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It’s my first day in Koyasan, and already I’ve got cold feet. Not
that I have any doubts about being here. This spiritual retreat high in the Japanese mountains is as wonderfully otherworldly as it gets. No, my feet really are quite cold. Up in the peaks of the Kii peninsula, there’s an almost supernatural chill in the air at 5:30 a.m. as I make my way along a misty pathway lined with towering cedars, and across a stone bridge toward Lantern Hall, where the monks are starting morning prayers. It’s ethereally quiet, except for the chanting voices and the hollow tapping of woodpeckers. I have stepped into an Edo-era screen painting, apparently without warm-enough socks.

Kumano Kodo routeSecondary shrines, or oji, are dotted along the Kumano Kodo route.

Half a day by train from Tokyo, then a long hike or a short cable car ride from a tiny alpine train station, Koyasan was founded in 816 AD by a monk named Kukai as a centre for an esoteric sect of Chinese-influenced Buddhism called Shingon. It still feels absolutely removed from big-city Japan. In the town centre, I pass monks in golden robes and stacked wooden sandals (with socks), leading their tottering grandchildren by the hand. Pilgrims, with their conical hats and walking sticks, are emerging from forests with expectant expressions. A few French tourists, for whom the area has recently become an ashram of sorts, are wandering among the moss-dappled monuments to samurai, poets and politicians in Okuno-in cemetery.

Okuno-in cemeteryMoss covers monuments to warriors, writers and politicians in Okuno-in cemetery.

The Kii mountain range is dotted with sacred sites like this, linked by a sprawling network of pilgrimage routes that go back more than 12 centuries. Starting in the Heian period (794 to 1185), emperors and other nobility made weeks-long journeys through this remote landscape with entourages of 800 people – the original Japanese group tours! The trails – some laid with stone steps, some footpaths between twisted roots, some paved roads behind small ridgetop communities – connect shrines, rest stops and guest houses. Many, as if nature intended it, offer natural hot springs to sink into after a day of hiking. The area around Koyasan and Kumano Sanzan, where I’ll be heading on the next stop of my trek, earned UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2004, making it, for now anyway, a less-famous sister to Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela. With the downturn in Japan’s economy, domestic travel to this culturally rich part of Wakayama prefecture is being rediscovered – and not just by religious devotees: It attracts young people from Tokyo searching for locations imbued with spiritual energy, known as “power spots” (or “pow-ah spottoh”).

Muryoko-inShoes are customarily left outside tatami rooms during temple stays at Muryoko-in. 

Back at Hongaku-in, the temple where I am staying, a young monk slides open the door of my room to bring in a cup of green tea. He then reveals a secret of the modern universe: a switch for a hidden heater mounted under the low table. Warming my icy toes and contemplating the courtyard garden, I think that normally I’d be satisfied with one spiritual epiphany per trip. Here I just might become a Shingon Buddhist, a gourmet vegetarian and, most significantly, an organized person. (I am already mindfully placing, rather than tossing, my slippers neatly at the entrance to my lodgings.) As the frenetic pace of life back home eases away, I want to slow down and do things right. Koyasan has long drawn visitors for much the same reasons. Traditional temple stays called shukubo are a trip back in time that involve sleeping on futons in tatami rooms, joining in rituals like the fire ceremony or the daily meditation and gorging on the elevated vegan cuisine known as shojin ryori. 

Soji-inWell-appointed Koyasan temples like Soji-in employ formally trained chefs. 

Mealtime at Hongaku-in is far from monastic, despite the Buddhist do-no-harm-to-others philosophy (no animal products and no onions or garlic, which supposedly incite bodily desires). Multicourse shojin ryori is full of earth-affirming decadence, liberally washed down with beer or sake. Feasting on edible landscapes of pink shiso buds, kinome sprigs that taste simultaneously of basil, mint and ginger, a sphere made from pounded day lilies, freshly shucked fava beans and sakura blossoms for garnish, it’s easy to see how the presentation might have influenced France’s nouvelle cuisine. Fresh wasabi, picked that morning, is a punctuation mark atop a soft block of satiny goma tofu, which is made of ground sesame and yuzu. (I watch as the chef grates it on vegetarian-friendly stainless steel rather than on traditional sharkskin.)

temple cooking (shojin ryori)Prepared according to Buddhist traditions, temple cooking, or shojin ryori, uses no animal products, garlic or onions.

Over lunch at Soji-in, an elegant temple accustomed to serving dignitaries from neighbouring Kongobu-ji, command centre for the nation’s 3,800 Shingon temples, I discover local specialties within local specialties. A soy-milk version of creamy chawan mushi comes in a Ponkan orange, sweet pickled shiitake hiding beneath the custard. Hot pots bubble over binchotan, the almost smokeless regional charcoal. There are tangy umeboshi, or pickled apricots (often wrongly referred to as plums), that Wakayama prefecture is famous for. Rare mushrooms called koutake, with weirdly lovable flavours of underbrush and attic, come sprinkled in magic seaweed powder. The cuisine’s amazing array of delicate seasonal mountain vegetables called sansai has my guide and interpreter, Shingo, constantly checking his reference book and electronic translator for just the right words. “This fiddlehead? Not ostrich fern, it’s… bracken!”

Cherry blossomsCherry blossoms brighten the landscape between Koyasan and Kumano.

Leaving Koyasan by car on narrow winding roads – the trek from here to the Kumano Kodo is black-diamond pilgrim level, so we’re picking up a trail farther south – I’m surprised by the vast wide swaths of wilderness, sparsely populated except for the deer, bears and monkeys. Stands of cedar, cypress and bamboo, their trunks like calligraphy brushes against the mass of the hillside, give way to persimmon orchards, rice terraces, tea bushes and orange groves (with 50-plus varieties grown here, there’s usually one coming into ripeness). I stare out the window in wonderment, echoing Shingo’s comments. “Kirei!” So pretty!

