meiji” and Japan was back on the quiet track. Compulsory military conscription was ended, and the Japanese began lobbying for world peace. Once again with proverbial dedication and persistence, as well as with the highly important spirit of the collective (most every Japanese citizen traditionally feels that the good of the community is more important than personal success), within two decades, Japan rose from the ashes like a phoenix and rose to the heights. From being a completely war-ridden land, Japan reached the very pinnacle among the most developed and successful nations in the world.
Little Buddha and I reached Hongu and found accommodation in an inn where I met another interesting pilgrim. Forty two year old Katsu Ueno was preparing for the next morning when he would head down the Yoshino pilgrimage route to Omino-Okugake. I had been planning on continuing my journey to Shingu and Nachi, but I also wanted to get to know other pilgrimage routes of the Kii peninsula. When Katsu let me join him on his journey, the choice was clear. Katsu belonged to another sect in Buddhism, known as Shugendo, which is based on the ancient Shinto tradition of worshiping mountains. Shugendo is a challenging ascetic sect whose monks, ascetics, endure various rigorous physical strains during meditation. I saw this for myself the next day when a stubborn rain and cold wind awaited us along the route that followed a mountain ridge. Not even my waterproof gear made especially for mountaineering could keep me from getting soaking wet. Katsu amazed me since he was wearing just a white cotton pilgrim’s robe.
Shugendo is a challenging ascetic sect whose monks, ascetics, endure various rigorous physical strains during meditation.
“Prayers have a difficult time reaching Buddha, but if we do difficult things, then the chances are better!” Katsu explained the standpoint of his faith. Ascetics of the Shugendo Sect intentionally expose themselves to “difficult things” in order to strengthen their spirit and faith. For example, meditation under an icy waterfall in the midst of winter. “When it’s sunny – it’s good. When it’s raining – it’s good.” Katsu said with such composure as if the cold, rain and wind did not bother him at all. “That is part of nature, just as we are part of nature. Of course, it is harder for me to walk now than when it is sunny, but that is good, because then the challenge is greater for my spiritual training.”
The next day the sun shined and the horrible conditions from the day before dispersed. I saw how I was situated amidst mountains that were even more beautiful than the ones through which the Kohechi route traversed. The trail here did not cut across mountain ridges, rather it followed alongside them. Even more, Katsu told me that the entire route followed the ridge, which was more than a hundred kilometers long. Such a route is a true rarity in any mountain anywhere in the world. For centuries now, the ridge together with 400 meters to each side of it, belongs to the Shugendo Sect. Followers of this sect worship nature and respect the ancient belief that prohibits cutting down trees in sacred ground. As a result, this route along the ridge passes through one of the few remaining untouched forests in Japan. To the monks of Shugendo, spending as much time in nature as possible is more important than performing rituals in shrines. They consider the Omino-Okugake-Michi trail as the most sacred of all, and their goal is to walk the route as many times as possible during their lifetime.
Every evening, after long stretches of walking without many stops to rest, we would reach a shrine atop a mountain that serves as a shelter for Shugendo pilgrims. Along the way we would come across numerous smaller shrines where Katsu would stop and recite certain mantras, and several other spots where he would perform certain exercises. Once, at a hundred-meter high cliff, we came across a monk that would await pilgrims, tie a rope around them, and then lower them head-first over the cliff. “The purpose of this exercise is facing fear, death.” Katsu explained. “It symbolizes rebirth, because when you complete the exercise, you feel born again. The goal of all exercise, prayers, and meditations, is to cleanse.”
Once, at a hundred-meter high cliff, we came across a monk that would await pilgrims, tie a rope around them, and then lower them head-first over the cliff. “The purpose of this exercise is facing fear, death.” Katsu explained.
Oftentimes I would hear him mumbling to himself while walking. He explained that he was reciting the mantra “Zange-zange-lokon-shogio,” which is a prayer to Buddha for cleansing the six senses – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, for they cloud over the truth and contort the picture of the world.
”When I walk I recite mantras, I try to empty the mind, not think of anything, of pain, of the weather…” he told me, “Not thinking of anything is the best cleansing, and only when cleansed can we stand before Buddha!”
When we reached the end of the route at Yoshino, in the shrine Kinpusen-ji, the second largest wooden shrine in Japan with a height of 35 meters, Katsu just recited a quick prayer that marked the end of the pilgrimage. He then invited me to dinner at a restaurant. I wondered why the ritual for reaching the goal was so short, but Katsu wisely explained, “The journey is important, not the goal!”
