Recently I visited Kyoiku Gakusha 共育学舎 in Kumanogawa Town which is part of Shingu City in the region of Kumano. If you would like to visit or learn more about Kyoiku Gakusha you can visit this site.
If you cannot read Japanese just send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yuki can reply in English.
Recently I visited Kyoiku Gakusha 共育学舎 in Kumanogawa Town which is part of Shingu City in the region of Kumano. If you would like to visit or learn more about Kyoiku Gakusha you can visit this site.
Making Kumano Bancha
Of course it is all organic made using traditional methods.
Here is a quick peek into how a group of farmers in Maruyama in Kiwa Town are getting together to build up the banks of the rice paddies to keep the water in for rice cultivation. The community bands together with many volunteers to maintain
The video was provided by Sakie Kubo of the Kumano Furusato Club at http://kumanofurusat.jugem.jp and taken on
Maruyama Senmaida Azenuri on April 17th, 2011.
Here is the final installment of the Fire Festival series. Let me know your impressions. I think there are some interesting scenes especially how the adults and kids are relating to each other during this festival. There are not a lot of words to confuse the mind. But, you can learn a lot about the spirit of the Japanese culture by watching this video…if you pay attention.
Every year on February 6th over 2000 men and boys gather in the confined precincts of Kamikura Shrine after ascending several hundred stone steps up to the Gotobiki Rock or Gotobiki Iwa. I tried to pick up scenes that are normally not focused on by Japanese photographers and I hope to have succeeded in conveying the attractiveness and meaning of the Fire Festival through the eyes of a non-Japanese. Very often non-Japanese pick up on aspects of Japanese culture that the Japanese take for granted, things that we find quite amazing, just like the composure, humanity, charity in the true meaning of ‘caring’, and orderliness, as recently seen during recent earthquakes, especially the recent Tohoku earthquake. What the Japanese take for granted often amazes the rest of the world. When this happens it serves as a mirror that reflects back to the Japanese the depth and importance of their own culture. Enjoy this short 10 minute clip and feel free to comment.
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.
In this world of seemingly incessant ‘TV War News’, bank failures, virus scares, vaccine panics, and political intrigues there are, thankfully, a few places in this world where one can still find quiet spaces and spiritually inspiring atmospheres where one is drawn to naturally reflect deeply on the meaning of life and death. Once such place is a region in Japan called Kumano and is the place where I presently call home.
Nestled in the mountains on the southern tip of the Kii Hanto peninsula Kumano spreads from Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture to Nagashima in Mie Prefecture to the east, and north to Totsukawa in Nara Prefecture.
Though Kumano was designated a World Heritage Site in 2004, still too few people inside or outside Japan are aware of the natural refuge available to them in the region. Even fewer are aware of the deep mystical past, spiritual energy, and historical significance of the area.
Even the people who live in Kumano are only superficially aware of their rich past and cultural history. This has started to change slowly since the World Heritage designation and now the local residents of Kumano are beginning to take pride in their history and culture once again.
However, there is still a long way to go to awaken both Japanese and non-Japanese to the visible and invisible richness of the area. Perhaps this article will serve as one more beacon of light shining on Kumano that beckons seekers and nature lovers to venture here for reinvigoration and healing.
Personally, Kumano has long held a special attraction that is hard for me to explain in words. Like anything esoteric or mystical, words rarely suffice. In the end, you have to experience it for yourself and see it through your own eyes, understand it with the heart, and feel it with your own skin.
I have traveled extensively in Japan and have visited a lot of wonderful places all with their own unique atmosphere and value and I have many more places I want to visit like Izumo Taisha and northern Japan.
Yet, no matter what beautiful scenery, shrines, temples, and cities I have seen, and no matter how significant the cultural magnificence, I am always anxious to get back to the protective and healing atmosphere of Kumano where I have lived most of the last 22 years after first being drawn here in 1987 to practice Aikido with Hikitsuchi Michio, 10th degree black belt (recently deceased).
Each time, on my way back to Kumano, as I leave the urban world that is gathered along the ‘Shinkansen Strip’, and start to penetrate the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, I always have this feeling that I am entering a different world than the rest of Japan. It is like I am passing through an invisible gate into a world where the invisible powers take hold and don’t let go.
Each time I return to Kumano it feels as if I am coming home and I immediately enter into a completely different state of mind leaving the worries of the material world behind. It is like a returning to the mother’s womb, a place of warmth, protection, and safety where eternity and emptiness co-exist.
Although many parts of Japan are famous for their beauty and cultural treasures, Kumano is really more about the internal, the invisible, and mystical than the visible, worldly, and obviously splendid.
There is no glittering Kinkakuji here and no grand and exquisite carvings of the Buddha like the Daibutsu in Nara. Nor are the temples here perhaps as splendid as those in Kyoto, nor are there any Imperial Palaces.
The shrines and temples here in Kumano are beautiful and peaceful places. However, I see these human artifacts more as ‘add-ons’ decorating a far more stunning natural backdrop that no human hand could imitate.
One of these amazing power spots is Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan at 133 meters.
Since Nachi Falls can been seen far out at sea, it is said that Ragyo Shonin, a Brahman from India, was likely attracted to the falls while passing by on the Black Current and was drawn in to explore the falls where he would eventually establish one of the Three Grand Shines of Kumano, Nachi Taisha, about 1700 years ago.
