A Travel Guide to Spiritual Japan

SLIDESHOW: Beyond skyscrapers, robots and bullet trains, Japan remains cloaked in a veil of spirituality.

Japan’s Kii Peninsula is blessed with stunning landscapes and a deep spiritual heritage.

Japan exists as an undefinable mystery. Quirky and enigmatic, it’s a heady mix of old and new, a place of beguiling natural beauty alongside urban overload. Beyond skyscrapers, robots and bullet trains, this vast nation remains cloaked in a veil of spirituality that has guided people’s lives for centuries. This, it could be said, is what encapsulates the country’s true essence.

Japan’s spiritual landscape centres around Kumano’s seven trails meandering through the Kii Peninsula’s mountains and valleys. This is the home of the gods. Here, a series of sacred paths, grand shrines (Nachi Taisha, Hongu Taisha and Hayatama Taisha) and towns such as Koyasan have all attracted pilgrims for more than 1,000 years. Collectively named The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, its ancient Kumano Kodo trails are one of only two UNESCO-registered pilgrimage routes in the world.

My first ever ‘pilgrimage’ commenced in Wakayama Prefecture’s Koyasan, a highland valley encircled by eight verdant mountains. Its topography is likened to a lotus flower with eight petals, and it was this peaceful setting that persuaded the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi to establish Shingon Buddhism here during the Heian period. The sect’s official base is the Danjo Garan temple complex, its main gate guarded by a pair of gnarling deities protecting the imposing temples and vermilion pagodas.

Not far away is Okunoin, an extraordinary place of eternal rest. Set among towering cedar trees, its 2km avenue leading to Kobo Daishi’s grand mausoleum is flanked by over 200,000 gravestones, stupas and pagodas dedicated to prominent figures, samurai lords and commoners. Followers would like to believe that Kobo Daishi or ‘Kukai’ did not pass away, but is simply resting in eternal meditation. Shintoism and Buddhism are practised widely in Japan. Shintoism, indigenous to Japan, involves rituals that embrace the spirit of both living and inanimate objects, so it’s no surprise to find a memorial dedicated to humble termites exterminated by a pest control company.

Along the way are numerous Buddha-like statues adorned with bonnets and red bibs. They represent Jizo, a Bodhisattva (deity), protector of children. Those lost to childbirth or miscarriage and believed to be trapped in the underworld are guided to paradise by Jizo. Overall, a mystical, meditative aura prevails over Okunion, and visitors staying at one of several Buddhist lodgings (shukudo) have the opportunity to join a night tour of the cemetery.

My Koyasan experience wouldn’t have been complete without an attempt at Adjikan Dojo meditation led by a monk at the Kongobu-ji Temple, followed by a nutritious Shojin Ryori lunch, a style of vegetarian cuisine eaten by Japan’s Buddhist monks. The meal typically involves five colours and flavours, and ingredients include tofu, vegetables, seaweed and root crops.

Further south, the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shinto shrine near Mount Nachi stands 350m above sea level. My stamina was put to the test while climbing the 267-step cobblestone staircase of Daimon Zaka, which rises some 600m from the base of the valley. The route is lined with old cedar and bamboo trees that provide shelter from the sun. To get a feel of what it was like in the old days, a shop hires out colourful costumes worn by ancient pilgrims. The final reward, upon reaching the top, was a magnificent vista of the mighty 133m Nachi no Taki waterfall, the tallest in the country.

On the eastern side of the peninsula, the 7th century Ise Jingu shrine attracts visitors and pilgrims praying for peace in the world. They then head for the old town of Okage Yokocho, a retail nirvana where traditional wooden buildings are packed with merchants specialising in handcrafted souvenirs, confectionery and delicacies, mingling with eateries, street-food stalls and even saké breweries.

A fitting end to my journey was a visit to the coastal village of Osatsu in Ise-Shima to meet the Ama female divers. The word ‘Ama’ means ‘women of the sea’, and these extraordinary ladies have kept alive a 3,000-year-old tradition of free diving, once a lucrative profession for young women diving for pearl oysters, although these days they only dive for shellfish and abalone. They can hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time, diving for a couple of hours each day. Testament to their fitness is Reiko, 85, the oldest Ama who retired only six years ago, and the second oldest, Shigeno, 78.

At the centre of the hut they took turns grilling their fresh catch over a charcoal fire — with everyone in the room transfixed by the glow of embers and seafood literally hand-picked by the Ama. I watched this generation of fascinating women tell their tale, their eyes glowing, their affectionate smile heart-warming.

Modern-day pilgrims in need of serious pampering head for Amanemu, a luxury retreat set on the fringes of Ise-Shima National Park. Its elegant minimalist style and serene setting are in keeping with the spiritual surroundings, made more relaxing by spacious villas and suites overlooking Ago Bay. The highlight here is the spa and its onsen pools fed with hot thermal spring water. Traditional Japanese cuisine served here includes Matsusaka beef and fresh seafood.

Cleansing of the soul draws serious pilgrims to Kumano, but even for non-believers, just being surrounded by ancient natural beauty is in itself uplifting. And wherever you may be in the country, spirituality is never far away — from gentle tea ceremonies to savouring local cuisine and soaking in a hot spring.

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Amanemu, The Mori Suite Bedroom.

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Shellfish cooked by Ama female divers.

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Maiko in Matsuo Taisha Shrine.

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OKUNOIN Credit Rowena Marella-Daw.

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Kumano Kodo trail, Credit Wakayama Prefecture.

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OKUNION JIZU, Credit Rowena Marella-Daw.

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