There are many remarkable places in Japan beyond the metropolitan sights of Tokyo and the multitudinous temples of Kyoto, and Nikkō is definitely one of them. It’s a short train-ride from Tokyo (I caught the Tobu Railway from Asakusa, which took around 2½ hours), and is an introductory step into rural Japan. Whilst Nikkō is classed as a city, it certainly doesn’t feel like one after leaving the bustling neon spectacle of the capital. My hostel was situated away from the centre, about half an hour’s walk from the astonishingly beautiful World Heritage Site of Tōshō-gū, where you’ll find a shrine to Japan’s most influential shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
During my first day in Nikkō, I visited all the local sites and scenery that the location is so famous for: the Shinkyo bridge, the Cedar Avenue (for the record, Japan’s forests are some of the most breathtaking I have yet to come across on my travels), and the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, where innumerable Jizo statues gaze across the river gorge. In the evening, I had an incredibly delicious meal, known as Shōjin Ryōri. This Buddhist spread is usually an arrangement of tofu and vegetable-based dishes. I’m not a food critic, so I don’t know the fancy lingo for describing such meals, but it was absurdly moreish. Japan has a well-earned reputation for quality food (Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world), and whilst it’s not as vegetarian-friendly as one might at first assume, there is nevertheless a plethora of meat-free options available once you know where to look for them. Of course, if you love fish, then you’re sorted.
But I’m not writing this about the food I had. I’m here to talk about what I did the next day.
In the morning, I headed out and picked up some snacks from the convenience store, before waiting for the not-too-frequent bus that would take me out of the city-centre and further up into the mountains. The bus – filled with locals, Japanese tourists, a rather animated driver, and myself – took us around curving roads that zig-zagged up to vertiginous heights, until the terrain began to settle back onto a level plane. We soon reached Lake Chūzenji – to my mind, a Japanese version of the Italian lakes, but a bit more Alp-y. Such is its beauty that many European embassies had villas built around it during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was from here that many of the bus’s occupants began to get off. The Kegon Falls are a famous tourist site, and I stopped off there later in the day to have an obligatory look. I had set my mind, however, on visiting the much lesser-known place of Senjōgahara. It would be (I hoped) a brief respite for me after five days in Tokyo, rooming in a ryokan with another traveller, and tirelessly exploring the world’s largest metropolis. As an aside, I am a person of inherent opposites: my spirit is divided: I have a love of anonymity in overcrowded streets, being immersed in the indefatigability of city-life, and surrounded on every side by the tremendous and awe-inspiring cut-out of high-rises, skyscrapers, glass, and concrete. I find brutalist architecture and the sometimes-squalid, compressed apartments of overcrowded cities equally beautiful. I am struck with inspiration by the sights of human-life in multiplicity.
But in being someone who is innately unsettled, I am only ever an observer. Whilst I have always been keen to explore and experience as much as I can, it is a lot like plunging underwater and holding my breath. My divided spirit soon yearns for reprieve. Which is why I then seek, out of necessity, a place of solitude and reflection.
And that is what this essay is about, really. Senjōgahara. I cannot recall any other place I have so far visited that sang to me. It sounds strange, but I am sure you know the feeling. It is physical as much as it is emotional. It is a sensation of absolute liberation. It is that pleasant explosion felt in the chest, or if you were to scream at the top of your voice in the confidence that no-one would hear you. There is no human, no peer, no judgment nearby. Simultaneously, it is a feeling of familiarity. It is that very peculiar sensation of fernweh – but fernweh that has been appeased. Senjōgahara became a place that connected so intrinsically with me that my day spent there became a day of absolute spiritual fulfilment.
By the time I got off at Sanbonmatsu, there were only a few people still on the bus (the animated driver fortunately being one of them). Further along the bus route was Lake Yunoko and the Yumoto onsen, but not much else. I said my thank yous and stepped out onto a flat, straight road that ran on for a good distance, both in front of me and behind me. It wasn’t busy (as you can imagine), and I crossed over to the one building within view. All else was straggly trees and marshland, with distant mountains breaking up the skyline. Two eager employers directed me to a toilet (not exciting, but necessary), and then I wandered a little way from the building (it seemed to me to be a kind of service-stop, with a cafeteria and a small convenience store within) to find a bench. It was around mid-morning by then. I got out my camera, which I hung around my neck, a map that I had picked up from the building of the trails around about, and a bottle of Pocari Sweat.