Hongu Taisha grand shrineBelievers bow, clap and ring the bell to make their prayers heard at the Hongu Taisha grand shrine.

The farther south I go, the closer it seems I get to the real heart of the country. The scenery is shifting as expanses of evergreens, historically planted for forestry, blend with the primeval forest of mottled broadleaf trees. Kids by the side of the road point, giggle and call out “Foreigner!” as I pass by. This is deep Japan, where the early nature-worshipping Shugendo beliefs, which preceded and later fused with Shinto and Buddhism, are at their strongest. The architecture at the religious sites is a swirl of indigenous Shinto gates (or torii) meeting Indian-, Tibetan- and Chinese-styled temples and pagodas (and even 3-D mandalas) that reflects the evolution of Shingon. At the large Hongu Taisha complex, a supersize torii rises on the Kumano River in the distance. Banners flutter in the breeze as I climb the edges of a wide staircase – protocol, Shingo tells me, so that the gods can go down the middle. The curled roofs of the temples are made of stacked cypress bark, built up in layers almost a foot thick. We pull a cord to ring the bell, making ourselves heard by the resident deity, then clap twice, bow twice, say our prayers and leave with a nod to images of Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow that is the mascot of the Japanese soccer team. (The players come here to pray before big games.) 

Head monk Hoken Inaba of Hongaku-inHead monk Hoken Inaba of Hongaku-in is a well-known teacher of Ajikan meditation.

In the ridegetop rest stop of Takahara, which is often referred to as a village in the mist but today gives us a crystal-clear view of the sweeping valley below, we pass an elderly man cooking mountain vegetables and tea leaves over an open fire in his front yard. He must be over 80, hunched and hard of hearing, with remarkably healthy skin. We stop to ask what he’s doing. “Experimenting! Something I’ve never tried before!” he shouts back. With the rural population aging – in some cases, three-quarters of village residents are over 65 ­– these are privileged glimpses of Japanese culture. Down the road is one of the area’s oldest oji, or secondary shrines. Rounding the bend, we come across a vermilion building with a sloped roofline, dwarfed by 1,000-year-old camphor trees. The massive trunks are encircled by rope strung with paper lightning bolts, which mark the trees as sacred spirits, Shingo explains.

The fishing port of KatsuuraThe fishing port of Katsuura lies below the mountains where pilgrims climb to the Nachi temple complex. 

The jagged coastline, and the fishing port city of Katsuura, are behind us as we climb the route to our final pilgrimage destination, the Kumano Nachi Taisha waterfall and temple complex. In the cool and silent air of the tree-darkened Daimonzaka path, occasionally dappled by sunlight, there’s a sense of solitude even among other trekkers. I can hear the falls before I get to them, a rushing drop of 133 metres that pours relentlessly from the rock at one tonne a second. Squinting my eyes, I make out something at the very top. It’s another rope strung with those lightning bolts, impossibly stretched across the cliff – fragile proof of human presence that makes the natural beauty even more spine-tingling. If I could measure the power of power spots, this one goes to 11.

waterfall at NachiVisits to the waterfall at Nachi date back to early animist rituals.  

In contrast to the raw energy of the falls, the Nachi compound is a tranquil assembly of hilltop structures, where the scent of burning wood (from wishes gone into the fire) hangs in the bright daylight. Inside the 950-year-old Seiganto-ji temple, the large gong makes a surprisingly soft sound. Deputy head monk Takagi Ryohei emerges from the shadowy recesses to greet us. A mountain ascetic from the mystical yamabushi tradition, he has travelled from the Andes to the Canadian Rockies, praying for an end to environmental problems and leaving behind wooden blessings from his remote corner of Japan. I tell him that having seen the waterfall, I understand why there would be a shrine here. “If it weren’t for the waterfall, there would not be a temple. And if it weren’t for the waterfall, I would not have met you,” he says with a gentle smile that warms me from my head to my feet. 

Travel Essentials

Kii mountain rangeTowering cedars and cypress trees line the ancient walking paths that run through the Kii mountain range, linking spiritual centres and hot springs.

01 Get some perspective at the rock garden at Kongobu-ji, Shingon Buddhist headquarters in Koyasan. You are above the clouds looking down. The raked curves of pale gravel represent the clouds, and the stones cresting above the cumulus are the backs of two flying dragons that guard the area. 

02 On the road between Koyasan and Kumano, 11-room Kamigoten in Ryujin Onsen is a remote riverside lodge, built for a feudal lord in 1657 and run by the same family for 29 generations.

03 Modern pilgrims can have baggage shuttled ahead between guest houses on the trails linking Kumano Sanzan, the three main shrines of Hongu, Nachi and Hayatama – a useful service for international visitors. 

04 Order a hot pot of mountain vegetables at Kirinosato Takahara Lodge, a recently built restaurant and hot-spring inn on the route to Hongu. 

05 In the narrow village of Yunomine, visitors can soak in the public hot springs or use the bubbling pool in the village centre as a communal boiling pot for bamboo shoots and eggs (13 minutes for perfect hard-boiled). 

06 Koyasan Guest House Kokuu is a budget alternative to temple stays, with capsule rooms, DJ-approved music and curry dinners (the friendly owners spent some time in India). 

07 Hongaku-in is a minimalist luxe compound of tatami rooms and inner gardens, offering sophisticated shojin ryori by a classically trained chef and Ajikan meditation sessions led by engaging head monk Hoken Inaba. 




Getting There

Air Canada operates the most non-stop flights to Tokyo from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. From Tokyo, take the train to Koyasan and the surrounding areas in the Wakayama prefecture.

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