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Travel Note: Stories Sit In Places

We are in Kyoto now, five sleeps away from our flight home. We arrived here shortely after a two day hike along a very old pilgrimage route, the Kumano Kodo.

If you understand the Kumano, they've been saying for a long time, you will understand Japan. I can't claim to understand the Kumano but I've seen enough to say that they are probably right.

Kumano is a mountainous region in the South of Wakayama perfecture, in central Japan, with land that like much of Japan is alive with the fire of the earth, boiling springs, rich volcanic soils and heavy precipitation that pours down streams, rivers and waterfalls.

The Gods that live here are said to be the most powerful in all Japan. Kumano is crisscrossed with pilgrimage roots far more than a thousand years old and has long been home to sacred trees, sky, mountains, rivers, rocks and their respective shrines. Somewhat later came the mountain ascetics with their temples and monasteries, fleeing the embrace of women for the mountains. At the highest altitudes there are still a few areas were women are not permitted. As a whole however, Kumano is distinguished from many other holy sites in Japan by its openness to all regardless of class, gender, creed, race or point along the menstrual cycle.

At the point where pilgrims would get their first distant view of the grand temple deep in the valley, there is a monument to Izumi Shikibu, a female poet who, story goes, made the pilgrimage around a 1000 years ago. To her distress she began to bleed when she arrived at this point (don't worry, she was just menstruating). Blood being considered impure, women were not allowed to worship during menstruation. In her distress she composed a poem which does not weather translation well:

Beneath unclear skies,
my body obscured by drifting clouds,
I am saddened that my monthly obstruction has begun.

The Kumano God, who presumably heard the poem in the original Japanese, came to her in a dream that night saying:

How could the god who mingles with the dust
suffer because of your monthly obstruction?

~ ~ ~

Kumano is a religious landscape in the most complete sense. It does not represent or embody a unified doctrine, it is physical space densely filled with stories, stories that sit in places, under rocks, in trees, streams and rivers, under waterfalls, in all the places where people found the divine powers, long before they took on the name Shinto. When Buddhism arrived later these Gods were accepted into the fold as manifestations of the Buddha. The landscape and ritual of the two religions became seamlessly intertwined.

Here, now, there are two paths we can take. We can go over the rock or go through the small narrow cave underneath. The narrow cave is called "The Leap of Faith". It is said that women who pass through it will have easy labours. (I don't see how any hips narrow enought to pass through that hole can have an easy labour, but who am I to argue)

Here, at this rock that we are leaning on, the wife of Fujiwara Hidehira (1122-1187), while on their pilgrimage to Kumano, went into labour and gave birth to a boy. To continue the pilgrimage the boy had to be left in this cave. When they came back the boy had thrived drinking the milk of wolves that trickled down this rock. To commemorate this there is small statue under this rock, known ever since as Milk Rock.

Twelve kilometres later we find out that a grove of cherry trees, whose descendents are still there, was planted on the left side of the path as an offering for the child's protection. The gods too are fond of cherry trees.

This is only one story line traced through the route. Thanks to the longevity of mulberry paper, journals of former pilgrims recount a great many others.

Over two days we walked a 40 km stretch of the Kumano Kodo, from the town of Tanabe, to the grand temple Kumano Hongu Taisha. At its peak of popularity many thousands would make this trek every year, so many they were called the marching ants of Kumano, as they appeared from a distance. These pilgrims included retired emperors (travelling meekly as ex-emperors do with parties of up to 800 people). The ex-emperors collectively made nearly 100 pilgrimages in 300 years. There were tea houses, baths and lodgings in many place along the way, mostly built during those three centuries (11-13th). Traces of a few of these still remain. I don't know if the retired emperors actually walked the route or merely paid their dues by suffering through a ride in a palanquin - it's hard to say which would be more painful. As the trek to the temple was itself a key part of the ritual of purification and rebirth the route was deliberately set to maximize this effect through physical exhaustion. It was the longest 40 km I have ever walked. Carrying a palanquin in this terrain seems unimaginable. Emperors, incidentally, did "retire" here but only in name, typically, though not always, as a means of making more secure transfers of power to the next generation and freeing the now-retired emperor senior to engage more shamelessly in dealings considered unbecoming of the reigning emperor.

While pilgrimage to Kumano would ebb and flow in the coming centuries, it remained significant until the start of Japan's modernization in the late 19th century. The consequences were all around us. We started our trip serenaded by a sacred jackhammer for a few kilometers and in two days and 40km spent almost the entire route (now designated as a "World Heritage" site by UNESCO) walking through cedar and cypress tree plantations. Even most of the temple groves had been clear cut. In Japan's rush of modernization between the 1890's and the end of WWII, pilgrimages essentially ceased, the paths grew over, the old forests were cleared and turned to plantations of fast growing conifers, rivers were damned, most streams were lined with concrete walls.

In the midst of this, we passed many villages, rice patties and tea plantations. In the vast stretches of lush interlocking hills we could see small islands of multi-coloured forest shining in an ocean of plantation green. Still awe-inspiring after so much injury. The Gods must be powerful.