THE KUMANO RIVER
This is the only pilgrimage river way in the world that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I returned to Hongu and decided to continue along the river Kumano towards Shingu. In ancient times, pilgrims would reach Hongu, the first of the three shrines in Kumano, by way of the routes Kohechi or Nakahechi. Then they would embark in wooden boats and continue another 40 kilometers down the river towards Shingu. This is the only pilgrimage river way in the world that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, in Hongu I found out that people rarely travel down the river any more, since a dam was constructed downstream from Hongu and a road was built alongside it. Nowadays, pilgrims most often continue by foot from Hongu towards Shingu or Nachi. Each of these journeys last two days. I found out that Little Buddha had taken this route, also. But I wanted to experience the river pilgrimage, and see what the old pilgrims had come across.
The adventure travel agency “Kumano Experience” from Hongu provided me with a kayak and guide, so one sunny day we embarked on a trip to Shingu. Though a road followed alongside the river, the traffic was sparse. Nature around us was peaceful and quiet. Green forests covered all the surrounding mountains. We rarely saw people or constructions built by humans. I had no problem imagining how pilgrims in wooden boats had seen the same scenery centuries ago. But the hum of the river reminded me of Little Buddha’s words, that a river flows like time, and when traveling the river, think of the present. In addition to that, at the river’s delta where it flows into the Pacific Ocean, is the shrine Shingu, the second of the three grand shrines of Kumano – dedicated to the present.
Mr. Yamamoto was born in Shingu seventy years ago. His life’s journey had taken him all over the world, and he has been spending the last twenty years in Zagreb. Though he has come to love Croatia, he plans on returning to Shingu to spend his elder years there. While rowing down the Kumano River, I tried to think of the here and now, and recalled what Mr. Yamamoto had said about Japan in today’s time:
“The Japanese people are in a state of constant change. At the moment, Japan is in the process of transition from a stage of achieving economic growth and being a powerful nation, towards becoming a mature and entirely just society. It’s understandable that sometimes there is some losing track and confusion, but there are also new, positive, elements. On the global plan, Japan has a problem with two factors in Eastern Asia. One is the economic and military growth in China, and the other is the nuclear threat from North Korea. Japan is still an adamant promoter of peace and destruction of nuclear weapons.”
The river brought me to Shingu where Mr. Yamamoto’s friend Mizumoto Naoyuki awaited me and provided me with a full force of Japanese hospitality. First we visited the shrine Shingu, as is the custom for every pilgrim, then he offered me accommodation in the luxurious Ryokan – a traditional wooden house, and invited me to an exquisite dinner with Japanese specialties: sashimi – raw salmon and tuna, eel, shrimp tempura, smoked tofu, and of course, high quality rice.
The next day, Mizumoto took me to the third and last shrine in Kumano, Nachi. We ascended up numerous stone steps to reach the spot that offered a truly majestic view. Neighboring the Buddhist temple Nachi is the Shinto shrine Nachi. A 133 meter high waterfall, also named Nachi, embellishes the background. As far as can be remembered, the local Shinto population believes the divinity they worship lives in that waterfall. When Buddhists arrived in Japan, they saw Buddha in the waterfall. Resultantly, followers of Shinto and Buddhism continued worshiping the waterfall side by side, all until their traditions became so intertwined, that it became impossible to draw the line that differentiates one from the other. Mizumoto, however, did not know the name of the Shinto god that lives in the waterfall. He asked several Shinto monks, who also did not know. He smiled at that and said:
When you westerners say ‘God’ you think of something much greater than man. In Shinto, god is sometimes smaller than man. We have thousands of gods, so we don’t bother with knowing all their names. We don’t worry about which god is where, but we do know that God is there. God is in everything!
“When you westerners say ‘God’ you think of something much greater than man. In Shinto, god is sometimes smaller than man. We have thousands of gods, so we don’t bother with knowing all their names. We don’t worry about which god is where, but we do know that God is there. God is in everything!”
He also talked about how he didn’t know the name of the god that is worshiped in the shrine in his hometown, where he had spent his whole life. Just recently he had found out that this shrine is dedicated to twelve gods, not just one. “The Japanese language doesn’t differentiate the single from plural like you.” He explained, “That’s why it doesn’t matter if we pray to one god or to twelve of them. Actually, to us, everything is – One.”
