Travel Toes

To travel is to live.

The farmhouses of Shirakawago

The farmhouses of Shirakawago

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Magnificent farmhouses that look like they jumped out of a storybook, large open fields, streams and canals, ponds with koi, lovely porches, unique shops and a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains. All this and more in Shirakawago! Here’s what we will cover in this article:

  • Getting to Shirakawago from Takayama
  • What to see and do once you’re there
  • All about the Gassho-zukuri roofs
  • Unique values of the village
  • Links to more information around accommodation, transport, passes

On a cold and rainy April evening in 2015, my friend and I huddled together in a small Washitsu (和室) or traditional Japanese room with a Tatami floor in Takayama at J Hopper’s hostel, getting ready to settle in for the night. We had an early morning coming up and wanted to be sprightly when it did arrive.

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Walking through the rainy streets of Takayama
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We found a lovely little shop selling stationery and managed to show the friendly family that owned it just where on the planet we came from!

Departing Takayama

We were on a 17 day trip backpacking across Japan from Tokyo all the way south to Hiroshima and on this particular night, we were excited to journey across the snow capped mountains of the ‘Japanese Alps’ near Hida Takayama.

The next morning, at 7.50am we boarded our bus from Takayama bus station headed to Kanazawa crossing the Alps and covering Shirakawago enroute.

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Getting to Shirakawago

You could take the bus from Takayama like we did or figure out other ways to reach based on your itinerary and location. You can find all information on buses, Shinkansen and passes at this page on Japan guide  (oh-so-helpful website this one has proven to be!)

The bus took us along winding highways that danced alongside a gushing river for many miles ultimately emerging high up in the mountains. Here we stopped for a 5 minute coffee break and were told that the bus would not wait for anyone that was delayed by even a minute! True to their words, they departed exactly in 5 mins (one of the many things I adore about the Japanese). And so if you do take a bus like this one, make sure to keep an eye out for departures and stick to the timetable to be safe!

Arriving at Shirakawago

After a while, we arrived at the drop off point at Shirakawago. We disembarked and crossed the river using a huge bridge and there we caught our first glimpse of the magnificent UNESCO world heritage site amidst the mountains that were sprinkled with snow like powdered sugar on pancakes.

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Crossing the river

 

 

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The Shirakawa-go (白川郷, Shirakawagō) and neighboring Gokayama (五箇山) regions line the Shogawa River Valley in the remote mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, they are famous for their traditional Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.

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What to see and do

The Ogimachi village is small and can be easily explored on foot like we did. Even though many of the Gassho-zukuri houses have today been converted into museums, they still provide a fascinating view into the rural farm life in Japan found in few other places. Each house that is a museum has opening and closing hours mentioned and an admission fee as well. So make sure to plan ahead if you’d like to cover more than one and head back to catch the bus.

You could stay here overnight in one of the farmhouses to explore the local way of life and really soak it all in or proceed by bus to Kanazawa like we did or back to other bigger cities nearby. In Ogimachi, we ambled through one cobbled street after another looking at the houses up close, entering and exiting souvenir shops, stopping to buy some coffee and souvenirs and taking plenty of pictures. You could even strike a conversation with one of the locals that speaks in English if you’re lucky and get to know some of their stories!

There is an open-air museum and also a viewpoint that you can walk to for a lovely view of the surrounding area. The viewpoint can be accessed via a walking trail as shown below (closed during/after heavy snowfall) in about 15 to 20 minutes from the village center or by a shuttle bus, which stops near the Wada-ke House.

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Map courtesy https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5951.html

 

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The meaning of Gassho-zukuri

The words mean “constructed like hands in prayer” as the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. The architectural style developed over many generations and in older times the roofs provided a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms.

