Head to Kanto to experience Japan at its most spiritual

Lying in Mount Fuji’s mighty shadow, Kanto and its forests, mountain springs and ancient shrines have long known the footfall of pilgrims. Despite being a stone’s throw from Tokyo, the region is a world away from the frenetic, neon-lit capital.

Saturday, February 29, 2020,
By Oliver Smith
Photographs By Mark Parren Taylor
Around 300,000 people climb Fuji every year.
Around 300,000 people climb Fuji every year.
Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor

Even when you can’t see it, you know it’s there. Its image sits inside your wallet on the 1,000-yen note. Its name is inscribed on cars and cameras, beer bottles and trail bikes. In folktales, it’s a gateway to the Moon and the afterlife beyond. And for many visitors, it’s their first vision of Japan as their plane comes in to land; its white summit puncturing the clouds as the movies stop and the seatbelt signs goes bing.

“I believe everything has a spirit, including Fuji,” says Tadasuke Omori, my mountain guide. “And sometimes, she’s very shy.” I’d met Tadasuke at a visitor centre at the foot of the mountain, on a day when its summit is cloaked in cloud. He tells me a saying: “He who climbs Fuji once is a wise man, but he who climbs twice is a fool”. Tadasuke, having made between 200 and 300 ascents of the 12,390ft summit, proudly considers himself ‘king of the foolish’.

Fuji casts a powerful spell on mountaineers. It also has an almost dangerous ability to hold one’s gaze, distracting motorists when it looms in the windscreen and causing spellbound diners to spill their noodles. But look away and the surrounding Kanto region in which it stands is just as beautiful, spread over hills as crisply contoured as folds of origami, silken mists clinging to their slopes.

You can reach West Kanto from Tokyo in little over an hour, but it feels aeons apart. In place of bullet trains and broadband, you can find broadleaf forests and bubbling springs. Instead of skyscrapers, secluded shrines are cocooned among the cliffs. It’s also a place where travellers can take the true spiritual pulse of Japan.

Formed by an eruption around 10,000 years ago (and dormant only for the past 300), Fuji was for centuries a place for tohai (mountain pilgrimage), where devotion was expressed through climbing skyward. Faiths converged like crosswinds on its holy summit, little Buddha statues kept watch over its crater, while Shinto pilgrims crawled into womb-like lava tubes at the bottom of the mountain, symbolically reborn before their climb.

Today, around 300,000 people climb Fuji every year, and while pilgrims are fewer these days, Tadasuke says even sceptics ascribe supernatural powers to the volcano. Bereaved souls carry portraits of their loved ones up the mountain, returning with sulphur on their boots and solace in their hearts, and for Tadasuke, too, the ascent has powerful meaning.

He tells me about a 42-year-old Singaporean hiker he was guiding some years ago who suffered a heart attack at the seventh station, not far from the summit. Tadasuke performed CPR but to no avail. “You see the best and worst of life on Fuji,” he says. “I met him once for two hours. I think about him on the mountain, and now I climb it for him.”

Outside the summer season, climbing is prohibited on Fuji, so during my visit the mountain exists more as an aloof figure on the Kanto landscape, a presence in the forest canopy among the birds’ nests, or a reflection in a mirror-still lake. Mesmerising in its perfection, it slopes gracefully upwards like an artist’s brushstroke, reigning sovereign over the sky.

Local guide, Tadasuke at the Fujisan World Heritage Center.
Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor

Echoes of days gone by

To the south east lies the town of Hakone, a popular weekend retreat from Tokyo. Like Fuji, it’s a place with wayfaring in its blood; it’s also a famous stop on the Tokaido road, the route between the twin capitals of Kyoto and Tokyo, an M4 on steroids and the busiest transport corridor in Japan. The original Tokaido, however, was a cobbled path travelled at walking pace by pedestrians; a place where samurai marched and porters sang to keep up their spirits. Today, most of the ancient path has been lost, but in the hills above Hakone a tiny fragment survives — still but for passing visitors and falling leaves.

I spend a happy morning walking its mossy steps. On the other side of the hill is the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, a land of neon billboards, electric toilets and a billion jingles. But walking the Tokaido is like opening the pages of old picture-book Japan. Bamboo thickets reverberate with birdsong, and cedar trees sway above me, planted, perhaps, by a kind shogun to provide shade to travellers. Dotted about the forests are little wooden signs; they could say ‘KEEP OUT’ or ‘ASBESTOS’, but to an outsider like me, their Japanese calligraphy is mesmerising, the lines of the characters sprouting and swooping like the branches above them.

