Follow five of Asia’s most majestic pilgrimages – from Japan’s snow country, to the mountainous vistas of Tibet and Sri Lanka, and trace religious passages through India and Turkey
Text Sophie Ibbotson
There is a Japan beyond the hectic city life of Tokyo, the technology, and the stereotypes of geishas and men in suits. We often speak of looking at the bigger picture, and rightly so. In Japan, this means venturing beyond the comforts of the cities, exploring the rural hinterland, and having the luxury of time to do so.
I found Takuya in the labyrinth that is Tokyo Station. Once you’ve been swallowed up inside this gargantuan maze, you have no idea whether it is night or day. A guide at Walk Japan, Takuya, too, is far from at home in this epicentre of urban chaos, and so he spends the winter months out in the mountains, sharing the quieter parts of his homeland with guests.
From January to March, and sometimes after, Japan’s aptly named snow country is a winter wonderland. Though there are some excellent and well-publicised ski resorts in the country, few foreigners realise that Japan receives some of the heaviest snowfall in the world, comparable to that in Patagonia, Alaska, and the Canadian Rockies. The difference is, however, that whilst those areas are sparsely populated, one-third of Japan’s population lives in areas where at any one time the snow can be up to seven-metres deep. The environment is extreme, but people living here have adapted remarkably well, and Takuya is passionate about reviving ancient pilgrimage routes and forging new paths through Japan’s magical, wintery wonderland.
A party of 15, we boarded the Shinkansen bullet train and raced northwest from Tokyo to Nagano, the concentration of skyscrapers giving way to low-rise development and then ultimately to rural areas. The hills around Nagano city were already dusted with snow. As we left the train tracks behind and zigzagged by bus into the mountains, the snow began to deepen.
Our destination was the ancient pilgrimage site of Togakushi, a thickly forested plateau whose trees cloak five Shinto shrines. Cut off to vehicles in the winter months, the only way to reach these shrines is on foot through the snow, so we donned flat plastic snow shoes over our walking boots, sinking into every step. At first it felt like walking in diving flippers – ungainly and hilarious for onlookers – but as we slowly mastered the technique, stamping our toes into each snow drift so that the metal teeth gave grip, progress became noticeably easier.
Gingerly, we tromped on to the pilgrims’ guesthouse, a large registered cultural property with a thick thatched roof and traditional guest rooms furnished with bamboo mat flooring. The priest in charge, a former rally driver, welcomes relatively few pilgrims these days, but he greeted us with warmth and tea. Casting off our boots and snow shoes in the drying room, there was an initial urge to scramble to enter the onsen, a communal bath fed by a natural hot spring. But as you’re expected to bathe au naturale, we curbed our enthusiasm in exchange for bashful hesitancy. Not knowing exactly where to look, and unable to make eye contact with one another, we slid into our own corners of the bath, wonderfully hot, but feeling somewhat embarrassed. In the days to come, we’d have to get over such juvenile prudishness.
Togakushi’s central shrine, Chusha, is set amidst a grove of cedar trees. A striking building with a greyish-white wooden facade, it is unusual in its extent of decoration; Shinto shrines are typically plain. The reason for this comparative opulence is that it was originally a Buddhist temple, but the devotees who worshipped here were pressured by political forces to change their faith some time in the 19th century. Here, both traditions are inextricably, and beautifully, entwined.
With every step of this snow trek pilgrimage, we learnt new stories. Each tree, each river, each humble shrine, has its legends, and Tokuya recalls them with enthusiasm. A wild woman, who was both a bandit and a murderer, was feared by pilgrims who thought her to be a demon. She was purportedly transformed on this very spot and became a Buddhist nun – the goddess of pilgrims and travellers. Another legend has it that a hunter pursuing a bear wounded his target and failed to kill it, but it led him through the snow to a spring with healing properties. And so, the tales go on.
People here have snowshoed for centuries, but with far simpler shoes. At Mori No Ie (‘The House in the Woods’), we cast our plastic snowshoes aside for a few hours, and instead wore bamboo kanjiki. Far lighter, we could move nimbly over short distances, but our legs soon grew weary; as with a smaller surface area, each step sunk deeper into the snow.
Beyond the bright lights of Tokyo is another Japan, older, more beautiful, and infinitely more intriguing. Nature, not man, dictates the rhythm of the seasons here, the snowfall creating striking, dramatic vistas, and also shaping a unique form of Japanese culture. When you embark on such a pilgrimage, there is a tendency to think that you are stepping back in time, but such places, these experiences, are timeless – as much a part of Japan’s present as of its past.
The Walk Japan Snow Country Trek is available between January and March.
The Togakushi shrines are located northwest of Nagano.
Walk Japan offers coordinated trips with a meet and greet in Tokyo. The writer flew with Japan Airlines to Tokyo (www.jal.com), and caught the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano.
Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
The sun peaked over the horizon, and in a matter of minutes, the darkness which had cloaked me for hours vanished, replaced with a warm, orange glow. Though a good sized crowd was gathered at the summit, you could
have heard a pin drop, such was the silent reverence. You can climb Adam’s Peak in daylight hours, and many people do, but pilgrims typically prefer to walk through the last hours of the night to catch the sunrise at the top. The theme of darkness overcome by light is recurrent in many faiths, and here it seems particularly appropriate as Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus all journey to the mountain to pray. Visitors of no faith come too, but the experience seems particularly poignant for believers.
For the followers of the Abrahamic faiths, it was here that Adam first set foot on earth when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden, having eaten the forbidden fruit. An oversized footprint, nearly two metres in length and cut into the rock near the summit is, for Buddhists, the mark left by the left foot of the Buddha; for Hindus, that same footprint belongs to Lord Shiva. Adam’s Peak is, according to local Tamil legends, also Mount Trikuta, described in the Ramayana Hindu epic as the capital of the demon king, Ravana.
I climbed Adam’s Peak in April, at the peak of the pilgrimage period, and like my Buddhist companions, I made the journey barefoot as a sign of humility. Starting around 2am, we opted for the Hatton trail because although it is steep, it is significantly shorter than the other routes. Our way was lit by tiny lights along the path, as well as by the near-full moon and stars. We climbed step after rough step, hewn into the rock or bolstered with stone and concrete, and made our way through the forested mountainside. There are rumoured to be wild animals in the forest, including leopards and elephants, but thankfully they keep their distance from the path and those who climb along it.
There are nature-made pitstops to rest along the way, flanked by tea and snack stalls. There is also a chance to stop at the modern Peace Pagoda, erected on the mountain in 1978. Though certain sites are of particular significance to one religious community or another, all are welcome to stop, rest, reflect, and pray. To this end, Adam’s Peak stands tall as an ecumenical beacon in a world where religious tolerance is sadly often found wanting.
The best time to climb is between December and May, and you will need to allow at least three hours to reach the top.
Adam’s Peak is in the southern highlands of Sri Lanka, close to the Nuwara Eliya hill station.
Best of Lanka (www.bestoflanka.com) offers a number of trekking and cultural tours, including a guided ascent of Adam’s Peak. The closest international airport is Colombo.
Mount Kailash, Tibet
Mountains – the earthly points closest to the sky gods – have been holy places since ancient times, and one of the tallest of those peaks still holds us enthralled. At 6,638 metres, Mount Kailash, or Gangs Rinpoche (‘precious jewel of snows’), is a sacred site for four different religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Bon. Hindus believe Lord Shiva resides at the mountain’s summit; for Jains, the neighbouring mountain, Ashtapada, is where the first sage attained nirvana. Mount Kailash has both spiritual and historical significance for Buddhists – it is the home of the Buddha, representing supreme bliss, and it was also visited by the tantric Buddhist teacher Guru Rinpoche. Followers of Bon consider the mountain to be the source of all spiritual power.
In spite of its understandable allure for mountaineers, Mount Kailash has never been climbed. It has been said by the people of the Ngari region that ‘Only a man entirely free of sin could climb Mount Kailash. And he wouldn’t have to actually scale the sheer walls of ice to do it – he’d just turn himself into a bird and fly to the summit.’ But the reality is not due to a lack of climbing expertise or inclination amongst climbers, but rather a ban on climbing it, going back to 2001. Mount Kailash is, it seems, too holy a site to be summited, in the eyes of the Chinese government.
If you do visit Mount Kailash, it must be as a pilgrim, as the faithful have done for thousands of years. Circumambulating the base of the mountain on foot is said to bring good fortune. The route is just over 50 kilometres long. You should not venture up onto the slopes: they are considered too holy to be tainted by the feet of man. Hindus and Buddhists make their pilgrimage in a clockwise direction; Jains and Bon proceed counterclockwise. The direction you take will likely be dictated by the faith of your guide.
The most determined of pilgrims complete the circuit in a single day, and if you are fit and walking fast, this is just about possible. The terrain is uneven, and if you do not acclimate, the altitude will take its toll. It’s better to allow three days or more. Accommodation is in modest guesthouses and tents.
If you are tired of walking, you can ride a pony, although your own fatigue might pale into insignificance when you see devotees prostrating with every step, a physically gruelling regimen which increases the duration of the circuit to a month.
The pilgrimage should be taken between May and October, and you will need both a Tibet permit and an Alien’s travel permit to do so. At other times of the year, Mount Kailash is covered in heavy snow and ice and makes for treacherous trekking.
Tibet Travel (www.tibettravel.org) offers several itineraries which include the pilgrimage, including the 15-day Mount Kailash and Manasarova tour.
Fly to Lhasa, then continue over the Tibetan Plateau by car to reach the Mount Kailash circuit.
