People always yearn for a sense of connection, be it social or spiritual, and religion plays an important role in our search for meaning in life.
Although many sections of our society are beginning to tilt towards extremism or atheism, there are still a few places where one could witness and experience the fine balance between religious beliefs and spiritual practices.
Japan is one such place where modernity has not weakened or altered the society’s connection and relationship with Nature; where tradition and transformation coexist in perfect harmony.
Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions in Japan. Religion is considered a personal affair and is something that is not openly discussed, but has to be experienced in order to have a better understanding of the concept. It is separate from the state and most Japanese follow both Shintoism and Buddhism.
Although most visitors focus on the urban aspects of Japan, those interested in a transformative experience are drawn towards the sacred forests and mountains, which have been flocked by pilgrims for centuries. A journey through the lush and mesmerising landscape provides a perfect setting for introspection and self-discovery.
Kii Peninsula located to the south and east of Osaka is the best region to experience the country’s spiritual heritage. The region is home to Kumano Kodo- a network of centuries old pilgrimage routes leading to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano region and Mount Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, which was introduced in Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi. The entire mountain range is registered at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Highlight experiences include:
Intrepid travellers can opt for a Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, which is a wonderful way to experience the Japanese countryside. The rugged and in part steep trails offer breath-taking views along with an opportunity to stay in remote and ancient inns and guest houses, sample simple traditional food, bathe in some of the oldest hot springs in the country and visiting incredible shrines. For a truly immersive and meditative experience, you could participate in Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, which was developed in the 1980s. The term literally means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” and involves taking leisurely walks under forest canopy with guided activities and meditation, concentrating on the sounds of the forest. It is said to have profound health benefits and is re-gaining popularity across Japan and South Korea as a form of preventive therapy.
Those with less time and having an interest in Zen Buddhism, Mount Koya is an excellent place where you could stay in a Buddhist monastery and experience the elaborate vegetarian cuisine (Shojin Ryori) and participate in the morning chanting with the monks. The access is easier in comparison to Kumano Kodo and the walks are much gentler with the focus being the overnight temple stay.
For those who do not wish to compromise on creature comforts, exclusive private experiences can be arranged in Kyoto temples such as a private encounter with a Head Monk to discuss Zen philosophy and to learn the art of meditation. Another excellent alternative is Aman groups Amanemu overlooking the pristine Ago Bay, which offers a convenient access to Ise Jingu, the holiest pilgrimage site in the country. Ago Bay is also home to ama divers, who were traditionally pearl collectors and are used to diving to depths of up to 25 metres, holding their breath for as long as two minutes. Most of them are women and now dive to fish for seafood.
Spirituality is ingrained in all aspects of Japanese culture, whether it is the tea ceremonies and cultural arts, architecture and garden design, traditional rituals or the polite and warm nature the Japanese are known for. You will find the journey through Japan’s spiritual heartland rejuvenating and transformative in many ways.