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Picture courtesy Wikipedia By Bernard Gagnon
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Sketch courtesy J Hop Tours

Here is some interesting trivia about the roof architecture:

  • The houses in these villages face north and south, to minimize wind resistance thereby adjusting the amount of sunlight needed in order to keep the rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
  • The roofs form an equilateral triangle and so any of the three angles makes 60 degrees.
  • No nails or any metal is used in the construction of any of these.
  • Straw ropes and “Neso” a rope from Mansaku trees are used to hold the beams down (it is a sight to behold how the entire village gets together every 20-30 years to do this and how they weave giant needles through the roof using the rope as thread.)
  • The sloping roof is able to let the heavy snow fall off during winters as well as deflecting rain making it easier to maintain. The residents keep a fire burning in the houses through seasons both to keep away termites and insects that may infest the roof and also to make sure that in winter or rains, neither water nor snow ruins the straw.
  • In summers, the roofs move a little back and forth with the winds since they aren’t fixed down and thus allow for the air to flow through the houses cooling them down!

Isn’t that an absolutely beautiful way of channeling nature’s energy and being in complete harmony with one’s surroundings? This is one of the classic examples of the simplicity of the Japanese way of life since ancient times.

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Such quaint porches! You can even stay overnight in some.
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A woman looks out from a balcony in one of the farmhouses

3 rules of the village

These farmhouses were built more than 300 years ago and over time the imminent threat was that of modernization. Many of these houses were demolished and some villages disappeared. In the face of this challenge, the villagers in this area decided to come together to define three rules that would protect and preserve these houses for future generations and for tourism. Those rules are: “don’t sell, don’t lease, don’t destroy”.

The concept of ‘Yui’

One of the most beautiful concepts of working as a community and living in harmony is portrayed by the idea of ‘Yui’ that these villagers follow. The idea is simple: they come together to re-thatch the roofs and share the work. ‘Yui’ thus describes the bonds between the villagers: across age, across gender and across backgrounds. This is what has protected the village too.

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Picture courtesy Wikipedia | Work of Bernard Gagnon

There is a fascinating episode on NKH World TV about these houses which I would highly recommend to anyone who would like to relive their trip to this village or to those who hope to visit someday! You can find more information on their website.

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In a nutshell

Even if you do not get to visit all the houses and the museum in your short trip, just taking a walk through the streets will give you a peek into how the locals live and work. This little village is sure to enchant all kinds of travelers, most of all the ones that have some room in their hearts for simple joys!

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Closing credits and useful links

Accommodation

Bus routes and timings

  • You can find details of bus routes and timings on the Japan Guide website that we found to be very useful for all our planning.

Credits to websites referenced:

Copyright: All images in this article were shot personally and if you do use them elsewhere, please do give credits to this page/article. Thanks and safe travels!

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What I learned in grief.

“My theory is about moments, moments of impact. My theory is that these moments of impact, these flashes of high intensity that completely turn our lives upside down, actually end up defining who we are. The thing is, each one of us is the sum total of every moment that we’ve ever experienced with all the people we’ve ever known. And it’s these moments that become our history. Like our own personal greatest hits of memories that we play and replay in our minds over and over again.”

– Leo, The Vow

As another year comes to an end soon, I look back at what has been definitely one of the most challenging string of months in a long time. They say everything happens for a reason and though that reason may not be apparent at the time, it can only be understood by connecting the dots backwards. And so, this is one of those connect-the-dot moments though it will be long before I can fully grasp what this truly means.

Whenever someone would share with me their experience of losing a loved one, a family member or something they held close to (even something they had worked really hard for), I would always say “I can imagine how hard that must have been.” Now I can finally say “I understand what that feels like”.

I have learnt so much about myself in the past few months, about relationships, about holding on and letting go, about inner and outer journeys, about disappointment and will power. 2018 has been the year of ‘People’ for me. I have always been deficient in that area choosing to find solace instead in solitude and in nature, in wilderness and in spirituality. It was the first time I was forced into situations where I had to use all of that to find grace and strength in dealing with the people in my life. Bringing my best to help everyone around me.

And it has not been easy.

Without meandering too much into the recesses of my mind that are still grappling with all the events of the recent past, here is an account of some of the things that have stood out to me as lessons / things I need to work on in this difficult hour. I write these knowing fully well that they too may change in future when an older version of myself will look back at them. But for now, I strongly feel that I need to pour my feelings into verse so as to connect with myself and hopefully with someone else out in the world reading this that may need it on a difficult day they’re having.

