Spirit of the emperors: Japan’s sacred past

Spirit of the emperors: Japan’s sacred past


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By Ute Junker

Beyond the rush and bustle of the big cities, the peaceful south of the main island of Honshu is like stepping into Japan’s sacred past, says Ute Junker.

The Kamikura Jinja shrine is in a centuries-old cedar forest. Walking through it, I could sense the tranquillity long before I actually reached my sacred destination. 

You wind your way uphill along a tree-shaded path – it’s clearly designed to be taken slowly, with more than 200 vertigo-inducing steps. 

By the time you reach the small hilltop shrine and look out over the ocean, it’s hard not to feel at one with nature.

There are said to be around 90,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, but few are as lovely as Kamikura Jinja. 

It’s one of the many shrines dotting the mountains of south-eastern Honshu Island, which is considered to be the spiritual heart of Japan. 

Many of the shrines on the island form part of a series of pilgrimage trails called the Kumano Kodo, and are relics of a strict 1000-year-old Shinto sect. 

For centuries, devotees – including a number of emperors – would test their physical and mental endurance. They used to trek from shrine to shrine, offering prayers to the spirits, which were believed to live in the rocks and trees. 



Traditional meets serene

These days, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed trails are a popular destination for Japanese holidaymakers. But few Western tourists have discovered the beauty of these peaceful paths. 

That may be about to change with the opening of Aman’s latest luxury property earlier this year. The Amanemu resort is in the Ise-Shima National Park. Here you’ll find a window onto traditional Japan. The hotel’s luxurious rooms, all pale timber and black basalt, overlook peaceful bays. Down below, oysters and seaweed are harvested, and female freedivers harvest fish, abalone, and clams, continuing a 2,000-year-old custom.

Although the resort offers plenty of outdoor activities to lure guests out to explore the landscape, part of the joy of holidaying at Amanemu is staying in. The property is built over hot springs, and each room comes equipped with a square soaking-tub. Pour in thermal water straight from the tap, add some hinoki cypress-wood crystals, and let yourself drift off. Need more bliss and relaxation? The spa – all 2,000 square metres of it – offers plenty of other options, including massages with seasonally scented oils, such as green tea or neroli. 

Aman Resorts has clearly realised that Japan’s most visited island is, oddly enough, seriously underexplored in parts. Tourists flood into Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima cities, but Honshu’s southern reaches attract far fewer visitors. Yet the pilgrimage trails are just the start, in an area that is home to some extraordinary attractions. 

An odyssey for art-lovers

Off the southern coast of Honshu Island, you’ll find a clutch of small islands housing a smattering of fishing villages. These islands have been transformed into an art-lover’s paradise. Business mogul Soichiro Fukutake first built a museum on Naoshima Island almost 30 years ago, to showcase his extraordinary contemporary-art collection. 

The project has expanded enormously. The number of museums on Naoshima has multiplied, and so has the number of islands involved. For this year’s major art event, the Setouchi Triennale, the artworks are spread over 12 separate islands in the Seto Inland Sea. 

Naoshima still remains the best starting point for this art odyssey; the island’s four Benesse Hotels – works of art in themselves – offer the area’s best accommodation. 

Start to explore the museums and you’ll see works by David Hockney, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly. The most memorable venue, the striking Tadao Ando-designed Chichu Art Museum, displays art by Claude Monet and James Turrell.

However, you’ll find some of Naoshima’s best artworks outside the museums. The island’s lovely landscapes provide a scenic backdrop for eye-catching sculptures by the likes of Japanese artist and writer Yayoi Kusama. 

The most striking pieces are found in the village of Honmaru, where the millionaire bought half a dozen deserted houses and handed them over to some of his favourite artists. These immersive artworks are mesmerising. 

Each is an experience in itself, from colourful neon countdowns at Tatsuo Miyajima’s Sea of Time ’98 to James Turrell’s eerie Backside of the Moon, where visitors can experience the unsettling absence of light.

You’ll need at least a full day to explore Naoshima Island. And if you want to strike out to some of the other islands as well, give yourself two or three days. 

The gems of southern Honshu

When you return to the mainland, allow some time to visit the underrated city of Okayama. The area is known for its Bizen ware, a distinctive style of unglazed pottery, which derives its colour and texture through the use of rustic components such as pine ash and rice straw.

Okayama is also renowned for its Korakuen Garden, which covers an 11-hectare island in the Asahi River and is one of Three Great Gardens of Japan.

Less known is the charming water town of Kurashiki, with its picturesque canal fringed with ancient willows and blossoming cherry trees. More than just a photo opportunity, Kurashiki is also home to one of Japan’s foremost collections of Western art, the Ohara Museum. Here you’ll find works by Monet, Matisse, Renoir, and Gauguin. 

If you follow the spirits of ancient emperors, sculptors, and artists, you’ll discover a peaceful Japan you never knew existed.