The only patches of old growth, or even second growth natural forest we passed through were "groves" of less than a dozen trees around a few of the temples. Some of these massive cedars were over 700 years old. Even these were not left out of respect. These trees along with the surviving markers and smaller temples along the pilgrimage routes were, I gather, the small, hard-won victories of pioneering environmentalists of the time. The most notable of these was the eccentric polymath (biologist, anthropologist, folklorist and slime collector, drop-out of every formal institution he ever attended) Minakata Kumagusu, who spent time in prison for his work. Somewhat later he went on to meet the Emperor Hirohito, also a biologist and slime enthusiast, and presented him with a collection of 110 of the choicest slime mould specimens of Japan, kept in taffy boxes.

~ ~ ~

For me the most interesting part of the experience was the depth of connection I felt with the place, which I found surprising considering that I was walking the desecrated remains of an ancient pilgrimage route for a religion I knew little about in a country I knew little about and whose languages I did not speak.

Travelling these past few months I have been thinking a lot about the connections I have to various places, how those connections form, how they are nourished or damaged. Being an immigrant adds another layer of complexity. There are several distinct instances in my life where I have been struck by the depth of emotional connection that I developed with a place that I had spent relatively little time in. I have been trying to understand how and why this happens. Is it only a quirk of emotion and memory? I don't think it is. I think at least in my case the connection has to do with stories that I associat with a place. The more complex and richer that web of stories the stronger the connection. It doesn't seem to matter whether the story is a dream, a memory, a piece of history or legend or fiction. What seems to matter is that the story is well told, so that it grips me, and provides specific anchors to a place. Vague memories that I cannot place do not have this function, neither do stories set in real places which only mention those places in general terms (e.g. name of a city or a town but not an actual intersection or neighbourhood). But let there be a specific feature of land or architecture, a specific staircase, or a shop or house or tree, and that story will stick to that place on my mental map. The thicker and denser this carpeting the stronger the attachment.

Kumano was one of the stronger such experiences I have had because the walk was dotted with such stories. In fact there is a scattering of such story-boards in much of Japan, at least in areas that were occupied by the aristocrats and hence documented. Just down the street from our hotel behind the Shosei-en garden, there is a very old Hackberry tree in front of a very small shrine (to Hackberry trees). This tree is apparently the last survivor of a grove in the gardens of a famous palace called Kawara-no-in which was the likely setting of the Tale of Genji, arguably the first novel in the world, written around the year 1000 by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

The place where this feeling of attachment was strongest for me was not in Japan but in Haida Gwaii, where we spent two weeks travelling and kayaking in the vast and otherworldly Gwaii Haanas (Haida Gwaii is the archipelago that was the traditional home of the Haida. Its southern section is now the Gwaii Haanas Haida Heritage Reserve, governed collaboratively by the Haida Nation and Canada).

For a few weeks prior to and during that trip I was reading Robert Bringhurst's "Story as Sharp as a Knife." It was the first time that I had read direct translations of oral aboriginal literature, by mythtellers whose exact words had been preserved in their original language (transcribed phonetically in Haida by John Swanton, an American linguist, and Henry Moody, a hereditary Haida chief whose entire island had been wiped out by smallpox, around 1900). The two most prolific mythtellers documented are Skaay (of the Qquuna Qiighawaay; John Sky in church records) and Ghandl (of the Qayahl Llaanas; Baptized as Walter McGregor). I can't quite explain why, but considering all the impossible odds against which these works and the identities of their creators were preserved amidst a catastrophe that wiped out over 90% of the Haida, the fact that I can sound out their names, however twisted in accent, feels deeply meaningful. On a Zodiac, going past the island of Tannu at 20 knots I can point to the beach where Skaay's village used to stand. Bringhurst's beautiful translation as well as his annotations and detailed background material (both on the Haida in general and on the authors, their works, their process of preservation and translation in particular) bring the stories as alive as I can imagine short of my learning Haida and reading them in the original after prolonged cultural immersion (which I did briefly consider; unfortunately they don't need any anesthesiologists).

The stories they tell are (like most art anywhere) their personal creations based on their classical myths. I found the powerful because they are not only deeply mysterious and beautiful but also, critically, strongly tied to specific places in Haida Gwaii; islands, rivers, bays, inlets and stretches of ocean that we actually passed through, wind and current and mist patterns that we ourselves experienced. I could connect Skaay's Raven tale to a place on my map and recognize it when we got there. My own experience of the place was interwoven into that web of story. The Raven had walked this beach before me.

I have no such connection to my own neighbourhood in Toronto. The only stories I have there are my own memories, most of them constrained to our apartment. By virtue of all the moving around in my life those memories only go back 2 years. I do not know much about the land that our house is built on or its history. Some of that I can undoubtedly unearth in city archives. What seems more out of reach are the stories of the people who were there before, and how their lives related to the place, the ravine behind the house say, or the stream only part of which is now visible in the Glen Stewart Park (and who was Glen Stewart? - a google search only reveals an Australian rugby player and an FBI most wanted fugitive - $100,000 reward btw if you happen know where he is).

I have always considered it a blessing of the modern world to be able to travel so widely and so easily, to move houses and change cities and neighbourhoods. But there is a deep displacement that goes along with that, not only because with every move we have to start learning and assembling the stories of our new home, but also because in a culture where more and more of us exercise such mobility there are fewer and fewer people left in each place who know what went on before.

"Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have." -Italo Calvino