Postcards from Japan: Old meets new.

Japan’s roots go deep. Stemming from a volcanic foundation surrounded by turbulent seas, the character of both the land and those who live upon it is entirely its own. It is widely recognized that, along with Ethiopia and Thailand, Japan is one of the few world cultures to have never been colonized. As such, it is uniquely intact. Even as the country steps forward and leads the way into an emerging technological future, there remains a thread connecting the modernizing present with something much older.

These are the threads I sought throughout my time in Japan – the connections between old and new. Foundational plans were laid to walk ancient trade routes in the mountains, to follow the footsteps of my teacher’s teachers on pilgrimage to a Zen temple founded by Dogen at Eiheiji in 1244, and to pursue a myriad of side-interests along the way. Though expectations and hopes formed the backbone of my on-the-road ambitions, the most memorable experiences came serendipitously along the way. Travel is a good reminder that even the best laid plans should be held lightly and with space to be filled by that which you cannot even imagine.

I used to send out postcards; little notes written on the far side of the world destined for mailboxes of missed loved ones. Somewhere between then and now I stopped. It was only when my sister recently pulled out a shoebox that housed a collection of saved postcards that I even realized I had forgotten this practice. Now, I return with stories collected in notebooks, photos, and the memories of both my own and companions from along the way. With a focus on sharing breadth I send out some postcards here to you today, but the ephemeral nature of digital is quite different than that which once upon a time would have ended up in a treasured shoebox. I ponder a way to better share weavings of words and images, which perhaps will find a way onto bookshelves in the same sort of way. But for now, these are for you.

Tokyo Station Panorama

Tokyo is simultaneously the world’s largest metropolis and a world-class example of a well designed city. It is both these things in large part because of two devastating moments in the past: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the World War 2 bombing in 1945. From destruction came opportunity to rebuild and reiterate upon itself.

Kanda Festival crowds praying in Hamacho District

Every neighbourhood in Japan has a local guardian deity (ujigami) who looks after the community and their families. The Kanda Festival is a time when the deities are transported into portable shrines (mikoshi) and carried through the streets to bless the local residents. Here in Tokyo, the Hamacho community bows in the city streets as a Shinto priest leads them in the ritual’s final moments. After a long weekend of carrying and shaking the heavy shrine on their shoulders, it has found its resting place for the coming year.

A Japanese tourist takes a selfie at Senso-ji temple

A modern moment in an old place. Technology and its overlap with long traditions is an interesting intersection. A spiritual heart is in the center of Tokyo…

Misty ancient Shinto shrine

…but its roots spread wide to shrines that dot the countryside. Misty mountain abodes such as this see very few visitors each year, yet they continue to be cared for by local townships – never forgotten. They are also islands of old growth amidst second growth replanted after cyclic forestry has moved through the valleys.

Cherry blossoms fallen in fountain

Fallen cherry blossoms gather at a fountain’s formed edge.

Nakasendo trail through Magome

An old footpath through the mountains (the Nakasendo Trail) once served as a main route connecting Kyoto and Tokyo in the Edo period. With its designation as a historic region in the 1960s, development has been restricted and much of it remains as it was in ancient times.

Picturesque Magome at dusk

In the valleys between mountain passes on these major routes, post towns arose to offer travellers food and rest. Over eight days I hiked between these remote mountain towns – being and writing…following in the footsteps of Basho (a 17th-century Japanese haiku master and Zen student I have long studied myself).

Stone marker along the Nakasendo Trail

Old hands and new hands.

Japanese knife makers sharpening blades

An apprentice watches his master closely as the local craft of knife making continues in the Echizen region of Japan.

Student in meditation at Eiheiji temple's welcoming hall

New practitioners, old temples – follow paths laid out by those who came before. This is the welcoming hall of Dogen’s temple Eiheiji – founded in 1244.

Tourists gaze into Buddist temple door

Visitors peek through a door into a practicing Buddhist temple.

Koffee Mameya's unmarked entranceway

The only sign marking the entrance to perhaps the world’s foremost coffee bean library is a pointing plant against charred wood and stones carefully led to guide the way. This embodies many aspects of the unique Japanese aesthetic.

Rabbit mask in front of lanters at Yasaka Shrine

In front of a display of lanterns bearing the names of generous temple donors, a young woman dawns a rabbit mask. In local folklore, the rabbit committed along with other creatures to practice charity on the day of the full moon. Only knowing how to gather grass, the rabbit offered up itself. Recognized for this virtuous action its likeness was said to be drawn upon the moon.

Torrii gate in the city of Fukui

This stone gate is known as a torii and it is a powerful symbol repeated throughout Japan. It marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred and serves as a reminder that one is treading on ground with deep spiritual meaning – even in the heart of the city where the earth has been covered in pavement.