With my rucksack back on my shoulders, I set off, deciding to first walk further along the road before finding a way into Senjōgahara. That way, my trek would be more circular, and I wouldn’t have to backtrack at any point to move forward. It’s not a long, nor an arduous trek (between five to eight kilometres, depending on which routes you take). If you’re going just for the walk, then it will take you between two to three hours to complete the circuit. But that’s not the point – that’s no different from tourists rolling up in their coaches to veritable historical and cultural sites for an obligatory photo before quickly moving on to the next site. It’s not pretentious to say that it’s important to me to soak up the atmosphere and find a connection with what I’m experiencing. I spend so much of my life – as I’m sure so many people do – racing through days to get to the next weekend, and never quite existing in the same way we did as children, when every moment counted and every sensation was new and intensely felt. I had no intention of racing along the elevated wooden pathways that cut through the landscape.
At 1,400 metres above sea-level, Senjōgahara is a plateaued marshland, stretching from Lake Chūzenji to Lake Unoko. Legend tells of a great battle between ancient Shinto gods over who would lay claim to these marshlands, and the name itself translates to ‘Field of Battle’. Senjōgahara is a place of juxtaposition: the bare silver-barked larch trees cut vertically through the vast horizontal expanse of golden-brown boggy grassland and distant mountains. It is distinctly desolate and wild, and a stark contradiction to the verdant, overgrown forests found at lower altitudes around Nikkō. I visited in May, and there were a few Spring blossoms at the end of their lifespan, but otherwise it was dry and windswept. On the day I was there, however, the breeze was fresh and gentle, and the sun was pleasantly warm.
For the majority of my wanderings, I was alone. The occasional Japanese trekker passed by, and cheerful exchanges of hello ensued. I had no other distractions: no wifi, no company, not even a notebook in which to jot down thoughts. I was a twenty-five year-old British woman, in a remote location far from my home, in a country whose culture was greatly different from my own. This completeness of defamiliarisation was necessary, and – I would argue – always necessary in connecting to my truest Self, and seeing the world uncorrupted by distraction or the influences of others. I must add that I would not, as a female travelling solo, remove myself in such a way in most other countries. Japan is remarkably safe, and while I am not so naïve as to take this for granted, I was given that rare opportunity to experience freedom and inhibition as any man can. This, in itself, was a remarkable experience.
I think we all have a certain environment in which we feel an animalistic connection. For some it is the sea, or rivers, hot climates, or hard winters. I have always enjoyed the ‘interim’ seasons most: Spring and Autumn. I am most comfortable in their transience and the promise of change, be it in the abundance of new life or the quiet and colourful retreat into bleaker months. The sea, meanwhile, makes me restless, and often ill at ease. There is something untrustworthy about the sea and its capriciousness. Similarly, impenetrable forests are mystical. The trees are sentient, and speak to one another, hiding secrets within the murky recesses of their knotted roots. At best, they are indifferent to humankind. But, when venturing into ancient forests, I always feel a sense of conspiracy in the air, emanating from the dense matrix of root and trunk and branch.
I have always found focus and lightness of thought when in open spaces. Like the larch trees, there is something tremendously life-affirming about existing between the two planes of land and sky, and breaking up that straight horizontal line through one’s own presence. It is a deliberate stance, a celebration of being alive. There, in Senjōgahara, I traversed my allocated path – the wooden walkway – and felt wonderfully dizzy by the vast azure blue dome above me and the distant embrace of the mountains. As is typical of the Japanese, they have avoided any potential disruption of the environment in the construction of the walkway. It weaves around fallen trees and other obstructions, and at one point, it divides around the circumference of a larch. I am sure in most other countries, that one tree would be felled without a moment of reconsideration.
Senjōgahara is a desolate landscape of immense spiritual beauty. There is no cultivation or human intervention. Wild fauna and flora are abundant. My brain and heart and soul unified on that day. I was a child again, wild and free.
In our modern lives, we are never far from communication, from people or media, and in many ways, these are good things (I am not one to harken back to ‘the good old days’). But I do think that today, more than ever, the Western world is experiencing an indefinable crisis that has gradually, but inevitably mutated over the past century. We are all acutely aware that we are missing something in our lives. I would find it difficult to believe that not one person didn’t have a seed of discontent within them, the cause of which they could not quite place their finger upon. None of us quite know who we are anymore.
I am staunchly in favour of stillness and meditation, and rooting oneself into the singularity of one’s existence. But this phenomenon is incredibly difficult to achieve in modern times.
I achieved it, but only by chance, and only for a day. Meanwhile, the memories of Senjōgahara persist.