Part One – Detailing my trip to Japan.
I guess thoughts of seeing Japan have been in my mind for many years but it took until perhaps 2006 that I decided I would like to travel there, and as the intensity of my focus on art over the last 5yrs and my style has been refined with a clearly Japanese aesthetic it became clearer I should go. Furthermore in the last year with my introduction to some key Japanese artists namely Kaii Higashiyama I decided I must make it a reality. With 10 months of steady work in a Glasgow glass studio where I joined a team on the final stages of work on Rosslyn Chapel, and the big sale of my archives at the start of 2015 I was able to afford to go and departed the week before Christmas to Tokyo.
I arrived on the 19th kilted and loaded up with my trusty rucksack, first used by my parents’ trip to Austria in the early 70s. Like them, that ol’ rucksack is still going strong. Cheers Karrimor.
My travel tradition is to take a night walk when I arrive at my destination, so pack safely dumped at the capsule hostel I took a stroll around this very unfamiliar neighborhood. It was very strange, like being in a movie, the streets, the signs, the bustle of electrical cables going in every direction it was quite surreal for me.
The next morning I hit my first destination. The memorial hall for the Japanese artist Higashiyama.
Tuesday, 22 December 2015 at 10:26 Higashiyama Kaii Memorial Hall.
It was truly inspiring. To get an in-person look at his works, to get up close and examine the brushwork was indeed a treat.
I intend to visit all the galleries housing his works across Japan and this was a great start. I visited a number of other galleries and got to grips with Tokyo’s subway network. After 3 days I decided to leave the city and attend to agenda number 2.
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage walk. There are a number of routes and sections to the pilgrimage, I decided to make my entry to this from Koyasan. I traveled there by train on the 22nd and not long after departing Tokyo, I caught a glimpse of the most famous mountain of all as the train sped across the landscape…..
I was somewhat taken aback to see her there for real. Actual Mt. Fuji there in person. She was soon out of sight and we sped on, 2hr later I changed trains and began the last stage towards Koyasan. Here we began to enter the mountainous region of the Kii Peninsula. It very quickly became apparent this was a very good choice.
I darted from window to window, side to side snapping the unfolding landscape. We had only just begun and already this was truly astounding. Only a taste of what was to come and already I was thrilled.
The final stage was a cable car up a 45° angle which took me to Koyasan station. This part of the journey was truly amazing and I took lunch at the top and then made my way into Koyasan town.
As its winter the day is short and it was already after 3, I found my bed for the night as the sun fell away and the night took hold. Again time for my night stroll, this time it would really be something special and left me without words.
“Mount Koya (高野山, Kōyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. A small, secluded temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters that Kobo Daishi built on Koyasan’s wooded mountaintop. It is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and the start and end point of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Kobo Daishi began construction on the original Garan temple complex in 826 after wandering the country for years in search of a suitable place to center his religion. Since then over one hundred temples have sprung up along the streets of Koyasan. The most important among them are Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, and Okunoin, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum”.
I entered the Okunion around 6 pm, totally dark the moon had not yet risen over the trees and I was completely dumbfounded by the presence of the place. The energy was off the charts, I couldn’t tell if the atmosphere was friendly or not. A few times I got the total fear. Also, I felt a high level of serene peacefulness. No one was to be seen yet incense burned all around and was the finest-smelling scent I’ve ever known. I was in there for 2hrs until I felt I had to leave more than a little spooked.
Up early the next day, 23rd, I took a walk around Koyasan with a brief 2hr loop walk as an introduction to what I hoped to undertake. I was concerned my back wouldn’t last too long taking the weight of my pack, being in Japan for the next 3/6 months I have a lot of gear, mostly art materials which add an immense amount of weight. And the walk I intended to start with was a 4-day hike over some hard terrain. Also, there is a severe lack of information on this part of the Kumano Kodo. Let alone English information, the most I could find was this was the hardest trial to undertake. I really didn’t know what I was getting into….. but today was just for strolling and I explored the Temples of Koyasan which I enjoyed very much. The design, curves, and lines on these buildings are the height of style for me. Combined with lush ancient forest, well what can I say?
So my first walk was okay, I figured I could start the next day, walk an hour out of Koyasan, and if I felt it was to be too much I could turn back. So I set out at 8 am on Christmas Eve in a cold drizzly rain. A mere 20 meters up the trail I was faced with a trail going off into the woods, was this my path? The hostel host had clued me into some English maps off the internet I had saved on my tablet but even that was limited. I got a few meters into the woods and felt it was a bad idea so returned to the track and sure enough, up around the bend found my first official sign and stamp location. Nearly messed it up in the first half hour. I decided if I didn’t see a sign I didn’t leave the path I was on. Rule number one!
