Yuka’s retreats have acquired a certain notoriety. Native American medicine men, Hawaiian Kahuna, Japanese witches, at some point all and more have been called upon and woven into the rich experience she runs. A counterweight to Japan’s mechanistic materialism, few are the participants who return home without a renewed sense of where they belong in the world. Or so I am told.
Her first retreat of the new year was going to be different. A connection to nature, and the wilder places of Japan. And so it is that I found myself guiding five snowshoe neophytes through the snow filled forests of Togakushi, Nagano.
Togakushi is the land of the yamabushi, the mountain monks, and long rumored to be the training ground of medieval ninja warriors. Shrines and temples dot the landscape, and the terrain lends itself to the impossibly steep stone stairs at the entrance to each one. Not for Togakushi the easy, paved entrances of the city shrines; those who would seek the patronage of the gods here must firstÂ prove themselves.
Nowhere is this more so than the long trail to the Oku-sha, the shrine which huddles below the crags of Mt Happonirami. At the entrance to the trail the group grapple with their snowshoes for the first time, newborn foals with ungainly feet. Their laughter peals out into the forest and along the towering cedars which line the route through the fresh snow. Then, each wrapped in their own thoughts, I carve a trail and they follow. The weather closes in as we approach the Oku-sha, half-buried as it is in deep snowdrifts. The villagers will work hard through the winter to keep its roofs clear, but it is a herculean task and Happonirami continually threatens to avalanche the shrine from above.
The Jetboil works hard, hissily melting snow and boiling up a couple of litres of hot chocolate. It’s enough to get them back to the road, and from there we seek out Shinshu’s finest buckwheat soba noodles. It’s warm, and the girls have filled their exercise quota for the day, and are opting for the hot springs over another trek into the backcountry. All except T, who is adamant that she wants to get back out. As the snow lightly falls, we strap into the snowshoes and head out over the hills to Kagami-Ike, frozen now, but which in summer would reflect the Togakushi mountains in its limpid depths.
There’s not a sound as we travel through the deep powder. The landscape is a charcoal painting, no sound but the quiet sluff of the snowshoes. “This is better than any meditation”, T confides. At the lake, the only tracks in the snow belong to the rabbits; we’re the first ones to see it this winter. I step out a little way from the shore and tentatively dig down, only to hit slushy snow rather than solid ice. It’s still too early in the season to walk all the way to the middle, to the lone tree trunk that juts defiantly from its center.
Our lodging is one of the temples that sits further down the mountain on the old pilgrims’ trail, a family-run shukubo. You find them wherever you find the yamabushi monks. Part esoteric Buddhist, part animistic Taoist, and something else that I can never quite figure out. Mountain climbing, perhaps. I sit in the entrance way, cleaning and mending the groups’ snowshoes. The head priest comes out for a cigarette, and we talk about Togakushi until he invites me to come and see the hidden treasures of the temple. A dozen scrolls hang in a small room, 14th century representations of the Togakushi mandala and the local saints.
After dinner, the group goes off to meditate. The priest comes to find me again, and from the garden we watch the clouds race across the full moon that lights the snow-covered mountains, fortifying ourselves against the cold night with warm cups of Tateyama sake.
The following days dawns to a slate coloured sky, a promise of good powdery snow to come. Togakushi has captured each member of the group in a different way, and they’ll spend the day exploring what interest them. One goes to play her flute at each of the five main shrines, another to watch the snow fall from the comfort of the hot spring, another wants to walk from the shukubo to the main temple.
Yuka and T want to snowshoe in the backcountry again. I take them through the forest at the foot of Mt Togakushi for a few hours to the banks of a river, where the rocks that rise from its bed are covered in pillows of snow. The wind picks up as we start back and shortly we are in a blizzard, three quiet figures making our soft way across the icy landscape with heads bowed. Togakushi forces such reverence.