As we hurried through the bustling underground of Nagoya station, sweat began to accumulate under our down jackets. Our shinkansen was scheduled to depart within a matter of minutes, and as we ascended the flight of stairs to the platform, we were met by the cold winter air.
My Australian boyfriend Robbie and I had spent the last week in Nanasato, Saitama Prefecture, visiting my family. Nanasato is a small suburb found on the outskirts of Tokyo. Many of my childhood winter breaks were spent in Nanasato, and it felt surreal having Rob visit my grandparents’ home. We visited the local jinja (shrine) and walked along the narrow familiar streets together. After a week of intense introductions, and a comical amount of translating, we packed a small bag and set off for a weekend away in Hakone. We were eager for some down time, and Hakone served as a short escape from our hectic schedule.
Hakone is renowned for its rich cultural, spiritual and historical landmarks. Its proximity to Tokyo and its picturesque valleys and mountains make it an ideal destination for both international and local tourists.
On board the shinkansen or bullet train, we breathed a sigh of relief. The sleek tube-like train departed precisely on the hour, and travelled up to 320km/h. The carriage was spacious and clean, and during our journey a woman pushed a trolley laden with bento boxes, canned beers and senbei (rice crackers) down the aisle.
When I peered through our window, I was met with a blur of perpetually flickering colours. It felt strangely kinetic compared to the static carriage.
The shinkansen is a testament to Japan’s reputation as a global giant in infrastructure and electronics. Japan is typically depicted in popular culture as a Ghost in the Shell-like futuristic conglomerate. An image of a city shrouded by concrete high-rise buildings and neon flashing lights may come to mind, yet beyond these brutalist depictions, is a culture with a deep reverence for its natural elements.
At the heart of Japanese culture is the ancient Shinto religion. Shintoism is a polytheistic religion that coexists with Buddhism and Christianity as well as other shamanistic practices. Their kami or spirits are personified by the natural elements and as a result garden and forest sanctuaries dedicated to shrines are found in both remote and busy city areas. Unlike other religions, there are no sacred scriptures, with the focus instead on ritual practices.
Most Japanese families have a kamidana (spirit shelf) in their home; a small shrine built for worship. When I would visit my grandparents’ home in Nanasato, offerings of sake (rice wine) and salt would be left for the kami.
When my ojiichan (grandfather) departed from this world, a new ritual was introduced. Each morning my obaachan (grandmother) would leave offerings of water, tea, and fruit at the butsudan, a small cabinet-like Buddhist altar, for the deceased. She would then carefully light an incense stick, ring a small bell and as she bowed her head and softly shut her eyes, she would make a prayer.
As my mother would say, “You live life as a Shinto, and you die as a Buddhist.”
My own beliefs and practices are a variant of hers, and as we approached Odawara station, I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for my heritage.
I excitedly squeezed Rob’s hand as we left the small station. We had organised to stay at The Mount View Hakone Inn, located in the Sengokuhara area, which was approximately a 50-minute bus trip from the station.
As we waited at the bus stop, I noticed an eclectic range of people around us; a small older Japanese couple, and tourists with their backpacks and suitcases. The green bus pulled into the stop like clockwork, and a bus attendant in a uniform ushered everyone on. He was an older gentleman, yet this didn’t stop him from assisting the foreigners with their luggage. Carefully he mounted the large bags, one on top of the other in a narrow makeshift compartment on the bus, his pace never faltering.
“Hai, shuppatsu shimasu,” he announced wispily. We are departing.
The bus drove past the central strip of Hakone Yumoto: a collection of izakaya’s, Japanese style bars; soba-ya’s, thin noodle joints; and omiyage–tens (gift stores) selling traditional sweets. And as the town centre receded from view, a green expanse of mountainous terrain and wild yellow grass appeared before us.
When we arrived at our ryokan, a traditional Japanese style inn, two receptionists greeted us and bowed, their identical mauve uniforms camouflaged against the decor. The lobby area looked formal, with an outdated ‘80s feel.
The immaculate presentation and polite demeanour of our hosts served as a sharp reminder of Japan’s incredibly elaborate social fabric. Another bow was given as they showed us to the elevators, and I was immediately transported to the time my obaachan had me greet her friend. With her firm hand on my lower back, she guided me up and down like a puppeteer, and I was caught in what felt like an endless dance of bowing.
Propriety is central to Japanese culture and is often a by-product of Shinto customs. This decorum becomes particularly evident when bathing in their hot springs.
With over 25, 565 onsens (mineral hot springs) in Japan, their onsens have historically served therapeutic, entertainment and religious purposes. The origins of onsen culture are unclear, however it was first referenced in the Nihon Shoki, an official text written in 720 CE, that records the legends and myths of kami and early emperors in Japan.
As we had travelled to Hakone to relax and unwind, we eagerly made our way to the onsen floor. Typically, there are two communal bathing areas, one for women and one for men. These areas each have their own dressing rooms, and short shower stalls with stools are provided. The etiquette of washing yourself lightly before entering a bath is rooted in religious ritual and associated with water purification. As early as the sixth century Buddhist monks used spring water to wash away spiritual ‘dirt’.
Many tourists find communal bathing daunting. Rob had trepidation about going alone into the onsen, so prior to our arrival at the ryokan we had made a private booking, which many ryokans accommodate.
The private bathing area was small but tranquil. There was a single rotenburo, an outdoor bath which looked out at a bright green forest of bamboo. White steam floated seamlessly above the hot water, and a continual stream of water cascaded into the wooden tub. When the heat became overwhelming, we wet our small towels with cold water, wrung them out, and neatly folded them over our heads.
The practice of bathing communally promotes amity and is referred to as hadaka no tsukiai. In Saitama, we would head down to the local onsen where my auntie worked at night. My mother, sister, obaachan and I would sit side by side in the shower stalls, and as we washed, we would exchange different cleansers and shampoos. We would then sit silently and bathe together.
This silence was broken when a strand of my hair would come loose and my mother would sternly say, “kichinto shite”. Tidy yourself up.
The following morning, we took a boat over Lake Ashi and headed to Hakone-jinja. Originally constructed in the Nara period (757), the shrine is home to kami that can instil good fortune and safety.
When we got off at the port at Moto-Hakone, in the spirit of the holidays, we purchased two cold Asahi beers from a vending machine. We sat down at a bench which looked out along the great stretch of water and cracked open our beers.
“Kampai,” we said in unison. Cheers.
Rob and I walked along the lake, where big cedar trees covered in green moss towered over us creating a canopy of shade. We followed a narrow pathway along the water’s edge until we crossed a small wooden bridge and were met with the sight of the bright red torri (gateway) that appeared to float in the water. The trail then veered towards a set of steep stone steps leading up the mountain. Scattered along the mountain were red lanterns that guided us towards the shrine.
The density of the surrounding trees blocked out the sounds of the road below, and all that could be heard was the crunch of gravel beneath our feet.
After 20 minutes of walking we reached the shrine. It was a quaint red structure with a dark tiled roof that curved up at the corners. Beside the shrine was a trickling basin of water and wooden cups. Rob and I filled the wooden cups with water and rinsed our mouths and hands to purify ourselves before visiting the shrine.
We summoned the kami by pulling down on the long rope and ringing the bell. We each threw in a 5-yen coin, clapped our hands twice, made a prayer to the kami and gave a deep long bow.
Our pilgrimage left us in a thoughtful state and the serenity of the walk and the concealed area on the mountain enhanced the feeling of solitude. Our weekend had been peaceful and culturally reflective, and we felt glad we had visited Hakone.
As we backed away from the shrine, the next pilgrims replaced our spots, continuing the endless dance of bowing.