  • Often, it is only when we lose someone that we celebrate what truly made him/her special. It is important to take time out everyday to communicate to loved ones what they bring to the world. To talk about their compassion, kindness, tolerance and honesty while also working on how we can respect each other’s points of view. Often we spend more time focusing on our issues with parents and family rather than rejoicing in the fact that we have been given this lifetime to journey together.
  • There is a lot of strength in immediate family. We may not spend time together or see each other often. We may not even agree on the same things. But they are always there when you need them the most. We realize that even some cousins, aunts and uncles are not outer circle but inner family in moments like these.
  • We are much stronger than we ever thought we could be. Each one of us is stronger than our circumstances. We just do not know it for ourselves until the moment arrives. We find strength and courage in places we never even knew existed within us.
  • Grief is personal. Each person grieves in their own way and there is no right or wrong way to do this. It is also something that takes different amounts of time for different people.
  • No change is real unless it has shown me what I need to change in myself. As long as I make it to be about others, I will never be at peace. All change must come from within me.
  • The real “Me” lies much deeper than I know. And this is not even a person anymore, it’s a force of nature. Even when I have to let go of something I thought was what defined me, I find a deeper and more lasting part of me that is more precious than any of the other layers that may or may not exist in my life.
  • Spirituality without the support of religion is far more rare than I had thought it to be. I found immense strength in the ancient collective wisdom handed down to me by my philosophy teachers in these situations than all the words uttered by those who themselves were not sure of how to react to the situation. It taught me that life is so much more than the forms and of our limited vision of how we have been taught to see.
  • More often than not, we see things the way we want to instead of the way they really are. This is one of the reasons we are caught unawares or so completely lost when something does not fall in line with what we thought would happen.
  • Moments of intense grief or sadness hold the opportunity for one to see what is truly eternal and what is transient in life. What is real and what is fake. What is honest and what is hollow. What can be counted on and what cannot.
  • All pursuits that are for the sake of personal accolades and do not contribute to cleansing who I am and how I can be a better human being will eventually fade and bring me no happiness. It is only with inner contentment and humility that I can appreciate the outer milestones I cover.
  • My center is in here and not out there. No one, whoever they may be, can restore my inner balance. I have to do it for myself and I must choose to find that balance before anything else I may be expected to do in a moment. For without balance, anything else I do will have no meaning.
  • Surrendering to a higher power or even just accepting that not everything in life can be planned is a huge inner step in itself. Surrender is also not the same as indifference or letting go. It is being active in kindness, discipline, clarity and courage knowing fully well that the eventual outcome is not always for me to define.
  • Patience is not just about waiting but who I am and how I behave while I wait. I can wait with bitterness and resentment or I can wait with hope and faith. Even when the outcome is not in my favour, I can choose who I am and how I respond. For by then I will know that as long as I have my willpower and determination, it is only a matter of time before I succeed.
  • Emotions like anger and disappointment are temporary, but my attitude is permanent. It’s okay to vent, to cry, to be upset, to be in pain. But eventually, I can decide how these moments define or destroy me. Most of the time, a negative reaction is a result of me or someone else feeling threatened. It is important to ask what is it that is making me behave this way?
  • I can choose how loss defines me. Loss can make me harder and more aggressive or it can make me kinder but clearer and firmer from within. It can give me tools that I need to forge ahead but also the kindness to communicate that with others.
  • All life is movement. Everything around us is continuously moving and is a form of energy. The question is whether we want to move forward or backward for even when we choose not to move, we are basically moving backwards.
  • Living each day to the fullest is the only thing I can do. I cannot control how or when I die but I can control how beautifully and completely I live. One of the ways I can do this is also by finding meaning in every moment and I will have to work in my own unique way to do this, no matter how much I am convinced otherwise by those that want me to conform.
  • Nature is powerful. A powerful healer, a teacher and a companion when you need one.
  • Most of us underestimate the power of planning, foresight and discipline in our day-to-day life because it is convenient to forget what we need to change. Even if there are no immediate results, in a moment of impact when we brace for damage, we realize how much we have been able to salvage simply because we were well prepared for it, emotionally and mentally. Without that inner discipline, we end up being more a burden on others than a force that can sustain in the long term.
  • The smallest actions can help me be mindful and calm even in the middle of a storm. Whether it is brewing a cup of tea, decorating my home, playing with a cat, making someone else smile, watching the rain and clouds or just focusing on my breath while sitting in the garden. I have the ability to calm myself down even when I think I don’t.
  • Intense sadness has both the power to destroy my will or the magical ability to renew it. This powerful catalyst shows me what my will is truly capable of, like a strong arm pulling me out of quicksand.
  • Regret is more damaging than any physical loss. It can drag us down and leave us feeling hopeless and it is only by dealing with regret consciously, with awareness that one can hope to overcome it. The simple question that I need to ask myself is “I cannot change what happened. What can I do differently now?”
  • Forgiveness is powerful and much needed. Forgiveness of oneself and of others. A lack of this can lead to regret, anger and disappointment.
  • Not everyone is ready to listen to you grieve, to help you in that moment of impact. Even the people that you counted on may let you down and that is what will show you that the only strength you need is already within you. Not everyone deserves to be in your inner circle.
  • (What I am working on at the moment) Boundaries are critical to help oneself heal: to redefine priorities, to decide who and what I give time to, to identify where I want myself to go and consciously steer myself in that direction without waiting for the wind to turn in my favour. To take others along and to also be able to amicably part ways with those that decide that their priorities are different. For life is more fragile and unpredictable today than it ever was and every single day is truly a gift.
  • And most importantly, there is always joy, dignity and beauty to be found even in the most unexpected places!

