Pilgrimage Project: Japan
This trip was the first in a pilgrimage project that I’m just beginning to lean and listen into. Visiting landscapes where animism, an intimate and interactive relationship with the land, is alive and well. It is new creek in the mountains of my work and I’m so excited for what is to come.
So come begin the journey with this collection from my time in Japan…
There are many unseen things that drew me to visit Japan, most of which I can’t yet name but feel underneath my hands, like warm tea through porcelain. The inspiration to travel to Japan came in when I was out for a walk on this year’s summer Solstice. It was as thrillingly unexpected as a basket of roses. So when the opportunity arose to hop a plane from Hawaii to Tokyo came along a few weeks ago I jumped first and asked questions later. I think I’m still figuring out what the questions are that drove me here. But I know (at least) one of the answers — the Kami.
Japan has a long standing tradition of animism woven into the fabric of their cultural expression. Called Shintoism (a name given to distinguish this ancient folk worship from the “newer” influence of Buddhism), it is a belief system as old as the humans who inhabited these seasides. Shinto means the “way of the Kami,” a practice of devotion to and connection with the unseen elements that animate all things. “Kami” is often translated as “sacred spirits,” but it would be closer to the truth to say that the Kami are the spirits of everything, the living sentience, the soul that exists within every being. The Kami are the consciousness of mountains, rivers, stones, trees, thunder, wind. There are Kami of growth and fertility, Kami of the ancestors, the Kami of a path made by a thousand journeying feet. Everything that springs naturally into being is Kami. And so shrines, ancient and tended, dot the country here like springs.
It has been a long time since I, or the ancestors who make up my lineage, have lived in a place of such uninterrupted connection with the spirit of all things. It has been a long time since my body has moved in a place where it is not only natural, but expected, to bow to trees and make offerings to stones. And there is something about being here, in this place, that activates a language that moves like marrow in me.
To spend one’s life enshrining the natural magic of the world, coming into its own being.
I do not know yet, entirely, what question drove me here to the heart of Japan. But I know an answer, or at least I have met many of them, so far, along the way. The Kami.
A Soundscape of Bamboo
I am continually amazed by how alive the plants feel here in Japanese cities. How differently a tree can look when it has been recognized, since birth, by all the people who pass underneath it’s branches. When it is seen as the being of consciousness that it is. Our first night in Kyoto we stumbled upon a canal lined with weeping willows and I actually gasped. There was no steps, no long corridors, no special meditations necessary to speak to these trees. They were already speaking, in fact, they were singing. And it brought me to tears just to be near them. They were more alive in this cityscape than the flames in the nearby lanterns, just lit and swaying. The trees felt more alive than my own being.
It is a gift, to be a student to the trees. To the landscape. To a cultural interaction with animism never lost. To ways of seeing and tending to the aliveness of the world. It’s a gift to be here, and be learning.
There are Shinto shrines everywhere in Japan. Embroidered into street corners, tucked behind temple monasteries, beside public phones or subway entrances. Often these sites were first enshrined to recognize the specific spirit of the living landscape. In some places the city has grown up right around them, in others shrines are still hidden so deep in the cedar woods only locals know they are there. The recognition that we live in a living world is everywhere you look in Japan. There is no self consciousness about bowing before a tree or stone, because therein lies a Kami, an ancient consciousness from which we are here to praise, learn, tend.
How would things change if we moved through the world and paused to recognize the emanations that surround all beings. If we were as deliberate as the rock gardener. Starting afresh every day, not with our own designs, but with the beginners mind. With the openness to read the patterns that are already in motion. To align our lives with the flow of bird, river, stone.
It is enough, I think, simply to be able to see it. Those invisible circles of relationship touching corners with your own. To witness the way magic ripples off of all things. There is so much mystery in the way this world moves. In the way one thing is hitched to all others. I’m grateful for the glimpses. Stones surface like sea creatures, humming to us for a brief moment so we know there is more, so much more, below our own horizon lines.
The cable car up to Koyasan
Mountains hold a special place in the Japanese landscape of consciousness. By some accounts mountains are seen as the first magics, the originators of wisdom, spirit, life and kami. If you wished to cultivate yourself as a scholar, a monk, a ninja… you need only go to the original teacher– The mountains. In Japanese “san” is an honorific, it announces someone of great internal stature and importance. You would call your beloved professor “san”, your mentors, your elders. Almost all mountains in Japan hold the title “san.” It is a marker of the way in which the sentience of the mountains tower in the Japanese imagination. And a nod to a long history of learning, devotion and reverence. This mountain, this high altitude place of quiet bamboo, waterfalls, wind thickets and stone is called Koyasan. Home to a shoreline of temples since the 700s, arriving to Koyasan on one long cable rope feels like stepping off a ship, a pilgrim in the presence of an entirely new, and long holy, teacher.
At some point I noticed the fact that the light is different everywhere in the world. Some places it’s as milky as common Quartz, diffuse like lantern light. In others it pierces the water like sunspots, makes even shadows sharp. Here in Japan it feels as if everything is seen through soft paper and soji screen. There is a dimness that makes shadows as comfortable as quilts. A place where a light parasol is part of one’s courtship with the sun rather than a necessity in the face of its gaze.
The light is different here, and I feel different within it.
Funnily enough, I’ve even found myself using different filters to try and capture what it is I’m seeing through my little phone. But somehow they always seem to sharpen like glass edge when they need to be diffuse as moss into stone. Print in bold when the scene before me is smudged as brushstroke. It’s the failure of a new technology in an ancient land. Sometimes I wish I carried watercolors with me wherever I went.
How can I capture the particular pewter glow of cobblestone here, or the way sunsets melt like well used brushes in pots of water? I cannot. So I record it somewhere in my body, so I can learn how to walk slowly in a Yukata. So I can see the way gold is meant to come alive in shadow. So I can watch the rain and see the brightness it brings to the pond outside my window.
Worn wood corridors and gardens lit by lantern light
I’ve had the privilege of traveling here in Japan during Obon, a time of lighting lanterns and honoring the ancestors and communing with those who have left to sit in eternal mediation. In a place where ancestor tending has continued uninterrupted for millennia it is easy to feel them close. They are not the ancestors of my own blood, but they are grandfathers and grandmothers of this land that is teaching me so much. I am grateful to have been with these islands during this special stretch of time.
If you have a moment, tend your own guardians. Leave a small dip of sake. A sprig of lilies, a cake of rice or sweet bean. Because, truly, the ancestors are never so far away. They are right there, on the other side of your offerings.
“Empty rooms fill with light.”
In Japan the concept of Mukayu has pervaded every bare corner, wood curve and low roof of light. Coined by the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzhi, Mukayu means “non-existence” or “non-purpose,” the freedom of emptiness. Mukayu is the purposefulness of not doing. It’s the richness of a wall left blank, a thought allowed to dissolve, a life left entirely open. It is the fullness of an empty schedule and a cup anticipating finely steeped tea. In Japan, a country of zen and quiet manners and moss, they talk about the idea of existing in a “countryside of Mukayu.” To me, this sounds like heaven.