A poetic wander on Japan’s Basho trail

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“Fleas and lice did bite / And I’d hear the horse pass water / Near my bed at night.” Not the most alluring slogan for a holiday destination, perhaps, but in Japan, this famous line pulls in an estimated 10,000 visitors a year. And the numbers are still growing. Among them can now be counted our group of 12 walkers and guide, Giorgio. We sit cross-legged on traditional tatami straw mats around a crackling wood fire. In front of us hangs a metal cooking pot in which a soupy broth (dashi) bubbles and steams beguilingly.

It was in this very house – in fact, in this very same ancient beamed gallery, if the horse in the corner is anything to go by – that these lines were written by the revered 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho. His famous travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a classic of Japanese literature. “Basho and his disciple, Sora, stayed here for three days,” the ever-energetic, all-knowing Giorgio tells us. “The howling wind and the torrential rain on the slippery mountain trail made it impossible to leave.”

We are following the route that Basho and his fellow poet and diarist Sora took in 1689, visiting the ancient sites they saw and then so memorably described. The route, from Tokyo (then called Edo) north to Matsushima on the Sea of Japan – with its surreal bay of 260 pine-covered islands – and then inland over the mountains and down the west coast to the old imperial capital of Kyoto, stretched for a distance of about 2,500 kilometres and took them 156 days to complete.

In Basho’s day, the route had considerable dangers. Not only were the trails narrow and the mountains high, but the land of Oku, literally “within”, was also infested with bandits. Basho never fully expected to return to his humble abode in ancient Edo.

Today Japan is a densely populated country, and we are cherry-picking the most famous sites associated with Basho’s journey on walks along quiet country lanes, forest trails and mountain footpaths that vary between 8km and 24km a day.

A multinational mix of couples and singletons, the group quickly bonds thanks to our love of walking and a desire to experience Japan’s rural landscapes and fascinating cultural heritage up close and personal. At night we stay in cosy, traditional ryokans, sitting cross-legged on the floor wearing kimonos and eating with chopsticks that rapidly begin to feel more natural than a knife and fork.

Our rooms are masterpieces of space management, our futon beds being laid out for us as we bathe in communal onsens and later embark on a voyage of gastronomic discovery, which includes everything from the most delicious soups and exquisitely prepared sashimi to daikon, roasted tofu, roasted eel, clams and agar-agar in a vinegar soy sauce.

By day, it feels like we are hopping between two parallel universes. Catapulted between walks by Japan’s famously efficient bullet trains, one moment we are talking to a robot in a station concourse and marvelling at Japan’s enthusiastic embrace of modern technology, the next we are climbing the 2,466 steps of Mount Haguro, one of Japan’s most sacred hilltop shrines. Its forested slopes, chasms, waterfalls and 1,000-year-old cypress trees are interspersed by an ancient purification bridge over the Harai-gawa River. Here stand a 600-year-old, five-storey pagoda and wayside shrines to the gods of everything, from agriculture and fishing to health, wealth, marriage and even literary glory. In Basho’s time, the breathtaking temple complex was the centre of the Shugendo religion, which joined Japan’s two main religious traditions: Shintoism (the ancient animist tradition) and Buddhism. Shinto gods have occupied the most beautiful sections of the country’s landscapes since ancient times, so it is no coincidence that many of the best walking trails in Japan are also pilgrimage trails.

The Kumano Kodo trail, in the mountains south-east of Osaka, has been home to first Shinto and then Buddhist shrines for more than 1,500 years, and its thousands of annual pilgrims have included several emperors. Now it has also been awarded Unesco World Heritage status, following in the footsteps of its Spanish counterpart: the Camino de Santiago. Like the Route of Santiago de Compostela, the Kumano Kodo is a network of trails, all of which wind through the stunningly beautiful Kii Peninsula on the island of Honshu, and visit the three Grand Shrines of Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and our final destination Nachi Taisha, where a sacred waterfall emerges from the ancient forests.

Our guide is Kumiko Tabata, who joins us one morning as we rise early to accompany the monks for a guided meditation session, and to witness the sacred Goma fire ritual at the Koyasan temple. The hypnotic chanting of the monks washes over us as we are given instruction in how to calm the mind while letting go of its ceaseless chatter.