If any of you have any experiences to share, whether or not it involves the loss of a loved one, a dream you held close, an experience that made you a better person through grief and loss, feel free to drop a note below. Shared wisdom is always more special than isolated thoughts.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

– Albert Camus

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‘Balance of life’ | A doodle-turned-GIF I tried to make many years ago

Santiago.

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A book I picked up a few years ago at the oh-so-delightful Atlantis bookshop in Oia, Greece.

A few days ago, during a rainy evening as I sat down with a cup of hot tea (one of the simplest constants I have created for myself to deal with the variables in life) and was scrolling through a blog on my phone, I came across a few sentences that seemed simple yet powerful. In that moment, I could not fathom where the power lay within them or how I could approach it. The paradox was that the blog provided affirmations to fight physical allergies and infections but it was my mental faculties that seemed to be grappling with the larger meaning of the words used in that specific order. When I dug a little deeper online, I realized that they seem to be inspired from the book You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay and they were:

I release the pattern in my consciousness that created this condition.

I am willing to change.

I love and approve of myself.

In essence, they spoke of change, of an inner transformation. Of letting go of my past to be able to fully step into my future.

Today, as I meandered through playlists on travel and philosophy, I came across the TED talk by David Whyte titled ‘A lyrical bridge between the past, present and future’. In that he shared two poems inspired by his niece, Marlene McCormack’s hike along El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And those are magic words in my world.

El Camino de Santiago, or the way of St.James, encompasses many trails stretching across Northern Spain, from the south of France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the western coast of Spain. Today, tens of thousands either walk or cycle the Camino de Santiago every year undertaking an epic journey of 500 miles driven by various motivations spanning sport, religion, nature, adventure etc. El Camino de Santiago has been declared World Heritage by UNESCO and the First European Cultural Itinerary.

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Collecting stamps along the way in the ‘Pilgrims Passport’ to represent progress.
Image courtesy: Image: Pól Ó Conghaile found at Natgeotraveller.co.uk

The drawing of the scallop shell also serves as a symbol of the Camino: the grooves in the shell represent the many roads of the Camino coming together at a single point at the base of the shell (Santiago de Compostela). Another great visual reminder of paths.

Ever since I first found the courage and calling to give travel a tangible form and came to understand how it is so much more than the physical act of exploring a new city, I have been fascinated, compelled and consumed in fact, by the existence of this trek to Santiago. The symbol of the scallop has appeared over and over through different channels into my daily life, thousands of miles away from the actual location and someday I hope to make this journey. One such appearance was on the cover of a book I picked up while in Greece titled ‘Making a Pilgrimage’ by Sally Welch that delves into the true meaning of journeys big and small.

