Finding The Real Japan – Kumano

Here is an article I wrote for GlobalVoicesJp.com. You can find the Japanese translation HERE.

‘Hey, if you want to find the ‘Real Japan’ then you are looking in the wrong place! You MUST visit Kumano!’ were the words I never forgot one warm summer night in Kobe in 1987.

A seemingly inconsequential meeting and these few words were to prove to be the catalyst for a major shift in direction in my life. The choices I made after this chance meeting shaped my life for the next 22 years and I am still living the effects of this casual encounter to this day.

At the time I had been living in Kobe for about a year and a half. I was really enjoying my life and time in Kobe and I felt very comfortable in Japan. In fact, when I first arrived in the Kansai region in 1985 I felt I had indeed returned home. I was very happy to be in Japan.

Kobe was a great city to live in and was humming with ‘pre-bubble’ optimism and prosperity. Japan was at its peak of productivity and competitiveness. The Japanese spirit and industrial machine seemed invincible at the time. Everyone was optimistic, spending like crazy, and million yen company parties were not uncommon. The thought of a major earthquake setting things back 10 years later was on no one’s mind.

I was really enjoying my experience in Japan teaching English, practicing Aikido, teaching a little Tai Chi and Qigong. On the weekends I would enjoy exploring the Rokko Mountains, take trips to Shodo Shima, and explore new beaches on the Inland Sea. When I needed a super urban injection of stimulation I would hop on the Hankyu Line or JR Line and head for Osaka. There I would explore the Kinokuniya Bookstore for hours, roam the backstreets, and possibly enjoy some Okonomiyaki or Takoyaki in Shinsaibashi!

Although I was enjoying all the stimulation and excitement of Kansai at the height of Japan’s economic success and power, I felt something was missing. I continued to long for what one might call the ‘Real Japan’- that ‘Japan’ which often exists in the mind of many new visitors to Japan before landing at Narita airport in Tokyo and being struck the by the concrete reality of modern urban Japan.

Little did I know that the chance meeting on Suma Beach near Kobe would be one of those life changing encounters that would help me find my way to the ‘Real Japan’ I was longing to know, and have a whole new experience of Japan that Kobe could never offer in spite of its wonders and greatness.

When I arrived at Suma Beach the band was already playing with the illuminated Kobe skyline forming the backdrop. The crowd was not huge, perhaps about 50 people. But, everyone was enjoying the music and many were dancing to the Reggae beat. It was warm and humid and good to be outside under the stars listening to good music.

The meeting on the beach with the American Aikido practitioner was brief and the information sketchy but it was more than enough to capture my imagination and pique my interest.

As a lawyer from the USA he too had come to Japan seeking the ‘Real Japan’ and, according to him, he had found its closest approximation. For him, remnants of the ‘Real Japan’ could still be found in an ancient pilgrimage power spot known as ‘Kumano’, nestled in the southern tip of Wakayama Prefecture.

I had never heard of a place called ‘Kumano’ before that. During my first weeks in Japan I had heard of Wakayama and the wild natural surroundings on the Kii Hanto. A friend of mine had recently come back from there and shared her impressions with me. However, I made no connection at the time. In fact, ‘Kumano’ was not a phrase widely used at the time to describe the area, even by Japanese. Only later did I make the connection.

When I let the American know that I was also doing Aikido he went into long and passionate monologue on why anyone serious about Aikido had to go to Kumano and visit the Kumano World Dojo where 10th degree Black Belt Hikitsuchi Michio was teaching. He went on about how Kumano was the place to be and described it as a ‘Power Spot’ and the closest approximation to ‘Real Japan’ that he had experienced. He talked of the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage walking route through the mountains leading to the Kumano Grand Shrines, of Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha.

He described pristine white beaches, warm sea currents, surfing spots, shrines and temples co-existing in the mountains, waterfalls and rivers to swim in, and talked of Kumano as being a welcoming place to outsiders both historically and in the present day.
Most importantly he was enamored by the people. For him the people of Kumano were something very special and unique imbued with blend of genuine openness and kindness that is almost lost in much of urban Japan.

After this brief encounter at Suma I kept thinking about this place called ‘Kumano’ for weeks and eventually decided that I had to make a visit to this area described as a ‘mystical, sacred spot’ said to be overflowing with healing powers and a complex past history.

It was a time of spiritual seeking for me and as a young man I had also been very interested in Eastern philosophy including Chinese Taoism, Japanese Zen Buddhism, the various streams of thought and practice out of India as well as Western Esotericism.

Like many people of my age my idea of spirituality was rather undeveloped and immature and full of judgment and ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. All this went out the window after experiencing in Kumano what I would call ‘spiritual living in daily life’ without ‘isms’.

Before coming to Japan I had entertained visions of finding myself a wise old Zen monk teacher to show me the ways of Zen meditation and practice and learn about the elegance of simplicity.
Like so many ‘aliens’ in Japan at the time Zen equaled Japanese spirituality for me. Later I was to learn there was more to Japan’s spiritual legacy than Zen, much more. 

Now, as a result of a chance meeting on a beach in Kobe, I live Kumano where the spiritual legacy predates the influence of Buddhism coming to Japan, where the ‘shrines’ of ‘Ancient Shinto’ are the mountains, monoliths, ancient trees, waterfalls, rivers, and where you can still find remnants of the ‘Real Japan’.

Now I enjoy each day working at the Shingu City Hall sometimes acting as a ‘kataribe’ or storyteller for visitors to Kumano. I try to convey whatever I can about the history of Kumano and about the potential for the future as a guiding light for post-industrial Japan.

I take them to Jofuku’s grave in Shingu and explain how this Chinese Taoist brought rice cultivation, pottery, and other Chinese technology to Japan over 2000 years ago.

We stand together at the foot of Nachi Falls where a Brahman monk from India founded the Buddhist temples of Seiganto-ji and Fudarakusan-ji about 1700 years ago.

After that we may visit any number of shrines like Hayatama Taisha, Kamikura Jinja, or go to Hongu to visit Hongu Taisha or Oyunohara, the original shrine site where Retired Emperors would visit between the Heian and Kamakura Periods.

I still find it amazing to think that if I had not gone to a certain Reggae beach party in Kobe one summer night I would not be sitting in the secretarial office of the Mayor of Shingu City writing this column. I likely would have returned to Canada the next year to a radically different life.

Instead I am here in Shingu City, having spent most of the last 22 years in Kumano, one of Japan’s best kept secrets.

However, it won’t be a secret for much longer… In 2004 UNESCO designated Kumano as a World Heritage Site and Kumano River is the only river to be deemed a World Cultural Heritage along with the only hot spring (Tsuboyu) in the world to be designated as a World Cultural Heritage.

Perhaps your reading this short article will be your turning point and chance encounter that brings you to explore Kumano too. Who knows? You too may find the ‘Real Japan’ like I did and never want to leave the ‘Hometown of the Soul’: Kumano.

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