Reflections on Japan

I went to Japan with no plan. I just wanted to see cherry blossoms, Mt Fuji and snow. I read something about the Kumano Kodo in my preparations and thought I’d like to walk it but decided to take my bicycle so didn’t think it would happen. Let me just say that Japan delivered!

On my second night in Japan I camped under a cherry blossom tree. It was magnificent even though I didn’t realise that it was a cherry blossom. I rode along roads dusted in the delicate petals of dropped blossoms and saw pockets of mountainsides washed white with the beautiful trees.

Mt Fuji was more than the photos ever could show. The way the mountain loomed large over the road that I followed first covered in cloud and then opened up for me to see. It was like in climbing that long 30km climb across the highlands I earned the joy of seeing its full snow-capped glory. I didn’t feel the need to climb the volcanic mount. Just seeing it reflected in the lakes was magic enough.

And then, somehow, I found snow. Pure persistence got me up the alps and sheer luck left the ski season open just long enough for me to enjoy a couple of long 4km runs down Japanese slopes. I was the worst skier on the field but nothing can take away the magic of that day. I camped up above the snow line and have photos of my bike leaning against tall roadside snow drifts.  At the end of those two days in the snow my cheeks hurt from smiling despite the alpine climbs on my treadly.

But probably the spiritual highlight of my journey through Japan occurred off the bike. Walking Kumano Kodo was a special experience. I walked on a whim after seeing the dual Compastella at the Hongu Visitor Centre. A couple of the ladies there spoke English and helped me organise a coin locker and place to leave my bicycle for two days while I walked this sacred Japanese path. Someone I once knew walked the Way of St James a decade or more ago. I didn’t know her well because she passed away before I got up the courage to go from being work colleagues to friends. But I know she was with me on the Kumano Kodo as she was with me just after she passed when I hiked to the top of Mt Kosciosko (Australia’s highest peak, which is an easy 21km day walk from the trail head).  The Kumano Kodo was a true pilgrimage experience for me and, while I won’t be walking the Way of St James for the dual Compastella just yet, I will keep the Compastella somewhere safe in case I do.

But Japan was more than just amazing scenery and ticking boxes off a checklist. Japan was an experience of personal growth. I faced some challenging situations and managed to keep my cool in almost all of them. Those who know me will tell you that I have a short fuse and can become frustrated or despondent easily. But I watched a few YouTube clips at the airport before I flew to Japan that taught me the Japanese value discretion in emotional displays, especially anger. So I worked to maintain my composure.

First there was the bucketing rain that soaked me through my wet weather gear. I rode all day focusing on the beautiful scenery and enjoying the moment, rather than on how wet or cold I felt. Then there was the broken tent pole. I set the problem aside until I had found somewhere dry to sleep (the shower block) and then calmly composed a solution (chop sticks and duct tape). I tackled mountains that were too steep for my ability but just got off and walked without losing my cool or becoming upset with the strain. And I repaired a pannier bag that broke. The only time I lost my cool was on the day my ride to Shizuoka went from a 50km spin to a 100km epic of unmarked freeways and broken tunnels. But even then I managed to keep my agro to a minimum and was calm again after a one or two minute explosion.

I enjoyed Japan immensely. The landscape is stunning and the people are friendly if a little reserved. I’d like to go back one day to explore the landscape some more. While Japan doesn’t have the magnificent museums of Korea or the delicious food of Malaysia and Indonesia, it has a special place in my heart as a place of natural wonder and calm acceptance of the reality of the now.