“Koyasan is like a lotus leaf surrounded by eight peaks,” Kumiko tells us. “It was founded 12 centuries ago by the monk Kobo Daishi, and is now the centre of Shingon [or Esoteric] Buddhism, a faith with a wide following throughout Japan.”

Later, we take the 2km path to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Surrounded by innumerable graves and shrines amid the centuries-old cedar trees, we watch the daily ritual of offering food to Kobo Daishi, who is believed to be in a state of eternal meditation that began 1,200 years ago. It was the first of many such powerful experiences as we followed the trail deeper into the mountains. Time and again, we ritually asked for blessings at wayside shrines on mountain pathways leading to sacred waterfalls or emerged into sunlit plateaus overlooking the surrounding mountains.

At the main temples, we were never quite sure we had mastered the rituals of purification (washing the hands, clapping twice to waken the gods, bowing, ringing the sanctuary bell), but no one seemed to mind. In Japan, strict doctrine is less important than a respect for spiritual traditions, whatever form they may take.

Other highlights on the trail included Oyunohara, where we blinked in disbelief at the Torii gate leading to the sacred shrine. Standing nearly 35 metres tall and more than 40 metres wide, it is the largest in the world. Fifteen minutes away, at the geological thermal wonder on the Oto River, hot spring water comes bubbling to a crystal-clear surface.

But perhaps the moment that will stay with me the longest was the day we visited one of the many Zen gardens we encountered on our tour. Also known as the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, Ryoan-ji in Kyoto is probably the most famous Zen garden in the world, with its 15 enormous stones placed inside 248 square meters of polished white gravel. It is said that the rocks of the garden are arranged so that only 14 of the stones can be seen from any one angle unless the viewer has attained enlightenment, at which point all 15 stones can be seen. At first this assertion held true as I moved around the viewing deck, but suddenly, I was convinced I could see all 15 rocks. Even though it may well have been a delusion, the thought that I had benefited so immensely from my immersion into the spiritual ocean of Japan’s pilgrimage paths made me happy.

The walking tours of Japan

Writer Richard Madden's walking tour was organised by the Japanese National Tourist Office in collaboration with Walk Japan. Walk Japan's itineraries are fully guided, with an average four to six hours of walking each day. The maximum group size is 12.

Basho Tour: Narrow Road to the North

This nine-day tour follows in the footsteps of the 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho, visiting sites described in his travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The tour costs 454,000 Japanese yen (Dh14,480) and includes accommodation and most meals.

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Tour

The Kumano Kodo Trail is one of only two Unesco World Heritage-listed pilgrimage routes (along with Santiago de Compostela in Spain). The nine-day tour crosses the little-known Kii Peninsula on the island of Honshu, which has been home to first Shinto and then Buddhist shrines for more than 1,500 years. The tour costs ¥362,000 (Dh11,648) and includes accommodation and most meals.

Nakasendo Way

Linking original capital Kyoto with current capital Tokyo across the interior of Japan, the Nakasendo is one of Japan’s most ancient highways. This 11-day Nakasendo Way tour follows some of the best-preserved parts of the old road deep into the mountains. The tour costs ¥472,000 (Dh15,188) and includes accommodation and most meals.

Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage Trail

Following this 1,200 year-old pilgrimage trail, famous for its 88 temples on the sparsely populated and beautiful Shikoku Island, this trail is dedicated to Kobo Daishi, the monk who introduced Buddhism to Japan. The 11-day tour follows some of the most scenic and best-preserved sections. The tour costs ¥484,000 (Dh15,575) and includes accommodation and most meals.

Kyoto Walking Tour

A fully guided two-day tour of Kyoto, the home of the imperial court for 11 centuries before it was removed to Tokyo in the late 19th century. The tour explores both the famous and less well-known areas that made Kyoto the cultural capital of Japan. It costs ¥78,000 (Dh2510) and includes two nights in B & B accommodation, two lunches and entrance fees.

Tokyo Walking Tour

Exploring both the contemporary modern metropolis and the roots of its ancient history, this two-day tour focuses on the reasons for the city’s existence and how it came to be the centre of Japanese political and economic power. The tour costs ¥78,000 (Dh2510) and includes two nights in B & B accommodation and all entrance fees.

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