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Soul searching in Japan

Sam Ballard takes a walk through the Japanese Alps and discovers a side of the country not often explored.

As we sit in our hotel room, with Typhoon Hagibis swirling around outside, we may be forgiven for wishing we were elsewhere. We are reaching the end of seven days in Japan – a majority of it spent at the ABTA Convention in Tokyo followed by two days walking through the Japanese Alps, just off the western seaboard. We had been due to travel on to Yokahama to watch England play France in the Rugby World Cup but much of Honshu island was on lock down and the game had been cancelled, a first for the competition. Japan was about to be hit by the strongest typhoon in 60 years.

And yet, I was hooked.

Japan is an enthralling country. In Tokyo, where the neon glows all night, locals dress as their favourite comic book character and there are vending machines for anything and everything (and I mean everything). The city is huge – the greater Tokyo population has an estimated population of about 40 million people – and it’s every bit as brilliantly idiosyncratic as you have heard. Groups whizz through downtown traffic dressed as Mario Kart characters (in actual go-karts), karaoke bars are on every corner and you can even visit an owl café, if the mood takes you. However, leave the mega metropolis and a more traditional Japan comes in to view; this part of the country is equally as surprising, but for different reasons. On a two-day journey outside of Tokyo a land of lush green forests and mountains opens up in front of us; this is the Japan where the health service prescribes Forest Bathing and Shinto, the country’s indigenous faith, and Buddhism remain deeply rooted in society.

We jump on the legendary Shinkansen (bullet train), which whizzes us at 200 miles per hour, west to Kanazawa. Once there we drive for an hour out to Yamanaka where we walk through forests among the Kakusenkei Gorge, visit local villages and meditate with Buddhist monks. It’s a world away from the bright lights of Tokyo. In Yamanaka we eat a traditional Japanese meal in a restaurant overlooking the Daishoji river. Our guide, Nariko, talks us through the range of exotic dishes laid out in front of us in beautiful lacquerware, for which the region is renowned. We eat tofu, fish and vegetables, all expertly prepared and cooked using traditional methods; vegetable tempura, pickles and rice are stacked up across our table as we take our fill. The only thing holding us back is getting to grips with the chopsticks.

During the afternoon we walk through the forests. Yamanaka is a hot spring town, where the waters are known for their healing properties. We saunter alongside the river, past wooden signposts upon which are written ancient haikus about the forest. Other signs tell passers-by to remember to be gentle. The land is verdant and the air is clean; you can see why the Japanese believe in the forest’s healing powers.

That night we stay in Hakujukan, a luxury hotel where the smell of cedarwood hits you as soon you enter the traditional building, which is as simple on the inside as it is ornate on the outside, there are even specially designated places for meditation in the reception. Rooms are also in the traditional style with a door that opens into a porch where you change out of your shoes into slippers before entering the main living space. There’s a low level seating area while the windows are covered in a paper sliding door. If it wasn’t for the widescreen TV you could be in the Edo period.

The hotel also has its own onsen, the bathing ritual where people strip off, clean themselves fully before getting into a large bathtub where the temperatures are above 40 degrees. The pools are split by sex and the hotel contains both outside and indoor pools. When I tried it the place was deserted – much to my relief – although being ‘cheek to cheek’ with other bathers is apparently part of the experience.

The next morning we walk out to the Eihei-ji temple complex. The Buddhist site has been a training centre for monks since it was first built in 1244 and is one of the centres of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. Since then it has burnt down, been rebuilt and expanded over the centuries into its current incarnation – a sprawling mass of interconnected wooden temples, built in and around ancient trees and lush gardens. We walk up Eihei-ji’s vast staircases and around temples decorated in the Emperor’s Chrysanthemum crest and great halls with ceilings filled with squares, each one telling a different story.

Our group is introduced to a Buddhist monk who takes us to a room filled with tatami mats and teaches us the art of zazen, or seated meditation. We’re taught where to sit, the position to hold – and warned that if our posture drops we’ll be struck with a cane to “help us concentrate”. He doesn’t follow through with his threat but senior monks do administer the cane when their young charges start drooping. The young monks can even adopt a position that announces that they need to be hit – to help them concentrate. All in the name of achieving enlightenment. After 20 minutes of meditation all I can think about is how dead my leg is. As I slowly uncurl myself from a poorly attempted half lotus, our mentor tells us that yesterday the monks meditated for about 12 hours.

Once we’re out of the temple we take a walk around the town and enjoy a crab lunch in a local restaurant. News of the impending Super Typhoon has started to trouble our hosts however. Shortly afterwards, the rugby game is cancelled and we are told that transport links into Tokyo are likely to also be shut down. The decision is made to cancel our trip to Yokohama and head straight back to the capital.

Our couple of days of wellness and meditation have been superb. From being hit by the jarring difference between hyper Tokyo and the slow pace of what lies beyond, to losing ourselves in walks around Japan’s ancient woodlands and learning to meditate with a Buddhist monk. We have sampled some of the greatest things this country has to offer, and we’ve not even scratched the surface.


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