Back in November, I found myself with a four-day weekend and thought I’d use the opportunity to take a mini 休み (“yasumi,” vacation). As an early birthday present to myself, I decided to head down to Wakayama prefecture and embark on the Kumano Kodo walking pilgrimage.
Originally, these pilgrimages were a way for people to move between the many sacred areas of the Kii Peninsula, which has been termed “the land of the gods.” But beyond that, they were also intended to provide religious experiences as emperors, nobles, monks and samurai would take these paths to find enlightenment or “heaven on earth.” The route I decided to take (mainly due to time constraints) is called Nakahechi. The hostel I stayed at (Buddha Guest House – highly recommended for a homey, Japanese-style stay) had a few pamphlets on the Kumano that explained Nakahechi as the main route due to its “steep and treacherous” qualities and the underlying belief that “penance is the road to salvation.” Picked a good one.
After a dinner of めはり寿司 (mehari sushi) wrapped in mustard greens, I bussed into Kii-Tanabe where I checked in to the Buddha Guest House. The owner was super nice and recommended me a sweet place to stay tomorrow (which I had perhaps naively planned on winging). He also gave me some of his friend’s homegrown mikans!
About 10 minutes in, there was a small cave-like rock formation called tainai kuguri. A nearby sign explained the cave – thankfully most of the signs had English translations below, and said that it was a “test of faith” or a “passing through the womb.” Supposedly, a pregnant woman able to make it through the cave will have a “smooth delivery.” Definitely not pregnant, but squeezed on through anyway.
For the first hour or so, the trail would level out, go vertical again and then repeat. There were stairs, rocky downhills, and little oji shrines with stamps every few kilometers. The trail wound through switch backs, little villages, mini side hikes and the most amazing mountain view lookouts.
Yet, the more time you spend in this “other,” the more you come to realize what it actually is. It’s the smell of life and of being. Personally, I have never felt more alive or more free than when I’m out in the so-called “wild,” especially alone. The trees that you once saw as shade-giving shelters are now alive, breathing with you and connected to the roots of everything below you. The moss-covered rocks are not only full of energy but have interacted with countless species from the wildest of mammals to the tiniest of bacteria. And the most exciting part is, it’s all connected. Either physically or through interrelated systems and interactions with other species, everything in nature is arguably a product of cooperation and symbiotic relationships.
Here, however, there is a disassociation, in much of the western worldview. As human beings, we are prone to forgetting that we are part of nature and tend to see ourselves as something unnatural or above it. ‘Humans vs nature’ is something we see and hear all the time but should linguistically be an impossible thing. Humans are nature. Nature is all things, humans included. Because of this super-connected relationship, we don’t simply exist, we coexist. The way we live today may not be considered the most “natural,” but we are undoubtedly natural beings, even if we forget sometimes. We are nature in the same sense that a forest is nature, or that a star is nature. It simply is. It is not wild or other, it is just reality.
This is perhaps where we stand now. Nature has become unknown. It is something so rooted to the core of our being and yet it has become foreign. It’s as if we have collectively walked into a beautifully alive forest but have become sick of the greens and browns. It’s as though we would rather see a more colorful, lit-up plastic interpretation of it in some indoor museum.
Understandably, it is not very hard to get into this mentality because that is how our society brings up its children. However, it could not be more liberating to get out of it. To realize that yes, we are nature, the universe is crazy and we’ll never fully understand it but we are still here and living and connected to all things, to all beings, on this little rock floating around in space. We’re never alone in the wilderness. We are the wilderness. We all belong to the universe and to each other and are the miraculous result of a planet encouraging life in an unfathomably large cosmos. This is what it feels like to be connected.