Riding the Prayers to Suijin: From the Fires of Kamakura to the Healing Waters of Nyuto Onsen

As I depart from Zaō Onsen, the next leg of my journey through Japan brings me deep into the heart of Akita Prefecture and the Tohoku region—famed for its majestic rural winter landscapes.

Image courtesy Flickr user Chris Lewis: https://flic.kr/p/AT55J

My itinerary has me stopping off first in Yokote just in time for the Kamakura Festival (February 15 & 16), an annual celebration of rebirth and a petition to Suijin, the Shinto god of water, asking for purity in the New Year. I so look forward to wandering pleasantly through Yokote and stopping off at the little lighted igloos (kamakura) to partake of mochi and warm sweet sake. It is hard to anticipate how this celebration will touch me, but I can already appreciate the chance to surround myself with others who are burning away the old and looking ahead to the new. I’m entering a season of this myself. I’m also humbled to have the chance to join the Japanese people in a ritual that acknowledges our intrinsic reliance upon the gifts of nature—in this case fire and water—to revive us, to sustain us, and to nourish us into the future. In all the cultural recovery that I am pursuing for myself and for my Native heritage this practice comes at a good time. Just another opportunity to learn a lost embodied language that the Japanese people on the whole do a much better job of shepherding culturally into the future.

The rural communities of Akita are often spotlighted as bellwethers of Japan’s aging population decline, and the region has become something of a laboratory for attracting more workers, residents, and foreign spending through organized campaigns of ecotourism and agritourism. Moving on then from the soft burning lights of Yokote, I will ride the Akita Shinkansen north through some amazing farm country to my next destination—the Nyuto Onsen—a ring of hot springs just a short bus ride from the mythical Lake Tazawako. But not without first stopping off for a brief tour of the city of Kakunodate and its ancient village of traditional Samurai homes.

Image courtesy Flickr user Scott Lin: https://flic.kr/p/UnTgfG

A restoration project unto itself that gives foreign visitors an experience of what it would have been like to live the everyday life of a feudal Japanese warrior and aristocratic landholder. Here too I cannot anticipate what my meditations might be as I wander among and through the homes and streets of this impressive historical recreation project. As someone who has gone out of his way to cultivate a practice of memory activism—advocating for direct encounters with the past through immersive engagements with the personal and spatial legacies of traumatized communities—I’m sure I will be transported on some level. And I will be left pondering the fine lines between truth and mythology.

Image courtesy Flickr user Fumiaki Yoshimatsu: https://flic.kr/p/4ivkSP

Rest assured I will have plenty to think upon as I settle into my ryokan at Nyuto Onsen, where I plan to finish out the day by making the rounds to as many of the seven onsens that comprise this incredible ring of natural hot springs. Even as I sit here at a far distance and pen these words I can feel the release of tension from my day’s travel as I slip into the steaming waters. The act of onsen in Japan has its origins in ritual bathing and Buddhist spiritual cleansing practices, and in its earliest days was often facilitated by the rich on behalf of the poor as a compassionate act of gift-giving—the gift of cleansing oneself bodily. For the homeless or working poor, what an experience of joy and rebirth this must have been. For devotees of Buddhism the practice of onsen was also used to elevate meditations upon the divine Buddha. And there is no question that the minerals of the hot springs are physically curative.

dad2I myself am coming out of a long period of work weariness and embarking on some new career projects. May the waters penetrate deep. So, where the first leg of my journey will bring me into the realms of Yamagata’s mountain oni and surround me with the sacred Dewa Sanzen of birth, death, and rebirth, this next leg brings me to the altars of Suijin—petitioning and partaking of Tohoku’s waters to bring about a much needed renewal. From there I should be plenty revived and mentally prepared to take the first big turns in Iwate’s backcountry as I disembark to Morioka to rally four days with my guide Kenichi Minegishi of Kintoun. Japow here we come!

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