Today our world turned vertical. The climb from Temple 11 to 12 is a continuous upward slog. A 1,250 meter ascent to be exact. It is a day of pain. Proving that you are a worthy pilgrim. I suspect most people do complete the climb. It is part of the religious ritual that suffering will lead to a higher level of commitment.
It is, of course, beautiful. Climbing through dense pine forests, taking rest stops along the way as much to take in the magnificence of the mountain as to catch our breaths.
Finally we arrive at the temple, high atop the summit. The temple complex is not remarkably different from the ones before. But it resonates deeply, having been attained through sheer physical will.
The descent is as punishing as the ascent. It is hard to keep upright. My legs turn to rubber. They feel as if they will collapse beneath me, sending me tumbling down a steep and craggy slope.
But we do make it and, at the bottom, nestled in a tiny river valley village, is our resting spot for the night: Nabeiwa-sō guest house. It's newly built,with rustic roof beams exposed above our traditional tatami mat room. Later, futons will be laid out with duvet covers and hard-as-rock 'pillows' tightly filled with beans. But all that will wait. First comes the most delightful of Japanese traditions: the bath.
This is no jump in the shower for a quick cleaning procedure, as we are accustomed to doing in most other countries in the world. In Japan, bathing is a ritualized activity, no less elaborate than the tea ceremony. It all starts in your room, where street clothes are stripped and a soft full-length robe, nicely presented in a basket, is put on. This outfit will be worn not only to the bath but to the dinner table later on.
So wrapped, I proceed to the men's bathroom. There are usually several washing stations, complete with shower heads, a small stool to sit on, shampoo, conditioner and body soap. It is here I do the necessary cleaning of my body. That's done. Now on to the most pleasurable part of the experience. In the same space is a large deep tub filled with hot water. It is here we bathers soak for as long as we want. Pure relaxation, especially at the end of a long day of walking.
This same ritual will be repeated day-after-day at each small inn we go to. It is something to anticipate as I sweat away on a day's journey.
Donning my robe once more, it's off to dinner. Can it get any better than this?
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