Scratching the surface

In the Kii-mountains of Wakayama in Japan, the image of an Italian Sufi in the Sahara came to mind, who I met years ago in Algeria. His name was Paolo.


His hair black, hanging onto his shoulders, his robe a pale brown, his feet in sandals. Strange how this image crossed time and continents to present itself in the forest covered mountains of Japan.


Back then we came to speak about rituals, beliefs, faith, and about anthropologists who study rituals, beliefs and faith. The remark he made pops up with irregular intervals, summoned by encounters with strange and unknown things.


Anthropologists just scratch the surface.


Walking the Kumado Kodo among Japanese pilgrims, I scratched, off course, the surface of the rituals and beliefs and faith of an island-people with a complicated history of an ancient animism that got mixed up with several forms of Buddhism and the consumerism that came to their country in the wake of the Second World War.


The Japanese pilgrims for the most part did not, oddly enough, walk the trails through the forests that cover the mountains. They came to the three Grand Shrines mostly by car or busses on newly build roads, unlike their ancestors who went by foot, following demanding tracks from one sacred place to another.


I could walk for hours without meeting a single fellow walker. When I did, they were mostly backpackers from Europe or America.


All the while, I didn’t see much of the mountains. They were hidden by very tall trees with very thin trunks. Sunlight shining through the trunks turned the forest into a stroboscope for anyone who happened to move there.


On the fourth day no sun. Mist, rain, wind blazing through the forest. No one in sight, then no sight at all. The trees were still there but the storm seemed to have chased away every other form of life.


Gone were the birds, gone the butterflies.


In this strange deserted landscape of shadowy trees I wished that I could enter the mindscape of the pilgrims who walked here over a thousand years ago. Numerous signs along the trail tell their fates.


The teahouses where they reposed are far gone, only signs remain to point to the places where they once stood. But the other day I found a teahouse that was actually still there. Abandoned in the seventies, the sign said.


Hesitating awhile I finally went in and found the strangest things still lingering in there, including a straw hat, a light bulb and a sewing machine.


Now in the midst of the storm I longed for a teahouse full of life, for a cup of steaming tea, for companions to exchange long winding stories with strange and unexpected endings.


How barren it felt to walk in a sacred landscape and not sensing anything sacred. So I said to the ancient forest: give me a sign. Anything.




Then out of the mist a frog jumped on my path and the forest sprang suddenly back to vibrant life.

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