Certainly, everywhere you go in Kumano you will find pristine waterfalls, soothing hot springs, masculine mountains, lush forests, beautiful waterways, and white sandy beaches along the Pacific Ocean.
However, again, it is not just the breath-taking natural scenery that sets Kumano apart. You can find beautiful natural environments all over Japan once you are off the Shinkansen Line where modern urbanized Japanese have gathered for their convenience.
In Kumano there is something much more intangible that goes beyond the obvious tourist attractions and natural beauties of the region. Unlike, most tourist spots in Japan you will have to look deeper into yourself to find the value here.
They say when the student is ready the teacher will appear. However, your ‘teacher’ in Kumano may not always be a person in visible form. In Kumano, your teacher may be invisible and intangible. Lessons on the meaning of life are everywhere and can be found in a conversation, an experience, an event, a sunrise, or on the Kumano Kodo looking out over a sea of mist covered mountains.
Of course there are many human teachers here too.
I am reminded of one man on a personal mission who, for no fee, takes men and women who are suicidal or depressed all over Kumano with no plan, agenda, or destination. In free style three day sessions he takes them on walks in the mountains and by the sea. He shows them the natural wonders of the area while asking ‘setsumon’ or ‘explanatory questions’.
Far into the wee hours of the morning the dividing, dissecting, and judgmental mind begins to tire as he guides his ‘guests’ through the dark places in their mind until they awaken to see the pure light of their inner child. Around 400 people each year partake in this inner child journey for only the cost of their own food. Most will never think of taking their own life again.
This is just one example of the kind of life changing experience that can happen naturally and spontaneously in Kumano when the student is ready.
Historically, many people were drawn to Kumano in their darkest hour of spiritual or physical sickness. Not surprisingly it is often in these darkest times and hopelessness that the ‘teacher’ in Kumano appears and where the old self dies and a new self born.
To quote from a web site I translated about Kumano:
It is when we are in despair, scared, or deep in sorrow that our thoughts wander to an existence beyond our little selves. In these moments we might try to reach into that unseen world in our silent calling or we might pray to be shown the path which reveals the essence of ourselves in the face of infinite existence. In the midst of the silence lie stone steps and stone walkways covered with moss and lined with statues of Buddhist deities carved in stone. Along these pathways we walk, thinking about the thousands of people who died along the way, having never arrived at their destination. On this ancient path, the path of birth and death, you can feel your past, present, and future as one.
Not all people are ready for the lessons Kumano has to offer. We all have our own timing and when we are ready our ‘teacher’ will appear. In Kumano that teacher may be invisible and intangible but you will know it when it touches you.
Shingu Fire Festival Part 3 （新宮お灯祭り）in Wakayama Prefecture picks up near Nishimura Kinenkan (新宮市の西村記念館）。We follow the Noboriko (上り子）along Eki Mae Hondori (駅本通り） to Hayatama Shrine (速玉神社） then to the entrance of Kamikura Shrine 〔神倉神社）. We follow the noboriko up to the top of the mountain where over 2000 men and boys. There we see them receive the first fire and begin to light up the mountain under gotobiki rock （ごとびき岩）.
Here is Shingu Fire Festival Part 2 and shows the ‘noboriko’ doing ‘sanshamairi’ where they visit important shrines in the city on their way to Kamikura Jinja (Kamikura Shrine). Most videos on the Otou Matsuri focus on the Fire festival itself. This video gives some sense of the atmosphere in Shingu City leading up to the actual festival. This is one of the main festivals in Kumano. Shingu actually means ‘new shrine’ and refers to Hayatama Jinja or Hayatama Shrine as the new shrine. The original shrine, or old shrine is the Kamikura Shrine and is said to embody the Kumano Gongen. If you plan to visit the UNESCO World Heritage region of Kumano consider joining in or observing this 1400 year old traditional Japanese festival. It is quite exciting to participate in and you can contact the Shingu City Hall for more information on how to join in the fun. It is a man’s festival. But, there are lots of ways that women participate too.
This is the first video of 4 videos that I took during the Shingu Fire Festival on February 6th, 2011.
Before the festival all the men and boys who participate in the Shingu Fire Festival eat only white food, drink only white drinks, and dress up in white clothes. The outfit is called shiroshozoku or shinoshozuku. Shinoshozoku has the meaning of clothes that are worn by someone who has died. This video shows some guys getting dressed up. Normally someone needs to help you tie the big rope around your waist. About 2200 men and boys of all ages participated this year including many people from the big city. Non-Japanese are welcome to join in the festival and I talk to an Israeli man and an American fellow from Seattle. Once all dressed up everyone will set out on ‘Sanshamairi’, the visiting of the three main shrines in the cities. 20 years ago sake was served and people got pretty tipsy. But to bring things down to earth a little they are only serving non-alchoholic amazake these days.
This is the second half the journey up the Dorokyo and part of the return trip. See Part 1 first. You will see an old Japanese Ryokan that is separated by a suspension bridge. Half of the facility is in Mie Ken and half is in Wakayama Ken. There is a little shop at the end of the journey where people can buy souvenirs to take home. This trip is a must if you visit Kumano, especially in the fall or spring.