In his talk, Whyte threaded the narrative of Marlene’s experience on the trek with a deep sense of openness to change that connected with the affirmation I mentioned earlier. To me, it was a sublime merging of pieces of truth from two sources: travel and philosophy, which to the discerning traveler are but the same essence in different forms. Whyte spoke about working with the conversational nature of reality and how reality is actually this “frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you”. And he ended his talk beautifully by explaining how in that very frontier, when we realise that reality requires of us to be as open to the falling of the leaves as to the appearance of the first blossoms, we understand the bridge between what brought us to this moment, who we are right now and the different version of us in the future that will arise once we have perceived the latent possibilities we hold within.

The analogy of the very route the pilgrims/travelers take to the path of our life is something that is probably more obvious. However, what was different about this narrative was the tying together of one’s past, present and future with the very moment one finds themselves at the so called “completion” of the trek which is nothing but a new beginning. He devotes some minutes to that moment when Marlene is standing at the edge of the cliff and realizes that she is the only one who can make it across the ocean into her future.

Whyte also describes the three rituals that travelers on the path are asked to undertake once they have crossed Santiago and have now arrived at Finisterre, or ‘the ends of the earth’ as the Romans called it, for it is at this point that the land falls off leading into a watery horizon.

  • The first is to partake a Tapas plate of scallops to pay respects to the very symbol that has guided them all through their journey. In the words of Whyte, “this first ritual is saying: How did you get to this place? How did you follow the path to get here? How do you hold the conversation of life when you feel unbesieged, when you’re unbullied, when you’re left to yourself? How do you hold the conversation of life that brings you to this place?”
  • The second is to burn something they have brought along (in the case of Marlene, she burns two postcards and a letter)
  • The third is to leave behind one piece of clothing they have used on their journey to get there (Marlene leaves behind the very boots that she walked all the way in)

And this brings us to the affirmation. The ability to say “I am willing” is actually the courage to take a step into the very frontier where the line between who I think I am and who I think I am not is erased. It is the ability to perceive a version of myself that is different from who I think I am, remembering fully well that much of what I am today was something I never thought I could be. For each of those rituals indeed can be practiced by every traveler on every journey, by every person in every day. One does not need to reach Santiago to behold a better version of oneself: one that is definitely not immune to reality but is better by being more flexible and thereby more in tune with reality, as it really is, not as one would like it to be.

There is of course no harm in dreaming of how we perceive a better version of our reality and giving it everything we’ve got to get closer to it in some form. After all, imagination is the arrow we shoot towards a target that only we can visualize and it is a powerful force. But what was interesting to me from this talk was that so often I am focusing on that arrow that I am resisting the possibility of a different reality. In the process, I am incapable of fully appreciating the present. So often I have my version of Santiago sketched out in such detail in my mind, that I forget to consider it may look different when I actually arrive. The important thing here is to keep walking and to stay true to one’s self. To keep sight of the path I intend to take while accepting that along the way, life may reveal other aspects I am currently unaware of. How and when it changes me as a person is something I can only perceive when I look back.

Whyte sums it all up in a manner that only a poet, a philosopher and a traveler all in one can manage to do beautifully:

“So this is “Santiago,” the supposed arrival, which is a kind of return to the beginning all at the same time. We have this experience of the journey, which is in all of our great spiritual traditions, of pilgrimage. But just by actually standing in the ground of your life fully, not trying to abstract yourself into a strategic future that’s actually just an escape from present heartbreak; the ability to stand in the ground of your life and to look at the horizon that is pulling you — in that moment, you are the whole journey. You are the whole conversation.”

“Santiago.”

 

One night at a Shukubo (temple lodging)

A travel memoir, a poem, a memory. It was so much fun to write this piece and dive back into the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations of the temple lodging in Koyasan! If you would like to read this on Instagram using a lovely long horizontal swipe, follow me @misstraveltoes 🙂

If you have ever stayed in a Shukubo, I’d love to know about your experience.

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What is Auroville?

What is Auroville?

What is Auroville? I get asked this question a lot based on the occasional photographs I share. And I thought I’d share a little about my perspective on this today though it would merely be like a footnote in a large book.

