Wellbeing in the wild: the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage

Trekking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in the sacred Kii Mountains of Japan, Aaron Millar is absorbed by stunning scenery, peaceful solitude, fascinating tradition, and Shugendo Buddhism’s insights into the value of nature

Ryoei Takagi is a 62-year-old Buddhist monk. Every January he climbs the steep snowy slopes of his home in the Kii Mountains of Japan to meditate under the 48 sacred waterfalls that flow into the Nachi Otaki – the tallest waterfall in the country, revered in folk beliefs as a living God.

Despite the icy conditions, he is able to remain submerged in the near freezing flow for 45mins at a time. “This training has granted me supernatural powers,” he says, leaning in to whisper in my ear, “I can see people’s heart inside.”

But subjecting oneself to hypothermic conditions, he explains, is only a small part of the process. The real business is in the mountains. Takagi is a follower of Shugendo: an ancient Japanese religion that fuses Buddhist ideals with indigenous forms of nature worship. For centuries, devotees like him, known as Yamabushi, have been trekking the Kumano region’s arduous slopes, believing that ascetic training in sacred spots can grant one magical abilities. Japanese folklore is rich with examples of these mountain monks predicting the future, walking on fire, even flying – and their ritual practices are still alive today.

I’d come to Japan to explore these sacred mountains. I wanted to learn more about Shugendo and see if any of its beliefs could be translated to a western way of thinking. Over the next five days I planned to walk the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo – an 88km ancient pilgrimage path that bisects the Kii Mountains in the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula, 200km south of Kyoto.

The path to nirvana

For more than 1,000 years, emperors and peasants alike have been walking these trails in search of enlightenment and healing, on their way to the three Grand Shrines of Hongu Taisha, Hatayama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. By mirroring their journey I hoped to experience this ancient transformative ritual first-hand and discover, I hoped, a slice of rural Japanese life seldom seen by outsiders.

“Walk the route, breathe the air and make room in your heart to feel it.” Takagi tells me. If there is such a thing as hiking nirvana, then the Kumano Kodo is surely the place to start looking.

I set off from Takijiri-Oji, the gateway shrine to the sacred lands of Kumano and once the site of great celebration and ritual offerings of poetry, dance and even sumo. From there it was three days of hard walking to reach Hongu Taisha. I passed monoliths with mantras etched in stone, buried sutras scribed by emperors and small wooden shrines with offerings left inside: cups of green tea, a red blanket, rusting decades-old coins.

At the village of Takahara I was served a banquet of Kaiseki – dozens of individually prepared, uniquely flavoured dishes so delicious it made me want to sing. At Chikatsuyu – where pilgrims traditionally purify themselves in the freezing mountain water of the Hiki River – I cheated and lay in a natural hot spring instead: eagles soaring on thermals above the fast-flowing water at the edge of the tub.

Despite its antiquity, the Kumano Kodo has in many ways always been the most forward-thinking of Japan’s sacred places – welcoming all, irrespective of gender or class. As a result it’s been popular too. Records refer to a ‘procession of ants’ – hundreds of white-clad pilgrims scrambling up the steep slopes. But as I walked miles of mercilessly steep mountain passes, surrounded by dense vertical bars of cypress forest, I wondered if there was more to the metaphor than just numbers. I felt tiny, beat up and exhausted.

“Being in nature makes you feel humble,” Takagi had said to me, “that’s why we come here for training.” I understood what he meant – there is nothing more ego levelling than walking in steep mountains. But despite the exertion, gradually, a peacefulness emerged too. The slatted bark of the forest seemed to mirror all thought, and contain all sound. I walked with the echo of my breath rising and falling with the trail, and the crunch of fallen leaves reddening under foot.

Science shows nature’s benefits

Shugendo is a unique form of Buddhism in that it stresses the attainment of enlightenment through active involvement in the natural world and, like so many good eastern ideas, western science seems to be finally catching up. Contemporary psychological research has shown that connection with nature is vital for our wellbeing – increasing self-confidence, happiness and reducing stress, among many other benefits.

Indeed there are now a number of wilderness and adventure-based therapy programmes designed specifically to exploit nature’s prolific healing properties. But it may be even more fundamental than that. 99% of the genetic history of human beings has been spent actively and intimately connected with nature. It’s part of who we are. Only in the last 10,000 years have we turned to settlements and farming, and only in the last few hundred years have those settlements spiralled out of control into metropolises utterly disconnected from the natural world. If enlightenment is to be found inside us, it makes sense to start looking out there.

“If enlightenment is to be found inside us, it makes sense to start looking out there”

From the Grand Shrine of Hongu Taisha it was two days walking to Nachi Taisha and the end of the pilgrimage. I rose at dawn to watch the sun pull mountain shadows across the curved cypress bark roofs, golden lanterns and hollow ritual bells of the shrine, before setting off into the mountains once more.