Bodh Gaya and Sarnath, India
With the Dalai Lama exiled from Lhasa, it is hard to say where the modern spiritual centre of Buddhism lies. Perhaps the answer is to be found where it all began, more than 2,000 years ago, in the north Indian state of Bihar.
My first entry into Bodh Gaya was inauspicious to say the least: I was towed in on the back of a breakdown lorry, my car having given up the ghost several hours ago further along the Grand Trunk Road. Forced to wait for the requisite replacement part to be imported from Germany, there was nothing to do but sit still, be patient, and endeavour to put aside the frustrations of the modern world. And there could surely be no better place to do so, because Bodh Gaya is the place where the Buddha finally achieved enlightenment.
Buddhists journey to Bihar from all over the world. They come to Bodh Gaya, but also to nearby Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, guiding those who would follow in his footsteps. These sites are two of the four main pilgrimage sites relating to the life of the Buddha, the others being Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, and Kushinagar, where he attained parinirvana after his death.
The two central sites are the terracotta red stupa at Sarnath, its exterior richly carved in details, and the bodhi tree — one of the oldest trees in the world — which was grown from a cutting of the original tree which shaded the meditating Buddha. The bodhi tree lies within Bodh Gaya’s Mahabodhi Temple complex, an architectural masterpiece founded by the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, and which is now celebrated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No less impressive is the 25-metre high Giant Buddha, carved from sandstone and red granite, which guards over the complex. Consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989, it is one of the largest Buddha statues in India.
Pilgrims come here to feel part of the worldwide Buddhist community. Different countries have erected their own monasteries, temples, and guesthouses, often in their indigenous architectural styles. The Thai, Bhutanese, and Vietnamese temples are especially photogenic, and their teachings are open to all. Although meditation might be an individual pursuit, learning how to do it effectively is not, and there is no end to the number of monks and other practitioners to inspire you. Guests who stay in Bodh Gaya more than a couple of days are encouraged to serve the community, cleaning and cooking for fellow pilgrims. It is a privilege to eat simple meals with devotees and curious visitors.
Visit between October and March.
Indus Discoveries (www.indusdiscoveries.com) offers tailored itineraries to many of India’s spiritual sites, and can provide knowledgeable local guides to explain the rich and complex history and heritage of Bodh Gaya and Sarnath.
Fly to New Delhi, and you can then transfer to Gaya Airport, 5km away from Bodh Gaya, on a domestic flight, or travel by train or road.
St. Paul Trail, Turkey
One of the longest footpaths in Europe winds its way some 500 kilometres from Antalya to Lake Egirdir. This is said to be the route which St. Paul the Apostle took when he came to Anatolia as a Christian missionary in the 1st century AD; it shadows Roman roads and ancient trading routes much of the way.
The St. Paul Trail has been developed by the Culture Routes Society, and it is designed to be completed in 27 days, although many walkers decide to undertake a shorter section of the route. Starting at sea level, you climb steadily to 2,200 metres through shady forests and open farmlands. In places, it seems as though the landscapes are unchanged since the time of St. Paul, although the villages are undoubtedly now more developed, and the influx of hikers, and the income they bring, is certainly spearheading change.
Southern Turkey bakes in the summer months, so we began our hike in late spring, when the countryside was still green. Our starting point was Perga, historically the capital of Pamphylia Secunda, though its acropolis dates back to the Bronze Age. The city was the home of the celebrated Greek mathematician Apollonius, and as you wander amongst the well-preserved ruins, it’s easy to see that this was a rich and cultured place with theatres, baths, temples, mighty city gates, and striking monuments, all constructed from creamy white stone. St. Paul wasn’t preaching
to villagers; he was spreading his message to cosmopolitan populations, many of whom would have had sophisticated theological and political ideas of their own.
All along the way, you’ll see similar vestiges of the past: aqueducts and bridges, some of which still function; long abandoned cave dwellings; and beautifully carved stones by the side of the path, whose details betray their original positioning in temple walls, as way markers, or as memorial stones.
Today, these cities have long since vanished, and only the stones remain. The route feels ancient, and it is remote and quiet: for long stretches you, unlike Paul, will have no fellow travellers. Unlike the more famous Lycian Way, St. Paul Trail is still largely under developed. You will need to carry your own food, and the accommodation is in village houses and small pensions. When those are in short supply, it is necessary to camp out beneath the stars.
But that, really, is part of the appeal. When you walk the St. Paul Trail, you become a pilgrim, following in the footsteps of a man who changed the religious history of Europe. The simplicity of the journey, and the ample opportunities for reflection, are a large part of its charm.
The best time to walk here is in the spring or autumn.
The Culture Routes Society
(www.cultureroutesinturkey.com) offers both guided and self-guided tours, for all or part of the route.
Fly to Istanbul, and take an onward connection to Antalya, the closest airport to the start of St. Paul’s Trail.
For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 121.