In Japanese, there are three words for ‘heart’: Shinzou, which refers to the physical organ, ha-to, which is the Anglicised word for a love heart, and kokoro, which is not easily understood in English. Kokoro unites the notions of heart, mind and spirit: It sees these three elements as being indivisible from one other. For example if we say, “She has a good kokoro,” it means heart and spirit and soul and mind all together. It can also refer to mind body, with memories, dreams, aspirations and desires.
Japan is one of the ultimate spiritual getaways, the perfect place to try to understand kokoro. These are the six best places to find it:
Temples and shrines
Japanese people are both Buddhist and Shinto and beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines abound. Japan has a wealth of religious architecture – Kyoto alone is estimated to have well over 2 000 temples and shrines. But it is not just in the large cities that the visitor will find Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines – nearly every village in Japan will have a local shrine or temple.
Buddhism was originally brought from India to China, then brought and spread throughout Japan during the Heian era. On the other hand, Shintoism originated in ancient Japan. The idea of Shintoism is that there are thousands of different kinds of gods in this world, such as mountains, rivers, stones, and trees. It is said that there are eight million gods in Japan, although this figure is intended to mean that there are an infinite number of gods and goddesses, presiding over a wide variety of different topics.
Temples have a large incense burner and Buddhist statues, while shrines have a large, often red, torii, or sacred gate, standing in front of them. Many temples and shrines in Japan are set in well-tended garden spaces and are often connected with local festivals and other events.
For relaxation and meditation, temples and shrines take a lot of beating. Zen rock gardens, after all, were originally designed as places to ponder life’s deeper meaning. The arrangements of rock and gravel form miniature landscapes to be contemplated from outside the garden. Zen rock gardens are found throughout Japan. Ryoanji, the best-known, contains 15 rocks, grouped in such a way that only 14 can be seen at a time. Tradition has it that only by attaining enlightenment would one be able to see all 15 at once.
It is impossible to have a favourite Japanese garden as they are all breath-taking; some have giant koi fish, some have bridges and stepping stones.
Most temples and shrines in Japan are free to enter but the more famous, historic temples will charge an admission fee for which you will receive entry and usually an explanatory leaflet in either Japanese or English.
Japanese temples usually close around 4pm or 5pm, though shrines often stay open around the clock. There is something magical about popping into a nearby shrine after dusk; there is a strong smell of cedar wood and incense is constantly burning.
Everyone is welcome at a temple or a shrine, regardless of your own personal beliefs. You don’t have to be a follower of the religion to enjoy the peace that these places share. Anyone can sit on the benches provided and just breathe in the peace these quiet, beautiful islands of serenity provide in the bustle of the city.
My favourite is the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island. Formerly named Itsukushima, the island is more popularly known as ‘Miyajima’, literally ‘shrine island’ in Japanese. The shrine is known worldwide for its iconic ‘floating’ torii gate. The shrine and its torii gate are unique for being built over water, seemingly floating in the sea during high tide. The shrine complex consists of multiple buildings, including a prayer hall, a main hall and a Noh theatre stage, which are connected by boardwalks and supported by pillars above the sea.
You can buy a blank temple book and get a stamp with the date on from each temple you visit for a nominal fee. My book has 12 stamps and will accompany me on all future visits.
From the tea ceremony to geishas Japan has a unique aesthetic, a philosophy formed from three traditional concepts: Wabi (a rustic simplicity), sabi (the beauty that comes with age) and yugen (a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe, also defined as the sad beauty of human suffering).
Geido emphasises the importance of the way art is created (as opposed to the end result, the criterion by which western art is judged). Geido applies to such disciplines as geisha dancing, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arranging, Noh theatre and pottery-making. Japanese culture acknowledges the intrinsic beauty of imperfection and impermanence, as well as recognising the unseen beauty of everyday life.
For me a highlight is the geisha district in Kyoto called Gion. In Gion they hold a cultural show at Yasaka Hall, which, over one hour, offers seven different performances, including a short tea ceremony, Kyogen (comical theatre), Japanese music, Japanese puppet show and geisha dancing. To see the Miyaki Odori (1 to 30 April) you need to book almost a year in advance or queue from very early morning for seats at the back on the day of the show. Even having deep enough pockets to pay for a private geisha party isn’t good enough – you need an introduction from an existing client in order to gain admittance to the private and exclusive world of the geisha. Fortunately, Kyoto’s geisha communities put on annual public shows, which provide an opportunity for less-privileged ordinary people to see the geisha perform their arts. The most famous of these performances is the Miyako Odori, at which the geisha of the Gion Kobu geisha community perform. To hire a private geisha at a tea house is upwards of 2 000 US dollars for two to three hours.
Nature is important in all aspects of Japanese life and many of the festivals that take place throughout the year celebrate force of nature. Respect for this power is the basis of the appreciation of all elements of nature. While one may initially think of Japan as a land of bustling cities, it is also home to a myriad of different landscapes: Mountains and waterfalls, caves and forests, painted with flowers and inhabited by creatures great and small. Visitors should try to make time to leave the tourism trail for a while and find somewhere to listen to the silence and drink in the magnificence of the surrounding nature.
No trip to Japan would be complete without Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Although the concept may exist in other countries, Japan has given this restorative pastime a distinct name to officially validate it. The belief that spending time deep in a forest, absorbing its innate peace and tranquillity, is a long-held tradition in Japan. A simple concept, it allows you to appreciate another Japanese experience: Komorebi – the dappled sunlight shining through trees.
Food is deeply connected with the soul in pretty much every culture and in Japan this is no different. The focus on seasonal ingredients plays a large role in this as it ties together an appreciation of nature as well as key elements of Japanese aesthetic. Traditional Japanese food looks nothing like what we get in Japanese restaurants here. In a traditional restaurant there are at least five courses, each having more than four different bowls with lots of bite sized delights in each. Each has accompanying sweet, sour or tart pickles and sauce on the side. Simplicity at its best, washoku is the traditional cuisine of Japan, which elevates ingredients rather than masking them with spices, creating the umami flavour now known across the world. Involving fluffy white rice (or soba in traditional buckwheat-growing areas), miso soup, fish and a side of seasonal pickled vegetables, the meal is sophisticated in its simplicity. In order to appreciate this kind of meal fully, one has to eat in silence, tasting all the different combinations and side dishes. It really is a spiritual experience.
Onsens are natural hot springs, fuelled by volcanic activity, as well as the resort atmosphere that has emerged around many such springs. While soaking in natural hot spring water is restorative in itself, the co-bathing offers a unique benefit known in Japanese as hadaka no tsukiai, meaning ‘naked communion’; it is the concept of being naked both physically and spiritually to those you are with. As many people onsen with friends, family and even co-workers, it is considered a place where discussions can be held honestly, with no barriers and relationships are made stronger. Japan offers around 2 300 onsens to choose from, many of them included in ryokan (traditional inns). Most onsens will have indoor and outdoor pools. The men and woman are separated.
Retracing the footsteps of Usui Sensei the founder of Reiki
My highlight of everything still remains Mount Koriyama, walking on the wonderful mountain that Usui Sensei walked on. This is a sacred space and indescribable with words. Usui Sensei’s birth village is difficult to reach, high in the mountains and one would need to hire a car to get there. I have been fortunate to travel to Japan as a tourist and a student, studying traditional Japanese Reiki. Visiting Japan is a must to truly understand Reiki in its origins.