Like climbing Fuji, walking the Tokaido has profound meaning in Japanese culture. In the Tokaido’s Edo-era heyday (between 1603 and 1868), Japan was detached from the world. As part of a policy of extreme isolation, foreign travel was banned. Outsiders stayed away and strict rules governed local travel too, with checkpoints meaning few could even leave their own region. As far as most people were concerned, Japan was the entire world — the universe ended at the eastern sea.

During this time, making a journey on the Tokaido was to taste remarkable freedom. Reasons were invented so ‘pilgrims’ could make trips, to drink sake at inns, be entertained by geishas, barter in markets and marvel at unfamiliar shrines. The essence of travel was walking the flagstones of the Tokaido — the only road that led to elsewhere.

“You discover things at walking speed,’ Satoshi Yamamoto says wisely. “Trains, cars and buses are not what travel is about.”

Satoshi is the owner of the last tea house along the Tokaido. It’s been in his family for 13 generations and more than four centuries. In an age of Shinkansen and Airbus, he’s dedicated his life to serving the last travellers walking this old path.

Satoshi’s teahouse is called Amazake Chaya, named after a fermented rice drink served to fortify weary walkers. To step inside is to catch a faint echo of the Edo period, reflected in earthen floors and simmering kettles, tatami mats and china cups. And every day, from 7am to 5.30pm, there’s an almost religious mission to provide shelter to wayfarers, because, as Satoshi says: “There is no Sunday for travellers.”

During Typhoon Hagibis, in October 2019, when the landscapes of Kanto were submerged and trains were derailed, Rugby World Cup matches cancelled and lives lost, Satoshi kept Amazake Chaya open. Only one customer came that day. Rain thrashed down on the thatched roof and wind whipped at the paper screens, but the teahouse evaded the floodwaters, perhaps, Satoshi suggests, because his ancestors knew where to build their business.

“Or perhaps it was because of the protection of gods,” he continues. “People don’t remember them, but there are gods in this landscape.”

Autumn colours on Mount Shichimen are spectacular, with Japanese maple trees taking on vivid reds.
Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor

The power of water

Tamaki Harayama stands upright, a figure of perfect serenity, her hands clasped, her back arched. “Nam myoho renge kyo,” she recites, through pursed lips — the Lotus Sutra, uttered by Buddhists on Mount Shichimen since the 13th century. There’s no quivering in her voice, no shiver down her spine to indicate the gallons of freezing-cold water thundering down onto her head.

“In summer, the water is soft and warm,” says Tamaki, emerging from the waterfall. “In winter, it feels like needles. But the colder the water, the purer I feel. A burden lifts and I have a direction in life.”

Tamaki is taking part in the Japanese practice of misogi (waterfall purification), and in November, the water is Baltic. Shichimen is one of many holy mountains around Fuji, a satellite caught in its divine orbit. It lies, Tamaki explains, on an axis between Fuji and the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal, and its summit offers one of the most easterly viewpoints of Fuji before the great volcano disappears, folded away among the green hills of Japan.

By day, Tamaki works as a teacher in Tokyo, helping Japanese jazz singers and rap artists with their English pronunciation. A lapsed Catholic, she came to Shichimen to “improve her soul”, she explains, and as part of her seven-day retreat she stands under the waterfall for three minutes, twice a day.

“Under the waterfall, I feel a connection with this country,” Tamaki tells me, sipping a steaming cup of Nescafe in a guesthouse beside the torrent. “I truly feel Japanese.”

The spiritual life of Japan is sometimes difficult for outsiders to fathom. Shinto and Buddhist beliefs interweave and coexist; on Shichimen, there are Shinto stories of dragon goddesses inhabiting nearby lakes, while a community of Buddhist monks lives in a temple on the mountaintop. But faith here is often rooted in the natural world; in the power of landscapes to transform the souls who pass through them; in those who climb mountains; in pilgrims who feel the might of waterfalls crashing onto their shoulders.

Tamaki is taking part in the Japanese practice of misogi (waterfall purification).
Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor

Essentials

Getting there & around
Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is the closest airport to the Western Kanto region. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways offer regular connections to Tokyo from London, while British Airways flies up to four times daily to Tokyo airports from Heathrow.

Public transport links Tokyo to many parts of Kanto region. It’s a two-hour train journey from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko station at the northeastern base of Fuji. For more on trains and the JR Tokyo Wide Pass (which covers much of Kanto), click here.

When to go
Mount Fuji’s climbing season is from July to September. However, many people visit Kanto in March or April for cherry blossom season — expect rosy hues on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi-ko in March and April. Autumn colours are also spectacular, with Japanese maple trees taking on vivid reds in October.

How to do it
Heartland JAPAN operates a range of tours around Kanto — its three-day Mount Minobu Spiritual Tour takes in temples and mountains to the west of Fuji.

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