‘Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.’

– Courtesy www.auroville.org

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A few kilometres from the sunny and colourful little coastal town of Pondicherry in Southern India is a universal city.

It is not a holiday destination or merely a pretty location with gorgeous guest houses and handmade products. It’s not just an eclectic mix of cultures, architecture, expression and projects. For those who have the yearning, Auroville is an opportunity to connect with something deeper and more lasting. To contribute, to connect, to invest in one’s own consciousness and be able to touch lives around, initially through the guise of “volunteer work” but then through more means that one can uncover. Even though I do not live there, I believe many of us connect to that energy that awakens, guides, humbles and evokes a deeper quest. And we act as channels for others. For as Rumi said,

“What you seek is seeking you.”

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And this is true of every time I am there. From chance encounters with friends from across the world whom we spent an evening with 3 years ago and who taught us that age is only a mental concept to running into role models who’ve shaped entire communities. It’s pure synchronicity.

So, I would recommend not going there just to take a break, enjoy good food and pleasant landscapes but to peel away the mundane and superficial, to try and connect with the community, seek ways to contribute and understand oneself a little better. That is something we need to do wherever we are in the world today. And so, for me Auroville is a reminder of my best self, a reference point if you will and a time in my life when I was the happiest with nothing to call my own but what I could offer to others and learn about myself. It is a reminder of the long road ahead and of how much more there is to do and to be, every day. Somehow, it is home.

For more information, visit the link inlclufe above. A few pictures from my journeys into this world can be found at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gypseagal/sets/72157632832327938.

An arrow a day.

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Image credits: Pinterest

 

What is this about?: It’s a personal narrative of working with symbols to connect with the mysteries of the universe and the unending quest to find balance in the simplest of everyday actions.

Why am I writing about this?: I have been feeling a strong urge to let these words tumble out of the cage of my skull onto a screen and have them placed out there for anyone else who is able to connect to this experience and can share the joy of this process. We have so much to learn from the ancients and this article talks about one such serendipitous find.

I also promised myself that I would express more often without criticizing the style of my own writing or worrying too much about the form. The meaning is more essential.

So here goes.

The story

Last year, on a cold and grey morning in Wisconsin, my friend and I got into the car for the long journey back to Minneapolis. It was something we were looking forward to because the quiet of the road coupled with the duration of the journey would give us plenty of space to catch up on life’s goings-on.

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Halfway through that drive, the conversation took a turn toward working with symbols as a means to connect with the essence of how life moves, unfolds and breathes. The form we discussed at length was that of an Arrow: a single arrow as an analogy for everything from seeking direction to working with the power of thought. The potential, the purpose and the meaning of an arrow. Our discussion, unbeknownst to us at the time, gave us a subconscious approach to working with our goals for the coming year and being better prepared to aim for them. As my teachers would put it, it set the foundation for us to work with spirit and matter.

As the Fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.

– The Buddha

A year later, as I scrolled through Facebook one evening sipping on some tea to ward off the wintry chill, I received a notification that I had been tagged by a friend in a post with a link to a video. I opened the link to watch a 44 minute episode on Kyūdō: an extremely simple yet powerful form of Japanese martial arts through the eyes of a Westerner, courtesy Japanese TV NHK (which I love by the way). The friend who had tagged me is someone I consider to be a soul sister, someone who engages on exactly the same vibrations and thought patterns as I do and has journeyed with me on several introspective moments into the mysteries of life, having also been a former batch mate in philosophy school. And so, I considered this to be another one of her perfectly timed gifts from across the world as a reminder of that very symbol I had begun working with.

Before this day, I had never come across the concept of Kyūdō and once I did, I found so much beauty, meaning and power in this that I felt compelled to share it further.

What is Kyūdō?

A little background here. Kyūdō, which literally means The Way of the Bow, is considered by many to be the purest of all the martial ways. In the past, the Japanese bow was used for hunting, war, court ceremonies, games, and contests of skill. The original word for Japanese archery was Kyujutsu (bow technique) which encompassed the skills and techniques of the warrior archer. Some of the ancient schools, known as ryu, survive today, along with the ancient ceremonies and games, but the days where the Japanese bow was used as a weapon are long past. Modern Kyūdō is practiced primarily as a method of physical, moral, and spiritual development.