We were situated in the main court of the Shinto shrine, from which spread a view of the Buddhist shrine and waterfall. Every now and then a pilgrim would step out from the shrine into the court. Who knows which route these pilgrims had taken, and how many days they had been walking. They all acted the same. They would stand before the shrine and tug on a rope to ring the bell, throw a coin into the wooden box, clap twice, bow twice, clap once more, and then leave, without even lowering the rucksacks from their backs. Mizumoto explained how the purpose of the sounds of the bell, coins, and clapping was to let the gods know that we are here. I asked him if that was all – after several days of strenuous traveling, just a few minutes in the shrine, a ring, a clap, and that’s it?
“Yes, of course,” he answered and also said, “The goal is not important, rather it is the journey, the process of arriving to that goal!” He explained how “TO”, or “DO” in Japanese means Journey, a long process of learning and understanding, which is similar to the Chinese “Tao”. This can be found in numerous important words: ShinTO (the way of the gods), Kumano koDO (old routes of Kumano), bushiDO (the way of the Samurai), juDO, aikiDO, saDO…
This is the main difference between Japan and the west. Mizumoto explained. The West has answers that can be found in the Bible or in science, while the Japanese must find them forthemselves along the way.
“This is the main difference between Japan and the west.” Mizumoto explained. Of his forty years of life, he had spent 15 living in the United States working as a sociologist, “The West has answers that can be found in the Bible or in science, while the Japanese must find them forthemselves along the way.”
That is just what Mr. Yamamoto had told me. “It seems to me that monotheist religions have caused a lot of evil in the world. When Christianity had spread through the West, it eliminated and destroyed animism. But when Buddhism spread through the East, it merged with Shintoism. Monotheists offer answers in the Holy Bible, so their system of values is based on strict dualism, good-bad. Shintoism doesn’t have a holy bible. It is not so easy to tell the Japanese what is good or bad. Maybe that is why more and more westerners are abandoning monotheism and searching for new ways.”
Since Mizumoto also confirmed that the shrine in Nachi is dedicated to the water element and to the future, I wanted to ask Mr. Yamamoto what he thinks about where Japan is heading, what is its future. As a Croat in Japan, I phoned a Japanese acquaintance in Croatia and heard the following answer: “Japan will continue promoting world peace and nonviolence, and encouraging the destruction of nuclear weapons. It will open connections between nations and promote protection of the environment. With the goal of enriching the world, it will continue sending messages of Japan’s traditional values, such as friendly relations with nature, perseverance, humility, and tolerance.”
I asked Mr. Yamamoto about his future. He proudly admitted he would return to Japan this year. “I feel like a salmon that is returning to its mother river, after having spent an entire lifetime wandering the ocean.” wise Mr. Yamamoto said, and then laughed. “But you know, although I am pretty old already, that isn’t my final destination, rather it is still just a part of the process. I have a lot of plans for Kumano – with my experience I want to help my region develop into a powerful example as a basis for Japanese culture and ancient Japanese values, and I want these values to radiate throughout the world. But, of course, while I’m at it, I plan on enjoying this godsend of nature and the ever-present peace in the Kii Peninsula!”
While I was using the telephone, Mizumoto went to the office of the head monk of the shrine Nachi. He came back in a good mood. “We have permission to go to the top of the waterfall!” he exclaimed, and invited me to get going. Mizumoto explained how there are two more sacred waterfalls above the large waterfall, and visitors are forbidden access to them. That place is reserved only for monks that come to meditate. We were given permission to pass because Mizumoto explained to the authorities that my intentions were to present the Japanese culture to the readers in Croatia. We walked through beautiful forests of cedar and cypress, saturated with the scents of moist earth and the thundering sound of water. We reached a waterfall and enjoyed the silence, peace, and absence of people. But when we reached the second waterfall, we came across a man in a white robe meditating on a rock. That was Little Buddha. Because of the water’s hum, he didn’t hear us. So I quietly approached. I didn’t want to disrupt his peace and meditation, but I had to mark this moment for all times. When the camera clicked, it was as if he just rolled over in his sleep. He gently turned his head, and through half-shut eyelids, he recognized the foreigner whom he had walked with for part of the journey. His face gleamed with a gentle smile that said more than a thousand words, and then he turned back to the waterfall, shut his eyes, and disappeared into some distant depth.