Miles of mossy stone paths wound through bamboo forests like entrances to an enchanted kingdom. I passed the ruined foundations of teahouses, statues of dragons, emperors and monks, and giant cedar trees with hollowed-out roots and offerings left inside. I followed rivers and ridges into valleys and villages where wildflowers – planted centuries ago in case of famine – still bloomed peach, yellow and blue, and where shy farmers strung up hay, like dolls’ hair, to dry in the sun.

After five slow days on the trail, I felt I understood the landscape implicitly – from a macrocosm sense of scale to the minutiae of detail along the way. It felt natural to see the world at this pace – as if we had evolved to appropriate the landscape at the speed of our feet. Slow seemed better, richer, more real and full.

Sacred wilderness

Carl Jung believed that there are universal ways of organising and understanding the world that transcend cultures and individuals. One of these archetype patterns is the sacred space – somewhere pervaded by a sense of power, mystery and humbling grandeur. The Japanese people have long held the Kumano region to be sacred. Takagi told me the Yamabushi believe that the magical powers they seek derive from, and are inextricably linked to, these mountains.

But many contemporary psychologists believe that the wilderness itself can be considered one of these sacred spaces. Implicit in Jung’s idea is the concept of transformation and change. When we travel to a sacred space we invite the possibility that growth and healing is possible. This openness to change is a central tenet of psychotherapy; an individual must believe that healing is possible in order for it to occur. Maybe therein also lies some of the power of the Kumano Kodo, and the magic of Shugendo: if we believe our wild places can redeem us, then perhaps they really will.

As I caught my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean – knowing the end of the pilgrimage was now in sight – I heard a sound like nothing I’d encountered before: the soft howl of an animal, but earthy too, like wind through bamboo. There in immaculate white Suzukake robes, with bound feet, straw sandals and a conical Minachi-gasa cypress hat was a real life Shugendo Yamabushi. He stood tall and proud on the last summit ridge and blew his traditional Hora conch shell trumpet to the wilds – signifying the teachings of Buddha and the summoning of nature’s deities. It was only a few moments, but listening to him play was the highlight of my trip.

Later, finally at the end of my journey, I walked through the Nachi Taisha Shrine – cedar wood incense drifting through cherry trees, a soft soprano prayer sung through temple walls – to the base of the great Nachi Otaki cascade. Staring up at the 133m falls, it occurred to me that there is a profound common sense in worshipping nature. Whatever you believe, there is nothing more self-evidently true than the beauty of a sunset, the magnificence of a mountain, the humility of a starry night.

“The most important thing,” Takagi told me, “is to have a gratefulness to nature.” In combining the ideals of Buddhist enlightenment with traditional Japanese forms of nature worship, Shugendo offers an intriguing blend of ecology and psychology. Perhaps in order to save the planet, and ourselves, all we need to do is immerse ourselves in the beauty and adventure of the natural world; the rest will follow. I walked down to the base of the freezing waterfall and for just an instant thought about jumping in.

Oxalis Holidays offers guided and self-guided walking itineraries along the Kumano Kodo, staying in traditional family-run Japanese guesthouses. They offer a 9-day self-guided trip to Kyoto, Osaka and the Kumano Kodo, including one day of city sightseeing with a private guide, five days of walking from village to village, all accommodation, all breakfasts and five evening meals, train tickets, walking maps and information pack, local support (but not flights), from £1,425 per person (based on two people sharing). More information: www.oxalis-holidays.com / 020 7099 6147

ANA – All Nippon Airways flies from London to any of the 44 cities in Japan for the same price. Economy return flights from £810. More information: www.ana.co.uk / 020 8762 8977

GET WILD

Recharge the brain: Studies have shown that being in the natural world recharges our concentration abilities by allowing our minds to wander. And unlike watching TV or surfing the internet, nature allows room for contemplation and reflection, enabling creativity and insight to occur.

Green exercise is better: Just five minutes of exercise in a green space – even just your local park – can boost mental health and improve your mood. Get into nature and work out your mind as well as your body.

Reduce stress: Psychologists have shown that even just viewing pictures of a natural scene can reduce the signs of stress – muscle tension, blood pressure and pulse rate – in a matter of minutes. If you’re stressed at work, get outside.

Lift your mood: Being active in nature has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and aggression, increase self-esteem and happiness, and improve social attitudes and behaviour. If you’re feeling blue, get green.

Wilderness therapy works: Outdoor adventure therapy programmes have proved to be an effective means of helping a variety of participants, from young offenders and substance abusers to the mentally and physically disabled. The wilderness can create positive change for you too.

Read it and don’t weep.

Headlines about what’s going right in the world are now being shared with millions of people through digital screens on high streets and in shopping centres all around the UK.