My pack felt okay I was going to give it a shot. The first day was meant to be 16.8km and I had caught wind of a bothy a little beyond that point. I intended to reach the bothy and spend Christmas day there. An hour into the trail I passed another walker heading into Koyasan, we passed and I thought it strange he was effectively arriving so early in the day. Sure enough, half an hour later I heard the jingle of the pilgrim’s bell and he had doubled back and caught up with me. He had misread his GPS and gone the wrong way. His mission was the same as mine so we decided to walk together.
Language barriers aside with talked and walked over the day, the trail becoming increasingly harder, the rain had passed at least. The day peak was around 1200 meters at Nosegawa Village and we reached the recommended day finish point of Omata-Bashi bridge around 3.30 pm as the sun was beginning its descent. At this stage, I was really struggling with my energy. It had been a tough day and my friend had maintained a good pace but now at the final stage, I thought I was through. At the village bridge, I thought he said it was another 8km to the bothy, there was no way I could manage another 8 and it looked like a steep stage. I finished the last water bottle and rose once more, I think I was beyond conversation and thought by this point, my friend edging further ahead from me on the trail, even the sound of his bell became lost to me at points. From 700meters to 1200 in what really wasn’t that far although it took about 40minutes of brutal incline winding up the forested hillside finally when I had nothing left the cabin appeared.
A sight I was truly happy to see, instantly abandoned my rucksack and felt a burst of strength to collect sticks and get a fire going, my companion was straight on the tasks he was very prepared. I considered there was no way I could have completed that day without having him there. With the fire going we ate some noodles in the cabin and then sat by the fire as the darkness came and the forest grew quiet.
We sat by the fire and I got out the whiskey and we had a couple of healthy drams. By 7 the moon appeared, it being Christmas eve with the next day being a full moon it was so bright. Patches of moonlight fell amongst the deep forest it was some sight. I was so glad we had made it.
I found a sleeping bag in the bothy store and fell asleep pretty broken, although the drams helped the pain. Alarms went off at 5.30 am on Christmas day for breakfast as my walking friend intended to continue on. Christmas day was not for walking and I was happy to stay put! We had breakfast and off he went, the pilgrim’s bell disappeared into the still-dark forest…
I got the stove finally working right and by 9 am had a warm cabin. I spent the day collecting sticks to dry and burn through the day, took some photos of the mists rising from the valley, and had a rather lovely day. Christmas dinner was mighty…
There was a freshwater spring by the cabin and I took my fill of this incredibly fresh mountain water. A cold day, but the stove was cooking a treat and it has to go down as my most inspired Christmas choice ever. As darkness fell I lay in my warm retreat and treated myself to a Miles Davis album in the darkness.
When I awoke the next day the fire still had life and took little effort to kick back into life, when I stepped out the door to greet the day behold a dusting of snow had appeared in the night. Could this get any better? I was kind of considering staying for a 3rd night, I had enough supplies and wood and was in no rush to get anywhere so why leave? I started my day preparing and taking in the astounding views around my spot.
At 10 am a couple appeared so I invited them in for some coffee. An older couple in perhaps their 60’s heading out in the snow! Well if they could do it so could I and I figured maybe another night in this tranquillity was maybe a mistake. The weather was fine, perhaps I should just push on. After all, maybe it just gets better…… The couple headed away and I quickly packed up and was on the trail maybe half an hour after them.
It was even harder walking on the snow, which covered leaves and branches which covered rocks and slippery roots. I headed up the trail to the Hinoki-Toge pass at 1300 meters. What a view. The 360° view of the mountains around was amazing. But also bloody freezing. I was glad to be on the move again… The trees were encrusted with a beautiful frost it was a frozen wonderland. How lucky I was with the weather and slightly different conditions, and I could have been in a spot of bother.
You may wonder at this stage about the photo selection on this post, I’m not actually including many shots of the views as if you wanna see it you can walk it yourself. And the photos I took will comprise the basis of my next body of work.
Perhaps I may even make some of these photos available as prints once I have time to review them. There are a couple of storkers I am not putting online, certainly not giving them to FB! I’ve got around 600 to review but wanted to get this up while it was all still fresh in my mind, to be fair I can’t see myself forgetting a moment of this anytime soon!
The descent down from this mountain was very hard, I think overall this was the hardest day of all. From the Obako-Toge pass down to Muira-Guchi was a dark endless forest. I walked alone and in thought. It was hard. My knee started to suffer the impact of the decline and at the worst point, I was blessed with the gift of a birch stick which saved me on the descent. At points, I was slumped on the forest floor in a deep silent forest with no end in sight and a lowering sun. It was hard to maintain focus and positivity and when I finally stepped out onto the main road and the hope of a village I was utterly broken.
The air turned cold fast I gave my last to reach some houses, I wasn’t really sure of my actual plan but perhaps I could find at least a shed to crash in or a guest house… As luck would have it a man was working the field above me and I clocked him reaching into his pocket to pull out a phone, a minute later several people appeared. Guest house secured I was very happy, and as luck would have it the older couple from the morning were also staying there. He spoke pretty good English which was a lifesaver as the lady of the guest house had none.
