Forest Bathing in the Footsteps of the Masters on Mt. Atago in Kyoto
On a cool early March morning on Mt. Atago (愛宕山) outside Arashiyama, Kyoto, I mused at rows of comical round-bellied statues of tanuki (狸), raccoon dogs of Japanese folklore, lined along shelves of massive rocks shoved up from the equator 300 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.
The tanuki stood at the fork of two trailheads to places of sacred mountain beliefs and worship. To the left, stone steps led to the Kūya no taki waterfall 空也の滝. To the right, Tsukinowa-ji Buddhist Temple 月輪寺. The rocks’ heavy and solid energy grounded me in my feet and body as I walked. I enjoyed the cedar trees’ relaxing aroma; the only sound piercing the mountain stillness and silence was that of water trickling from a rocky creek.
Accompanying me to wander nature mindfully Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) was my Sensei Masashi Nakamura, Director-General at The Research Center for Japanese Culture Structural Studies, a collaborator at Kyoto University and author of The Japan Code. His book explains a comprehensive theory of Japan’s spiritual culture and polytheistic natural religion. He now collaborates with Kyoto University, artists and writers to spread Japanese culture and gather foreigners’ opinions about Japan.
Shinto means faith in nature, Shizen, Nakamura-san explained, from the Chinese, Jinen, meaning of its own self Shinkou (信仰) is faith in mountains or nature. I recognized that I am a part of nature.
Exemplified in numerous books on all aspects of the religion, together with a plethora of material on the internet, Shinto is experiencing a rebirth of interest in recent decades. One of the biggest new developments is an increase in nature spirituality and visitors to power spots. Seekers are reconnecting to and living in harmony with nature for peace and healing and to enjoy its beauty together in this era of unprecedented horror, change, and uncertainty.
Reconnecting to nature and relaxing the mind and body is essential for our health, sanity and survival. The Greek Stoics also said humanity’s purpose is to achieve eudaimonia, happiness or flourishing, by living in agreement with nature.
In 1982, the Japanese government introduced forest bathing, a research-based practice supporting the healing of individuals through the immersion in forests. It uses the senses to connect with nature, such as breathing calming volatile oils plants release called phytoncides. Studies prove that spending time in nature boosts the immune system; lowers heart rates and blood pressure; reduces stress hormone production; reduces anxiety, depression and anger. And improves overall feelings of wellbeing.
The esoteric Buddhist Master and Shingon sect Founder Kūkai 空海 went forest bathing to regain his psychic equilibrium during the Heian era’s turbulent times. He frequently sought out and wandered across isolated mountain regions of Japan, relentlessly chanting the Ākāśagarbha mantra.
This direct experience of meditation aroused his interest in Buddhism, inspiring him to become a wandering ascetic. It was this wandering that re-forged his bonds with the natural world and the world of the kami, deities. His two strongest beliefs were self-improvement in the physical form and self-improvement in spiritual ways.
The Japanese believe they came from nature, Nakamura-san explained. According to Japanese myth humans are inseparable from and a part of nature, Nakamura-san added. “Everything in this world was a sacred being and we have a relationship to the earth. The word Musuhi 産巣日 is involved in the birth of life. The birth of nature and human beings are equated.”
“Japan has faith in Iwakura (磐座) big old rock on the mountain top or near. This is based on the faith that kami descend from the sky. There is also the faith that deities come from the far sea, and the dead go to the mountain,” Nakamura-san said.
Solid rocks and water led me to a 道祖神 Dousoshin guardian stone representing the deity 龍王 Ryuou, a Dragon King of water and important deity in Japanese mythology. We passed through a torii gate of the 龍 dragon or 蛇 serpent which is a suijin (水神) a deity whose domain is of water - the river, the waterfall, the well.
The Kūya no kaki waterfall we reached was named after the Shugendō monk Kūya who practiced 禊 Misogi to purify body and spirit in front of the waterfall.
“Shugyō refers to spiritual exercises undertaken for the attainment of a particular religious goal, while kugyō, a category of shugyō, uses suffering as a way to attain a religious goal,” Nakamura-san explained when we reached the waterfall and saw a statue of En no Ozunu, patriarch of Shugendō, 修験道 a syncretic religion of mountain asceticism pursuing mental and physical-training that originated in Heian Japan.
Shugen is a path of "training and testing" or "the way to spiritual power through discipline". Practitioners are called Shugenja 修験者 "those with power", or Yamabushi 山伏 "one who lies in the mountains". The Yamabushi are seen as living Buddhas, gaining spiritual strength in their traditional ritual traveling up the mountain and when returning seen as being reborn in the world.
The image of Fudō-Myōō a rugged and strong spiritual warrior of the mountains - was also at the waterfall, likely because of Kūkai. Fudō-Myōō’s sword cuts through illusion, his rope binds demons and fire surrounding his image represents the purification of the mind by burning away material desires.
Up the trail to Tsukinowa-dera 月輪寺 Temple Nakasura-san said to pace myself. There’s no rush. The only purpose was to be with nature. I paused to catch my breath and commented on the large amount of typhoon damage from September’s storm, including felled trees, broken Buddha statues and torii gates.
Approaching Tsukinowa-dera we met the Temple Sub Chief Monk Yokota 横田 副住職 who served us plum and kombu-flavored tea upon our arrival. He trades shifts at the temple with his mother, Chisyou Yokota, the chief monk. First founded in 781, the temple is the foremost site of Kūya and Hōnen Shugendō practices. Its name came from an inscription "Men-tenman-moon ring"on the back of an excavated bronze treasure mirror.
Yokota-san opened the faded-blue wooden doors to view the temple’s treasures, which include 本尊 Honzon, Kannon bodhisattva, associated with Mountain-deity faith 神山信仰.
Yokota also opened the main honden for us to pray and behold the 阿弥陀 Amida Buddha. The temple had a relationship with monk Shinran (親鸞) of 浄土信仰 the Pure Land faith that worship Amida.
While Yokota-san drew calligraphy for a goshuin, temple stamp, we sipped on lemon tea. I bought a Buddha feet talisman that jingles when I walk, reminding me to feel my feet and remember the journey.
How To Get To Mt. Atago
It is best to hire a taxi driver to pick you up from Randen Arayama 嵐電 嵐山 station in Kyoto to take you up the harrowing mountain road to arrive before 9 a.m., the earliest one can hike the trails. Ask the driver to take you to the Tsukinowadera Tozanguchi 月輪寺登山口 entrance at the Kūya no taki waterfall 空也の滝 and Tukinowa-dera Buddhist Temple 月輪寺.
The two trails begin at a fork between the Tanuki statues by the maintenance shed a short distance from the parking lot/turn around station. By leaving early, the driver is able to travel the road through the Arashiyama bamboo forest that is usually crowded with tourists.
After the hikes, which take about one hour each, as they are steep and rocky and you want to take your time, you can then walk down beyond the parking lot/turn around area at the trailhead to meet the taxi driver at Sakuraya Aoki Car Parking さくらや（青木駐車場）付近, where there are public bathrooms. You can use Japan Taxi app. A round-trip taxi ride will cost you about ¥3000.
By request, you can ask the monk to allow private viewing of the Kannon and other statues at Tukinowa for ¥300. No photographs of Kannon are allowed, but are of the Buddha in the Main Hall.