For the day after the Otari Shinrin Yoku session, I arranged a tour in Nagano Town of a famous Buddhist temple, the Zenkoji temple and a Shinto pilgrimage route with several shrines along the way, the Togakushi shrines. Fortunately I had the same guide as the day before, Naoko, she was amazing. I learned a lot from her about the two main religions in Japan, a bit of their history and also many traditions and customs.
Let’s start with the food:
Soba noodles (buckwheat) is a big staple food of the area, I was to try one of the most odd and delicious ways to eat noodles that day…
The way of hand making the soba noodles is an art in itself. The master noodle makers love to show off their skills passed down from generation to generation. The meal we had for lunch had two major delicious surprises, soba tea which I had never heard of before (now my most favourite tea ever) and cold noodles that you dip in cold broth, yes COLD!
Interesting enough, once you pass the initial odd impression of eating cold noodles, you understand why. The flavours come through much stronger, and not worrying about burning your lips, you can slurp to your heart’s content (something you’re sort of expected to do when eating these noodles) Though against my nature and the engraved etiquette training from my childhood by my mother, I did slurp. It actually added another layer of the flavours of this dish, by somehow “inhaling” its aroma, it enhanced the taste. Memorable culinary experience!
Back to the culture…
First the Zenkoji temple, right in the town of Nagano. The current structure was built in1,707, but its history goes back thousands of years. If you would like to know more Read this article. Before entering the temple, there is a purification ritual performed with incense. You light up a new stick or bunch, throw it into the giant cauldron, then with your hands “bathe” your head, torso and legs with the smoke that you pull with your hand from the opening on the side..
Buddhist temples are normally very ornate inside, lots of gold decorations and statues of the bodhisattvas.
Shinto is much more subdued, no statues or figurines to venerate, no gold or shiny decorations other than a specific origami like white paper hanging banners from a rice straw rope called Shimenawa which marks a sacred place or thing, like an ancient tree or waterfall.
Next, the Togakushi shrines. This pilgrimage route was absolutely breathtaking, the history, the giant trees and the interesting “marriage” between the Shinto religion and Nature itself.
We took a bus into the mountains, around 20 km NW of Nagano Station to the beginning of the trail, the first Shrine of the four we visited. My first lesson on Shinto is the Torii, the traditional Japanese gates that I’ve seen all my life in movies or any travel ad on Japan, are actually marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Opposite to the Buddhist temples which normally have a giant, elaborate gates that almost look like the temples themselves, the Torii gates are very simple but with very unique and iconic design.
Next lesson… Purification ritual with spring water. Just outside each shrine, small or large, there is always a purification station. Some more elaborate than others, and some with a certain theme related to the God that this particular shrine “hosts”. The ritual is as follows:
First pick one of the long handle cups you find resting on the water basin, normally a large sink like basin made of granite, then fill it up under the running water-spout. You only use one cup full for the entire ritual.
First you pour a little water on your left hand and lightly rinse your fingers, then switch hands and do the same with your right hand. Now, cup your left hand and pour a bit of water in it, and rinse your lips with that water. Then, rinse your left hand once more, and finally pour the rest of the water in a such way so it runs down the length of the handle, hence rinsing it for the next person.
Part 2, coming in a couple of days