We ate together a traditional meal and I took my first Japanese bath. God that felt good. The house was over 300yrs old and was registered as a heritage building. The man of the house saw me looking at the moon later in the evening and set the telescope for me. What a view! The moon appeared conveniently right in the dip of the two hills. This was the day after the full moon so it was still totally impressive.
The next day we set off, an 8:39 am start with the older couple I figured it would be nice to walk with them, I might have been younger but by no means were they less able. We left the house crossing the Kannogawa river and instantly began the day assent up to the Miura-Toge pass at 1280 meters. The day was to be a 19.2km hike to Totskuwa.
The morning was a steep uphill but I felt surprisingly fresh, probably the excellent breakfast and last night’s meal. It was not the sunniest day, a cold wind was blowing and at the summit of the pass, it was damn cold. We didn’t hang around and dipped over the other side to take lunch in a more sheltered spot.
It was there I had a bit of a moment as the view bore a striking resemblance to the picture I have on the back of my business card, Tomioka IV, it was odd. Not sure the photo I took captures what I could see but…..
This descent was quite relaxed, well not by the end of the 2hrs, sunny warm air and the forest was really nice. We cut a good pace and reached the end of the 2 pm. from there we had to take a bus away from the trail to get to the nearest accommodation, this is where I parted ways with the couple and it had been really nice walking with them, on the decent I let them walk ahead a bit so they could be together. At the end of the walk when we reached the road I clocked them doing this nice gesture of thanks to each other it was really sweet. They had climbed many mountains together across the world. A real inspiration for living and love.
Totsukawa was a very small place, it was the first spa town I had reached so far. I tried the one in my accommodation but it was way too hot. Kind of put me off using the public town one. At dinner that night I sat on my own at this big table, I figured they had put me away from this large group of school kids who were some kind of swim team. They were all ill and I almost left cause I certainly couldn’t afford to get sick. The meal was great but as I relaxed and felt satisfied with how it was all going my nose started to pour with blood just as I got up to leave. So there I was stuck up on this big empty table with 40 school kids between me and the bathroom, who all thought I was mental anyway for wearing a skirt (kilt). Plus I didn’t have my shoes and I certainly didn’t want to get blood on the special matt flooring. I could only hope they either left soon or the blood stopped. Neither of these was happening. What a predicament. I guess maybe it was a reaction to the spa or just my body relaxing after all the exercise and maybe travel stress. Although I really wasn’t stressed. Anyway, I got sorted eventually and made a swift exit hoping I hadn’t caused embarrassment. I spent 2 days there just to relax, the river was a mental jade green colour and there were huge eagles swirling about. I got dead excited when I saw my first one but turns out they are the equivalent of our seagulls. Heaps of eagles.
Also it was raw egg time. Interesting. ……
Time to get walking I hit the last stage on the 29th. Another glorious day I was looking forward to reaching Hongu. This was to be a 10.4 km to Yakio then an easy 4.6 into Hongu.
The day’s peak was Hatenashi-toge pass at 1114 meters. This was a really nice day’s walk. The forest was really nice, it took a while as I descended the steps made for slow progress, but the forest was really very peaceful. Arriving in Yakio I got a finally wind to take the last 4.6km into Hongu. I also had to try and arrive as soon as possible as we were nearing the new year and people had been asking me a lot about if I had booked accommodation. I hadn’t, neither phone nor internet or general info or even a time scale plan on how long this was even going to take. So I had to make it into town as early as possible to secure somewhere. Wasn’t the easiest but I got into Hongu just before 5. I had a note of one place that was totally deserted. The rest of the town was closing up fast and things were not looking good.
Kind of killing the buzz of completing the 70km for Koyasan to Hongu-tashia!
I was getting a bit frustrated and exhausted, I just wanted no boots and no rucksack. Walking a needless 10min down the wrong road and back and then back again I was not in the best place. I got that feeling when a place rejects you, it just feels wrong.
What needed to happen was just sit down and take a coffee somewhere. I looked across the street and behold the last open place CafeBonheur with coffee. Score. So I walk in and it really got a good vibe. I sat down and asked for a coffee straight away. It was taking ages to make but I didn’t really care anymore. As my calm returned I looked around the cafe and noticed books everywhere. First, one I saw was the very familiar “Snowman” and as I looked around the other books looked consistently art and particularly nice, my coffee arrived. I asked straight away as the guy was at my table if he knew of a guest house or anything nearby…. he didn’t really understand but went and got the girl.
“You want to rent the guest house”?
