"A journey to Japan`s deep woods" by C. James Dale
Published by the Toronto Star
Print and Web
Sept 2, 2011
Beginning of article:
TANABE CITY, JAPAN—We could hear the haunting cry of the conch as we trudged up the long, stone staircase. Once we arrived at the sombre, thatched-roof pavilions that form the heart of the Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the Grand Shrines that draws the faithful and the curious to this part of Japan, we discovered the source of the sound. A group of Shugendo monks — whose spirituality mixes Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism, and animism — had recently arrived to worship after a trek through the lush hills and valleys of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama prefecture.
“You can tell from the mud on their boots they’ve spent the last little while hiking in the woods,” said Brad Towle, a Canadian who works for a local tourism bureau and is tasked with luring international travellers here.
The monks, their robes accented with fur and beads and tiny black hats, prayed, chanted and blew the conch a little more before filing out of the main pavilion area, stopping along the way to greet visitors and pose for a picture or two.
“They go into the mountains to get power from nature,” Towle said.
It’s a journey that monks, retired emperors, aristocrats and regular folks have been making here since the Heian period (794-1192). The pilgrimage routes, known as the Kumano Kodo, and the sacred sites they connect have been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2004.
“It’s not like Kyoto or Nara. It’s a little off the beaten path,” Towle noted. “It’s a quiet, rural mountainous environment.”
The Kumano Kodo is a network of well-marked (Japanese/English) and well-maintained trails winding through the forests and fields, villages and towns that stretch across the Kii Peninsula. Arriving at the main ancient shrines and temples may be the ultimate goal, but visiting the “Oji” or subsidiary shrines or strolling past towering cedar and cypress trees, water-logged rice paddies and neat green tea plantations is also soul satisfying.