A Weekend in Hokubo: Finding the Spirit of Untouched Japan
I was in the car with a friend recently driving through the area we live in, and she was telling me about how surprised she was at the beauty of the Japanese countryside. Though she'd been to Japan before, until she arrived on JET in August, she had no real idea of just how much more lay beyond the normal places that visitors see.
And considering that I've been here for over a year, and I still gush about my little village, it's a real shame that most people who visit Japan only get to see Tokyo's neon flashing lights or Kyoto's temples with their halls packed with other tourists. Luckily, the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) has realized this and is currently trying to help promote tourism in smaller towns in more remote places.
Thanks to this initiative, this past weekend I had the chance to participate in a tour of a small village called Hokubo located in Okayama Prefecture. About three and a half hours via direct bus from Osaka, it's somehow even more rural than the area I live in and is overflowing with historical charm.
The theme of the weekend was spirituality. Hokubo is home to a disproportionately large number of temples, shrines, and ancient royal tombs, and is thus considered a particularly powerful place. And as we went around biking through the hills, visiting the various sacred places, and meeting people along the way, we learned that there's more to this little town than first meets the eye.
One of our first stops was at Sentoku-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple, where we were greeted by the 23rd generation temple master and guided through three different rituals unique to the sect.
First, we did a type of meditation called ajikan. Focusing on the Sanskrit character A, which represents the essence of life, we spent ten minutes with eyes half-lidded, directing our sight and breath toward an image of the character propped up in front of us (ajikan means "contemplation of the character A" in Japanese).
Next, we moved on to sutra tracing, or shakyo. Shakyo is an ancient practice that originated in China. Marrying religion, literature, and calligraphy, it is seen as a means to purify as well as to express devotion. Supposedly the benefits of shakyo still apply even if you don't understand what you're writing!
Upon finishing, we went into a different hall and took part in an abbreviated version of a ceremony called goma wherein the sutras we had just traced were burned in order to cleanse and request blessings. The entire room was closed off and was lit only by the light of the fire, which grew as the ceremony progressed. The low chanting of the priest and the flames dancing on the walls and reflecting off of the gold artifacts made for such an intensely mesmerizing experience that I almost wouldn't have minded if it had actually lasted for the full two hours that the unabridged ceremony calls for.
The second sacred place that we were shown was a shrine called Kompira Jinja. The shrine is built in front of a large, hill-sized rock, a site which was supposedly chosen due to the fact that a medicine man with mysterious powers had his shop there many centuries ago. Kompira Jinja shares a name with a shrine in Kagawa Prefecture in hopes that that shrine's god will inhabit this shrine as well.
The shrine is more of a complex of smaller shrines. Visitors hoping for good fortune in love are supposed to offer prayers at each of the altars starting from the main one and moving on to the others in a clockwise direction.
Otani Kofun Burial Mound
Another sacred space that we visited was a 1600-year-old tomb (kofun) of a king who once ruled from this area. Thousands of years ago, Hokubo was a major hub of bronze and steel working due to its ties with China. Naturally, that made it pretty darn important. Important enough for four generations of rulers to call it home! This tomb is home to the last of those kings and is built in a similar style to those of the emperors of Japan. It was designated as a national historical site in 2008, and there are a number of others in the area as well.
Jinya means encampment, and though the place where we stayed was a far cry from the rugged, martial conotations that the word "encampment" entails, once upon a time that's what it was. The Nakatsui Jinya, now a quaint little ryokan (traditional inn) was built on the site of an outpost for the Kameyama Clan during the Edo Period.
The jinya normally serves course meals like any other ryokan, but on this occassion, we had the opportunity to cook with the "Mothers" of Hokubo and eat together around a traditional hearth instead. Half of the group was in charge of cooking rice over an outdoor fire, and the other half (including me!) was in the kitchen helping the Mothers make tempura.
Dinner included the tempura and rice along with a root vegetable soup (kenchin-jiru) cooked over the hearth, stewed meat and potatoes, and pickled vegetables. We were told that this kind of meal is something that the local people might eat on a normal day. And it really did feel like we were part of a big family. All throughout dinner, people that we had met during the day as well as some that we hadn't yet seen popped in to grab a bite, sit, and laugh with us.
On Sunday morning, we gathered in the space where we had dinner the night before to learn how to make shimenawa from the Hokubo "Fathers." Shimenawa is the name of a sacred rope made from rice straw used in the Shinto tradition to denote sacred spaces or contain evil spirits. There are many different forms in all sizes (some several meters long!) used in various capacities. You can see them at Shinto shrines, wrapped around particularly important rocks or trees, and even inside homes. The ones we helped to make are going to be used during the New Year celebrations.
We watched the Fathers take the dry stalks of the rice plant and skillfully twist them between their palms to form tight, seamless ropes. It looked simple enough, but when it was our turn to give it a go, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Though it made us feel better to learn that they had been making these since 1942!
It was incredibly humbling to get to experience so much of the spiritual side of Japanese culture in Hokubo, but as we came to learn over the course of the weekend, the real Spirit of Hokubo lies not in its places, but in its people.
From the very beginning, we were welcomed with big smiles and open hearts that added another dimension to the tour. As interesting as the temple experience was, it would have been rather dry without the hand made sweets and light-hearted conversation from the priest's wife that awaited us as when we finished. As delicious as dinner was, it would only have been half as good had the mischievous Mothers of Hokubo not been there goading us to generously sample our creations as we cooked alongside them. And as fun as the tour was, it would have been meaningless without the team of people guiding us through obscure mountain paths, pointing out little details of Hokubo history and daily life and really taking care of us.
Everything that we did, you can find in Tokyo or Kyoto or a dozen places more accessible than Hokubo, but I guarantee it wouldn't be the same. Because of Hokubo's size and isolation, everything is truly authentic. It's no one's job to show tourists how to write sutras or make tempura. These are normal people doing what they do on a daily basis simply giving you a look into their lives making Hokubo the definition of authenticity.
This tour was one of the very first steps that the town is taking to promote tourism in the area, and while they're excited to further invite people in, things aren't quite at the point where they're ready to officially begin promoting to foreigners. So really, now is the time to visit while Hokubo is still largely untouched, and I can't recommend it enough!
A huge mahalo to the Hokubou Tourism Board and JTB for sponsoring this trip and providing images for this post!