Me – you have a house? Great. I’ll take it! Problem solved and I took my sip of coffee which was the best I’d had in Japan so far. As the girl had pretty good English I asked her the next most important question, why all the books? It was her ‘hobby’ of sorts. She collected nice books, in particular illustrated ones. Well, I was liking this place more and more, making me quite glad the original place had been closed. It pops into my mind she might enjoy seeing my art book I had published before I left as a mini portfolio to show folk.
I figured I might as well go all in and have dinner, I relaxed had my coffee and the waiter took me the 2min walk up to the house. I had a shower, changed, and went down for dinner, with my book. Well, the food was outstanding, all organic and vegan. I’m not vegetarian but certainly not opposed to it. It was delicious. After dinner I showed the owner my book she seemed really enthralled by it and we had a big chat about art and books.
My dinner, I devoured the starter before I thought to take a photo.
On the 30th I walked around the temple of Hongu after a lazy start, and just had a relaxed night in my house cooking myself an enjoyable dinner. On the 31st I took a 10 min bus ride out to a river onsen. Kawayu Onsen is a unique hot spring town located along a river. To use the onsen, bathers dig a hole in the gravel riverbank into which hot spring water then flows. Cool river water is mixed with hot onsen water to bring the water to a temperature particular to the bather’s desire. In the winter, a giant rotenburo called the Sennin Bath is dug in the same manner and is available for free public use. What a way to spend Hoggers. Highly enjoyable experience. I walked back into town and had dinner at the house. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the new Year here, the town so far was busy with temple visitors during the day but at 5 the place shuts down. The cafe I was renting the house from was the only thing open till 8 and I seemed to be the only one there.
I had a wee beer after dinner and took a stroll down to the cafe to see if anything was happening. They were dead and the folk had no plans to be doing anything that night. I had a coffee and walk towards the temple, some street vendor food stalls were set up but it was all dark and deserted. I ambled home at 8 to just do a little sketching, and listen to some music.
At 11.30 I went back out, the stars were phenomenal and the mighty tori gate was spotlit casting huge beams of blue light into the sky.I had no tripod so this was the best I could do…
The place actually had some life now, people were filing their way towards the temple up the mighty steps all the lanterns were lit. I was standing in the queue for the temple, I figured they opened the doors at 12, it was now around 11.55 pm and I got the vibe there was no midnight celebration on the bells. So why was I in a queue for a temple I didn’t need to get into? I clocked two monks lightning a mighty bonfire and decided to just grab a seat beside that. And sat by the fire as we passed into the new year. I was the only white person there, and certainly the only one in a kilt. I felt privileged to be there, I didn’t enter the main temple as I felt it wasn’t my place. It’s not my religion I’d be just a spectator so I kept by the fire.
It was odd being surrounded by people but being totally alone. No happy new Year, just the fire. I had some quiet reflections, was really happy then I got a little sad thinking about sad things. Feeling on the downslide I needed a lift, and I had an immense desire to hear some music. I knew the tune, I had my phone, I just didn’t have the headphones…..
I looked up and a kid was beside me with massive beat headphones. I clocked my eyes and asked him if I could borrow them for a song. Well more a gesturing of sorts. Anyway, he got it and I blasted my mind with a song by The Treacherous Orchestra “Numbers” which saved the day.
I had completed the Kohechi Trail of Kumano Kodo, 70km in winter completely unresearched or prepared other than steel toe cap boots, a kilt, ol’ faithful woolly jumper, and a 1973 Karrimor rucksack. And here I was by a mighty fire on the grounds of a sacred temple in Japan on new years eve seeing in 2016. Mission success.
My journey does not end here though. I took leave of Hongu on the 2nd to Osaka where I will be based for the next few months. I intend at a later date to cover the other trails although I feel I may have experienced the best and under pretty uniquely special conditions.
I visited my first art shop today (Jan 4th) and am preparing to start some work in a special Japanese painting style using pigments. This I am very excited by. Combined with my ideas from those long hours in the forest.
As I’ve been hemorrhaging money for the last 2 weeks and I’m about to start a very experimental painting technique that’ll require a unique set of equipment I’ll take the time to remind you I have many lovely paintings and glass works at my base in Glasgow looking for homes. See the works section on this webpage for available paintings and glass or I can arrange a viewing for you, albeit remotely. But it’s perfectly possible. One hanger is already on its way to Japan.
All funds go into the extension & maximization of my time here. So if you have enjoyed this story and look forward to more then you know what to do! I’m dead excited about doing some work here, it’s a shame I’d like to share more of the photos I took but I have to keep something back to work with. Plus I don’t think work is appreciated or valued on a computer screen. Hiking hundreds of meters in the cold and snow and getting a great shot is not equatable to a couple of FB likes. It devalues the whole thing. The magic is lost. I’ve certainly got enough good shots to issue a couple of prints so that is on the cards.
Anyways, that was the tale of my first Japanese adventure and I certainly enjoyed that one,
Let’s see what’s next…..