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JAPAN


ABOVE: Views of the Kumano Kodo trek LEFT: A forest therapist plays her flute FAR LEFT: The Shingon Buddhist monk who led the meditation session OPPOSITE: A smaller hall beside the main hall of the Kumano Hongu Taisha


roots, vegetation and copious amounts of tofu (to which I have an aversion), it was prepared with a balance of five colours and flavours. Nothing went to waste; every last piece of each local ingredient was incorporated into this meal. So as we sat cross-legged, once again, our delicious meal was gracefully served – and ungracefully polished off. I have never mastered the art of using chopsticks. And, sadly, I still can’t stomach tofu. Staying in the spiritual heart of Japan,


Wakayama, we began our Mount Koya trek; navigating the dense humid forest of giant cedar and cypress trees on the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo route. It’s one of only two pilgrimages in the world registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site (Spain’s Way of St James is the other). We followed in the footsteps of ancient emperors who had embarked


on pilgrimages thousands of years ago to purify themselves. Having been cleansed, I was going to be purified. ‘I’ll be squeaky clean soon’, I thought.


Joining us on this purifying walk was


our very own ‘forest therapist’ who, after an hour of hard slog in the airless heat, encouraged us to rest and experience the calming scent of trees, the sounds of the birds and the slight beams of sunshine through the foliage, while lying on cedar log-like beds that seemed to magically appear as we stumbled across a clearing in the forest. They call this ‘forest bathing’ or, in Japanese, shinrin-yoku. As we settled on our logs to meditate, our therapist pulled out her flute and began to play a melancholy tune. While the experience seemed surreal, and far from any usual holiday experiences, I quickly realised that money couldn’t buy


the incredible sense of ease I was feeling. These sessions can be booked by contacting kumano1221@amail.plala.or.jp.


PENSIONER POWER


After our so-called bath, we limbered up for the 538 stone stairs leading up to the Seiganto-ji Temple. ‘I can do that’, I thought to myself, but what I didn’t expect was the 70-degree incline (which felt more like 90 in the heat) and the intensely suffocating humidity.


For a frizzy-haired, unfit gal such as


myself, this climb couldn’t have been more out of my comfort zone. And believe me, I really didn’t mind being overtaken by local pensioners, who smiled at me, encouraging me to keep climbing. I was also glad for their morale-boosting support because with every step I took, the mountain views got better and better,


aspire september 2017 — 47


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