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  • To View the other tales in the series please follow the links below:

          No. 1 - The Navajo Medicine Ceremony                 





  • 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 then 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. 

  • 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. 

  • Jung believed that there are universal ways of organising and understanding the world that transcends cultures and individuals. One of these archetype patterns is the Sacred Space – somewhere pervaded by a sense 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: if we believe our wild places can redeem us, then perhaps they really will. 

  • 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 and watched the sun pull mountain shadows across the curved cypress bark roofs, golden lanterns and hollow ritual bells of the shrine. And then set off into the mountains once more: miles of mossy stone paths winding through the bamboo forest 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. I watched wildflowers, planted centuries ago in case of famine, bloom peach, yellow and blue and shy farmers string 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. 

  •  KOMANO KODO words and images by Aaron Millar

  • A version of this article previously appeared in PositiveNews.org.uk 

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  • 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 sumo. From there it was three days 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.

    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 then 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.” And I understood what he meant: there is nothing more ego-leveling then walking in steep mountains. But despite the exertion, gradually a peacefulness emerged too: the slatted bark of the forest seeming 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.

    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 well-being, increasing self-confidence, happiness and reducing stress. But it may be more fundamental then that too. 99% of the genetic history of human beings has been spent actively and intimately connected with nature. It’s part of who we are. If enlightenment is to be found inside us, it makes sense to start looking out there.


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  • Prayer Flags at Nachi Otaki 

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  • 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 Kumano’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 into 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, 200km south of Kyoto, and links together the three Grand Shrines of Hongu Taisha, Hatayama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Emperors and peasants have walked this trail for more than 1,000 years. If there is such a thing as hiking Nirvana, then the Kumano Kodo is surely the place to start looking.

  •   Image: Ryoei Takagi by Aaron Millar

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  •  aaron millar  travelling life

  • Aaron Millar is an award winning travel writer, photographer and a Founding Creator of Baby Forest.

    Over the next few months, Aaron will share his tales of some of the most enlightening adventures on the planet: "stuff that I’ve personally done, professionally researched and know will make you smile, sweat, gawp and laugh out loud. But I’d also like to share what I’m learning along the way: how exploring the world can be a catalyst for personal growth, how to get the most from your adventures, and how to take that state of mind home, in order to live more connected to yourself and the world around you.”

    Explore more of Aaron's thoughts, theories and adventures here  

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  • 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.”