A recent tour with the Ictus Ensemble enabled me to realize my dream of visiting Japan for the first time. In the middle of our performance schedule was a 2 ½-day block of free time – some of the musicians chose to explore Tokyo, or the beautiful slopes of Mt. Fuji. Others made a day trip to Kyoto to see the temples. I took a room in a traditional Japanese-style hotel (called a Ryokan) for two nights in a gorgeous old street in the heart of historic Kyoto.
It had also long been a dream of mine to go to Mt. Kurama, the mountain where Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, did his spiritual practice of Shugendo that enabled him to develop his formidable spiritual and healing powers. Kurama is located about half an hour by train north of Kyoto, though somewhat complicated to reach from my hotel. As my guide, I had some pages ripped out of a friend’s Lonely Planet Japan book with a tiny map of the Kurama area, an e-mail from my former husband Peter with suggestions where to start my hike and the idea to leave the main trail and take off up the mountain for the true summit, and the help of the owner of the Ryokan (who was rather puzzled why I would want to go up there alone!) The morning for my journey dawned with clear skies and mild temperatures, a perfect day for a trip to the mountains. I knew I needed to take a bus from Kyoto Central Station to Demachiyenagi Station and had a couple of bus numbers and a vague route map in Japanese kanji. After taking out some yen from a money machine at the post office (not as simple as it seems, if you don’t speak Japanese!) and eventually locating the right bus, I was on my way.
Buying my round-trip ticket to Kurama from Demachiyenagi Station was fun, done in a mixture of phrase-book Japanese, English, pointing and smiling. The whole time, I had this wonderful, fresh sense of leaving the known behind and venturing into something completely new. Anything could happen, and that thought filled me with a childlike happiness. The man at the ticket booth handed me a hiking map of the area, only in Japanese of course, with cute little cartoon figures and drawings of temples, trees, dragons, even cranky little pigs regarding a barbecue pit (!) The Kurama train wound through a mountain valley, stopping at several stations and revealing foliage that was just beginning to turn the fiery reds and oranges for which the Kyoto region is famous in the autumn.
Normally while traveling, I do my best to blend in with the locals, but my height and blonde hair betrayed me instantly, not to mention the backpack, camera around my neck, and white sneakers that practically screamed “TOURIST!” At least I wasn’t gawking at a big silly map with cartoon characters on it (oops, that too.) Did it really matter that on that day, I was as much pilgrim as tourist?
After leaving the train at Kibuneguchi Station, one stop before Kurama, I walked up a paved road for about 20 minutes before coming to the village of Kibune. This led to the back entrance of the trail over Mt. Kurama. Most people begin on the Kurama side at the temple site and work their way towards Kibune. At the beginning of the trail was a little booth where I paid 200 yen (about $2) to enter the path – I also picked up a walking stick, for which I was soon grateful.
The beautiful weather meant also that the path shone with a bright sunlight, filtering through trees, giving the nature around me a transcendent, glowing beauty. One of the first things I saw while climbing was a spot with 2 small stone carvings on them, very old and faded. The figure depicted was Fudo Myoo, a key figure in certain sects of esoteric Buddhism. His appearance is fierce, a sword in one hand and rope in the other, with one tooth pointing upwards and another downwards, surrounded by a halo of fire. He is called upon to aid people in staying on their spiritual path, unmoved by temptations of the world, cut free from their Karma and purified in the spirit of fire. Fudo has everything to do with the power of Mt. Kurama, and his shrines are found hidden in the mountain forests as well as near waterfalls. Several years ago, I had an experience of the gifts of Fudo while visiting Madrid just after the terrorist bombings that destroyed Atocha Station and resulted in heavy loss of life – I wrote an article (in German) called The Firebird about what happened to me there which can be found here. We live so much of our lives in our own illusions; Fudo Myoo represents leaving these illusions behind so that we may see ourselves as we truly are. This lesson from Fudo found me in a strange way later on my hike.
The energy on Mt. Kurama was astonishing. Different sites on the mountain had different vibrations – some places were deep and still, others shimmered, some seemed to have a sort of forward-propelling feeling to them, others hummed in an almost audible sensation through my body and mind. These are some of the things that moved me: The ancient cedars, their roots twisting impossibly over the trail, sunlight and shadow bringing them into focus, teaching the need to be grounded in, take nourishment, from the Earth. Patterns of grain in the wood. Contrast of tree to deep blue sky. Moss. Water. Stone. Birdsong. Silence.
Very few people were on the mountain that day, which I consider to be fortunate for the experience of solitude. On my map, I could see that I would soon be coming to the Fudo shrine, and I moved with solemnity and reverent anticipation at what I might see and feel. As I mentioned, I had had the mountain practically to myself ever since entering the western gate and taking my walking stick at Kibune. Just as I arrived at the Fudo shrine, so did a small but steady stream of people coming from the other direction. Suddenly in this silent place everyone was smiling at me and saying Konnichi-wa! and offering to take my picture in front of the temple structures. These Japanese were so amused to see this strange Western lady all by herself that soon we were all laughing. It was totally unexpected. It was what it was. After I moved on up the hill, it came to me that I had been given a lesson there about who I am and about my spiritual path – I am still reflecting upon it.
Later on, around the highest point of the path, I saw another trail that had a chain across it and half a dozen emphatic signs, probably saying “off limits” or some variation thereof. So of course I had to go. It was an extremely steep climb with a good deal of bushwhacking, and I was glad of my walking stick. After about 15 minutes, I came upon a little shrine and behind it a pond; behind the pond was a tall cedar tree perfectly reflected in the surface of the still water. You could turn a photograph upside down and hardly distinguish between the tree and its mirror image. As above, so below. I had the urge to sit down and meditate at the edge of the pool, and then I noticed a woman sitting quietly on a little stone stool deep in meditation herself. I climbed further up the hill, aiming for the summit of the mountain and the small Shakyamuni Buddha statue located there, but I didn’t find it. When I returned to the pool, the woman was still there; I departed, not wanting to disturb her.
Though incredibly beautiful, the main temple site of Kurama-dera seemed somehow anticlimactic after the majesty of the mountain path. After descending a few hundred steps into the town of Kurama, I found a noodle restaurant and refreshed myself before heading to the onsen, or mineral hot spring spa. I spent the end of the afternoon in a pool of deliciously warm water, with a perfect view of the mountain I had just hiked, the sun disappearing behind the foliage.
Taking the train back to Kyoto, gratitude for the day’s adventure brought tears to my eyes. Someday I hope to go back to Mt. Kurama. The mountain is full of mysteries and secrets, and I am sure I only scratched the surface.