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Image credits

Values

The essence of modern Kyūdō is said to be synonymous with the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.

  • Truth in Kyūdō is manifested in shooting that is pure and right-minded, where the three elements of attitude, movement, and technique unite in a state of perfect harmony. A true shot in Kyūdō is not just one that hits the center of the target, but one where the arrow can be said to exist in the target before its release.
  • Goodness encompasses such qualities as courtesy, compassion, morality, and non-aggression. In Kyūdō, goodness is shown by displaying proper attitude and behavior in all situations. A good Kyūdō archer is a person who maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of great stress or conflict.
  • Beauty both enhances life and stimulates the spirit. In Kyūdō, truth and goodness, themselves, are considered beautiful. Beauty can also be found in the exquisite grace and artistry of the Japanese bow and the elegance of the traditional archer’s attire. It is also present in the refined etiquette that surrounds the Kyūdō ceremony. Etiquette, which is simply common courtesy and respect for others, is an essential element of Kyūdō practice.

To one who comes across this concept, what was most striking yet very unsurprisingly Zen was the fact that the sole purpose of Kyūdō is not to hit the target but to achieve Mushin: a perfectly calm and balanced state of mind, of being. The video uncovered how masters of this art took several decades to achieve this state of mind, right at that moment before the bow left the arrow. It also showed the Hassetsu, the eight fundamental stages of shooting.

How does all this translate to working with everyday life? My take.

Coming back to my original story of working with symbols, over the past year I have been trying hard to work with the essential nature of a bow and arrow to how I can find balance, composure and calm amidst the shackles of the daily.

Simply put, if each thought is equated with an arrow, it means that the archer holds both the power to point it in a given direction as well as apply the desired amount of force and technique to shoot it, while doing so with grace.

This often brings me to evaluate my arrows from time to time. It leads to me asking myself a series of questions and investigating my own behavior, my own habits and tendencies.

  • Do I understand that the bow and arrow are a way of life and in that sense much larger than me?
  • How can I one with the arrow I hold?
  • Am I shooting the right arrows?
  • How can I keep it simple and straight?
  • What is the direction that I need to aim at?
  • Am I working with the right tools to use my bow and arrow better?
  • Am I focusing more on shooting the target than achieving a more balanced state of mind?
  • Does my lack of consciousness in a given moment lead to arrows being shot that do me no good?
  • Are my arrows shot more out of a personal necessity than in being of service to the universe for greater good?
  • On a given day, in any given moment, how much of Mushin can I bring myself to be in?
  • What makes my arrow falter/stumble and how can I be aware of this to work with it better? I feel this one in particular is both powerful and painful because it reveals the amount of work I need to do in making myself a better archer.
  • How does the shooting of the arrow affect other aspects of my life: amount of patience, clarity of thought, kindness in word and deed, setting the right level of expectations from myself and others, enabling me to better than who I was yesterday and most importantly not falling into the same traps of my personality over and over again.
  • How can I translate each step of the physical act of Hassetsu into an equivalent step for work with the inner self on a daily basis?
  • And lastly, how can I keep reminding myself about the the Way of the Bow every single day in both moments of calm and chaos?

 

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In writing this article, I felt like Kyūdō is a great microcosm to represent any action in life: from waking up to a new day with courage and enthusiasm to being mindful of every sentence and deed as the day unfolds. It is as deep as the oceans and yet as simple as that one principle it boils down to. The effort is precisely because of that sheer simplicity which our complex minds cannot fathom easily.

We often fall into the traps of our own desires, fears and habits and the simplest tasks of routine when repeated a thousand fold can seem painful. Personally, I hope to not just understand Kyūdō better but to be it (which may take multiple lifetimes!) even in the most daily things like watering a plant or cleaning the house. For after all, that is the beauty and simplicity of Zen in that it is not something out there, but something within that is simple yet sublime perfected with a single task repeated a thousand fold.

I hope you find an inkling of calm wherever you are, as you read this and in that moment we create a Kyūdō connection across time and space. Sayōnara!

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