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’s 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, and 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 f
elt 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, if 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.