Journey to Mt. Kurama

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This photo by Becky Holtzman; all others by photographer David Ondrik.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Japan—something I’d hoped to do for years, long before I even knew about Reiki. As luck would have it, my visit was based in Kyoto. Mt. Kurama, the sacred mountain where Reiki was first perceived by Mikao Usui, is about an hour’s train ride north of the city. Traditionally, Usui is said to have discovered Reiki after a three-week fasting meditation on the mountain, in 1922. Of course a visit to the origin place of Reiki was at the top of my list!

The train ride was beautiful: as the city eased into suburbs, lush rice paddies and vegetable gardens began to replace dwellings. Our train tunneled through maple trees as we moved into the mountains. Finally, we were deposited at Kurama Station, and our trek began.

We paid the entrance fee at the main gate, and received a lovely, pale purple “Summer” ticket, which told us that Mt. Kurama is “imbued with life energy, a wide variety of life forms resides here in serenity, and the rich natural environment continues to flourish.”

Perhaps a quarter mile up the trail, we encountered another large stone entrance gate. Just beyond that, we found a beautiful, large, hand-constructed ring of vegetation, an ephemeral and marvelous entrance. We thought perhaps this was from the Bamboo-Cutting Ceremony that had happened a couple of weeks previous. The multiple thresholds opening onto the Kurama trail created a sense of ceremony, of being led deeper into the pilgrimage.

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Beyond the green-gate was a flight of steps, which ran alongside a huge, old Grandfather Sugi tree—estimated to be about 800 years old, adorned with a rope and a “lightning strike” paper streamer (called a shide), elements from Shinto rituals. Gigantic trees, and reverence for them,  was a common theme in my experience of Japan. When you look at these old beings, and see the many lichens, mosses, plants and insects that live on and whirl about them, one can’t help but appreciate these magical ecosystems-unto-themselves.

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The trail up the mountain alternates between paved path, dirt switchbacks, and long flights of stone stairs. So many stairs! Lanterns line the route. The mountain is home to dozens of Shinto shrines, both tiny and large. The bright reddish-orange of the lanterns, a shade that also trims the shrines, positively vibrates against the various greens of the forest. 

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One of the things I had most been looking forward to was visiting a particular shrine near the top of the mountain. My (admittedly out-of-date) guide book said it was a not-to-be-missed quiet treasure of Mt. Kurama, nestled into a sacred grove of massive sugi trees. As we neared the top, I mentioned this to my partner, who hesitantly broke the news that the shrine had been destroyed in 2018’s Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years. Ah. Well.

After traversing the Tree Root Path…

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—a labyrinth of living tree roots right out of a fairy tale—we came upon the shrine. Uprooted trees were everywhere, and parts of the shrine lay in piles. The exception was a small stone bowl resting on a short pedestal, and also a rectangular stone basin—perhaps the former purification trough. In this basin, dark tadpoles swam with vigor. Life wants to live!

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Near the wreckage of the shrine, amid the overturned trees, several humble wooden benches had been installed, low to the ground. A small sign was staked into the ground by the benches: Meditation Place.

I sat down, and looked around me: the downed trees, the mud, the shattered shrine, and the robust green of the still-standing trees. I searched for feelings of sorrow in the wreckage at the sacred site, but wry humor is what came forward: the traveler-from-afar fantasy I had harbored, of having a perfect meditation in the perfect place where Reiki was literally born … that fantasy had tumbled down the mountain.

In fact, I was having the perfect meditation, in the perfect place; it just didn’t look the way I had expected. As the birds sang and the insects buzzed, I let my gaze drift back and forth between the downed trees and the trees still growing. I felt the heat of my partner’s leg next to mine, heard our breathing, and I asked myself to be present in this landscape exactly as it was: uprooted and tempest-tossed. I loved this sacred grove, which had made a sacrifice to forces bigger than itself: the wind and rain, a climate that is raging in ways this old mountain might be untroubled by, but which is challenging to the hundreds-of-years-old “youngster” trees. 

Echoing through it all, continual birdsong.

Several years ago, right before another big journey, a good friend asked me if I felt happy. I thought carefully before responding. I replied that I felt content in my life—that I experience happiness as a transitory emotion, while to be content is to be rooted in satisfaction, a sense of “this is enough,” even as happiness, sadness, and all the other human emotions wash over and through my days, again and again. I thought of this conversation as we descended Mt. Kurama, considering how once we commit to a journey, we can find contentment with whatever we discover along the path. All that’s required of us is to show up.

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