An autumn journey in Nara

Wandering senses

An autumn journey in Nara

The golden November sun shines through the branches of the Mikan mandarin trees, illuminating the Yamatoplain, with the Kasagi mountain range unfolding along the horizon line. Leaving Nara City in the morning, my train is directed towards Sakurai, but I get off one station earlier, and head to Omiwa-Jinja, one of the most ancient Shinto shrines in Japan, where the spirit of sacred Mount Miwa is venerated. At the entrance of the Shrine, close to the Torii gate, several small shops sell handcrafted Miwa Somen, hair-thin noodles served with a season broth, following a 1200-years old tradition. I treat myself before paying a visit to the shrine itself, and watch out for the signs that indicate my destination of today, the Yamanobe-no-michi, literally the road at the base of the mountain.

The best period for walking this history-loaded trail south of Nara that leads through this ancient part of Japan, is for sure the season of auspicious nostalgia: this moment when the craving for the vanishing summer materializes into the Kaki fruits maturing like miniature suns on nude trees, just before the first cold days of the winter break in. On this tepid autumn day horizontal sunrays inundate the magnificent countryside with their warm light, and fields and orchards seemingly flow together into a Satoyama landscape, exemplifying the harmonious union of human presence and natural space. Here at the foothills of the Kasagi mountains, the Yamanobe-no-michi meanders along dirt paths, countryside roads and small farm villages towards Tenri, approximately fifteen km north. As I am walking along the road stones with incised poems of Japanese authors, I think of the verses of Matsuo Basho, whose steps perhaps passed here during his journey through Yamato province:

The ivy leaves

Are tinged with the past

Autumn foliage*

The path continues through small forests and along artificial hills, named Kofun, the burying sites of the most ancient Japanese dynasties. Several shrines and temples can be found along the way, as Hibara Shrine, an auxiliary shrine of Omiwa Jinja, and referred to as the Original Ise by local tradition. Another particular place of worship is Sumo Shrine, legend has it that Sumo originated here. A thatched roof house instead belongs to Yatogi shrine, here the four deities of Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara city are worshipped. How many history and stories hidden along the trail, unveiling step after step!

On the roadside, farmers sell Kaki fruits in different shapes, fresh, or dried, either cut into thin paper-like slices, or entire fruits, dry outside, but with a juicy heart. It is a true sensual pleasure to taste the season fruit, delicious Kaki, slightly sour Mikan mandarins and the juicy and perfumed Nashi pears. The fruit is almost overripe, as is the warm season, and a sense of Nagori pervades me: an almost imperceptible taste of nostalgia flows through my throat and stomach, a sweet longing that warms up my mind.

All over sudden, the afternoon is coming to an end, and the sun bows deeply over the country road in a last goodbye as I am reaching Isonokami shrine, on the outskirts of Tenri, with its roosters running freely around a pond in the forest. The reminiscence of the autumn light pervades me as the shadows grow longer and the taste of Kaki persists in my mouth, holding me back to the reality of this day. The train takes me to Nara in the dusk, and I promise myself to return for a spring journey, with the mandarin blossoms, Japanese Iris and the first strawberries, acknowledging the renewal of the season’s eternally changing cycle.

Post Scriptum: The onset of the COVID19 Pandemics and the subsequent travel bans refrained me from fulfilling my promise to wander the road at the foot of the hills during the of springtime. Another autumn has arrived and the journey continues inside my mind. Soon the day will come when the Kaki fruits appear again on the fruits stalls at the local market, and will remind me of the cheerful moments spent in the Japanese countryside’s autumn light, in search of lost time, and a promise renewed.

*From: Basho’s haiku. Selected poems by Matsuo Basho. Translated by David Landis Barnhill. State University of New York, 2004.

Shinrin-yoku in Squirrel’s Forest

The most pleasant surprise when I moved to the city from the countryside was to discover that, just five minutes’ walk from my home, there is a wood, hidden and nestled in a small stream valley, miraculously escaped from the frenetic urbanisation that is rampant in these parts. I had often wondered whether it was the right decision to move from the countryside with its majestic forests of Luxembourg’s Little Switzerland to the city, despite the convenience of being so close to my workplace. I was afraid that I would miss the silent strolls after work, where I would refocus on the world, the analogous and primitive one, and not the virtual or sophisticated one in which I moved during most of my day as a good productive Citizen. That day, therefore, when I went under the thick canopy of beech leaves, which were beginning to change colour despite the mildness of this early autumn, I felt reassured: I had found a ‘world that looked like the world’, the one I had left behind for an unknown future. The familiar presence of the beech trees, the constant flow of water and the moss-covered sandstone rocks that emerged here and there made me feel good and showed me that the path I had taken was the right one. The immersion into the natural surroundings reminded me of lessons learnt in Japan, where Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing is an officially recognized therapeutic practice since decades. In the following months the grove became my refuge when I needed to clear my head, to breathe fresh air, to tread on organic soil, to observe the changing seasons: the necessary desolation of the winter grey, the bright fresh green of the first leaves in April, the coolness of the shade and water on sultry summer days, the mushrooms and the colours of the leaves in autumn. The thing that struck me most, however, was to discover that the forest was also the refuge of several squirrels, who often came to the gardens of the houses, where perhaps walnut trees grew. But they would always come back here to the wood, just as me, and I would stop and watch their joyful presence, the rustling in the leaves, a quick movement, a lively look. And it gradually became a ritual, going to the squirrel forest, and I realised that I needed this simplicity of being in the world and breathing and watching my local kami, the spirits of the forests, and nothing else. And the atmosphere of the forest became a metaphor for a space of inner peace, and I began to eventually imagine it in stressful moments even when I couldn’t physically be there. I closed my eyes and it was all there, the colour of the leaves, the movements of the squirrels, the almost imperceptible sound of the water running over the stones. And every time I felt at home, and nothing made me regret the past. So time went by and today it’s been five years that I live near the forest and that the forest lives inside me. And nothing has changed, and nothing will change my world, until the squirrels stop hiding their nuts for the winter, until the nettles stop coming out in March after a long break to end up right in my soup, until the water flows, always unchanged, but never the same.

As long as this world exists, all we need is a squirrel forest for our senses and mind to bathe in.