If you want a deep dive into Japan’s spiritual heart you can’t go wrong with a visit to Tohoku. I came to Tohoku looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, a break for the mind as well as the body. I left with far more than I could ever have imagined. If you’re looking for it, a deep, spiritual thread runs through the essence of Japanese culture - in the environment, the culture and even the food.I love travel because it connects you to yourself, others and the natural world around you, and my trip to Tohoku offered me the chance to do all three. From learning about the philosophy of kendo, to meditating with monks and walking with the Yamabushi, this is an experience I’ll never forget and one that left me uplifted and full of renewed energy.
For in that moment you do not think,
a cry of life,
above a spark that could change everything.
Reborn, not burnt,
by the flames beneath.
- Pip Stewart
Mastering the art of acceptance.
If there is one word to sum up my time with the Yamabushi it would be acceptance. In an otherwise silent hike the only words I could utter to my Yamabushi guide, Kazuhiro Hayasaka (named for Yamabushi, Ikko), were “uke tamou” (“I accept”) to his prompt of “let’s begin.”
Acceptance is at the heart of the Yamabushi’s practise. In nature you can’t battle against rain or thunder; it just happens. This was the lesson I was meant to learn as I followed in the footsteps of my Yamabushi guide as we trekked over three spiritual mountains in the Tohoku region. You have to accept your situation, even if it’s uncomfortable, and accept things, and yourself, as they are.
I hoped my Yamabushi guide would also accept that my pure white robes would be returned somewhat more muddy than when I was handed them…
The Yamabushi were traditionally mountain hermits who used nature as a way of healing. Today the practise has opened up and even Tokyo’s busy professionals take part in the ritual - which can last from a few days to a week - as way of rebalancing themselves.
The three mountains, Hagurosan, Gassan and Yudonosan, represent the present, past and future. Rivers are a place to let you wash away your regrets and worries. Jumping over fire at the end of the practise is a chance to be reborn, start afresh, stronger and more in tune with yourself and nature.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly feeling zen when we set off. I love to take pictures and having to leave my phone behind was a struggle.
We were walking past some incredible vistas from huge forests of pine trees that gave you a sense of how small we really are to the beautifully crafted, 1000 year-old “five storey pagoda”. There was one particular moment that left me itching for my phone - as the clouds parted along the path before us, mist seemed to emerge from the mountain path under us. The sun glinted off the mountainous peaks in the distance, all different shades of grey against the warm yellow of the sun. It was breathtaking. Unable to take a picture, I stopped. I focused on the shape of the mountains, the colours, the feeling of that moment. In just a few minutes the grey mist from below slowly closed the route before us, the illuminated palette becoming a grey curtain. It was magical. The irony of the situation didn’t go unnoticed - I would never have had appreciated it so much had I had a phone in hand.
Before we set off I was told by my Yamabushi guide, Mr.Hayasaka, to “focus on nature” and to “try not to think of anything else.” Honestly, this lasted about a minute before my monkey mind jumped to what I was doing in the next few weeks, problems I was trying to solve, the people I love - and potentially most important of all - what I was having for dinner. As I pondered the pros and cons of udon noodles over fresh sushi I realised I was not where I was meant to be - present. I started to focus on the rocks, the different colours underfoot, the way my feet sounded as they hit different terrain, the rustle of the grass as my walking stick brushed it, the splosh as it landed in a puddle. I realised as I walked that I was both travelling through the landscape and also part of it.
The experience left a deep mark on me. Would I go back and do it all again? There’s surely only one way to answer this questions. “Uke tamou.”
“A tree floats on water” - Japanese proverb.
Bring out your inner Samurai.
“It looks like dancing”, I commented to Sensei, my kendo teacher Noriaki Naganuma, for the day, as he and his partner finished a demonstration of the practise.
“Thank you,” he replied, “that is a great compliment as kendo is all about flow.”
Another activity is snowrafting. Drifting through snow aboard a boat is not something you can experience in snowless regions. Snowrafting travels at a slow pace, allowing those on board to enjoy the ski area scenery as if cruising down a Venetian canal. You will find yourself slowly relaxing as the white world flows past.
When I told I was going to learn the art of kendo, Samurai warriors sprung to mind and I assumed by the end of the session I would be slightly more badass than when I started. The lesson in badassery, however began with bowing and I quickly learned that respect infused the practise - respect for your partner, yourself and also your “sword”. I was struck by how delicately it had to be picked up. Each movement, each bow, had such care.
After Sensei showed me some of the basic moves, moves he (and the young group of “pea-warriors” I was with) executed with far more grace than me, I was helped me into the kendo robes and helmet. Under my mask I wore a headscarf that read: “A tree floats on water.”
Initially, my whole body was stiff as I began sparring with my partner.
“Relax until the point of contact” I was told. After each strike you should return to your starting position. Sensei explained that whatever takes place in the match, rather like in life, returning to where you started helps you to reset.
As I gradually began to master the fine balance between relaxation and a powerful strike, part of me wanted to celebrate the learning. I didn’t dare, however. Before we started Sensei had explained that in kendo you can’t celebrate success - even in the highest levels of the sport, judges have the ability to take away a win if you’re obviously celebrating because it goes against the principle of respect in the sport. That notion really struck a cord with me. It was a beautiful way of accepting that sometimes we are up in life, and sometimes we are down, and that your success shouldn’t come at the expense of others.
“I think kendo helps you to become a nicer person in life”, Sensei told me.
While I was prepared for the fact that I would learn skills in the lesson I didn’t anticipate how much my confidence would grow. During the practise I literally began to find my voice - unexpectedly, as I find asserting myself in life quite difficult.
Sensei told me as I brought down the “sword” on my opponent that I was to shout from my stomach either “men” (face) or “dou” (torso) in a long and loud voice.
Initially, this started off very weak and apologetic. At one point, characteristically British, I followed up a wallop to the head with “I’m so sorry!”
You’re also meant to strike your opponent and then carry on straight at them, whereas I found myself dancing out of their way. I realised, when sensei pointed this out, that perhaps this behavior was characteristic of my actions in life too. By the end of the session, however, I was full on lion roaring and shouting from the depths of my soul. I found it massively liberating.
“Kendo helps you to grow daily,” Sensei said, “just like you were nervous to put the helmet on initially, you gradually become more comfortable with the fear and grow each day as a result.”
When I left the dojo, I was given the headscarf emblazoned with the words “a tree floats on water.” It’s a phrase I will always treasure.
For me, it encapsulates the spirit of the Samurai - strength comes in many forms and, above all else, great growth can come from developing respect for the people and things around you.
Tohoku is one of those rare, wonderful places that offers the traveller what they seek to find. From relaxing hot springs to delicious, fireside local cuisine served with incredible hospitality, or tranquil temples complete with zen tea ceremonies - Tohoku truly has a rich and varied culture to offer visitors.
Pip Stewart is a British journalist, explorer and poet. Pip believes that: “Everyone can teach you something” and that connection is good for the soul. She has cycled halfway around the world, achieved a world-first paddle through the Amazon jungle and has battled, and now raises awareness of, leishmaniasis - a flesh-eating parasite.
Website | Instagram | Twitter
Please Choose Your Language
Browse the JNTO site in one of multiple languages