Travelling to Japan to visit my maternal grandparents used to be a yearly affair for me until Covid-19 led to border closures. So when my lecturer asked if I’d like to review Craft Tabby’s virtual tour in Kyoto, I said: I’m in.
Though I’ve been to Kyoto many times over the years, I’ve never really taken the time to learn more about the city and its history. So, I signed up for “Forest Bathe in Kyoto’s Sacred Mountain”, an English tour conducted over Zoom which costs JPY¥2,000 (SDG$25.55) per pax. The tour lasts for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The online experience was guided by Lee Xian Jie, 30, a fellow Singaporean and Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate. He moved to Japan nine years ago to read Political Science at Waseda University, and was so enchanted by the country’s history and culture that he decided to stay on for good.
I was a little nervous at first as there were participants from other countries. But Xian Jie led a brief ice breaker so that everyone would be more comfortable with each other. He then commenced the tour by playing a video of Fushimi Inari that he pre-recorded himself, starting with him facing the entrance to the tunnel of torii gates.
Instead of following the main route, the video took us to an elusive path that most visitors would avoid. Not before long, we arrived at our first shrine where Xian Jie performed a ritual to attract the God of gratitude. He first dropped a five-yen coin and rang a bell to focus his mind. He then bowed three times, clapped nine times in sets of three, and bowed once more at the end to complete the ritual.
I was slightly puzzled. What I used to do while in Kyoto was to bow twice, clap twice and bow once more. Xian Jie then explained that the three sets of claps represented three things to be grateful for: our own body, the people in our lives at this moment and those who are living far away from us but have once been part of our lives.
Next, we headed off to the second shrine 50 stories up. As we entered the shrine, we looked towards a mirror which had a cedar tree behind it. “You are looking at where the Gods are,” said Xian Jie.
He went on to explain that not only are Gods found in trees and rocks, they can also be found “in each of us”. He used the analogy that when we help someone in our lives, we are kind of “like a small God” to that one person.
Our final destination was the oldest waterfall in the area where it’s said to be about 1,000 years old. The video shows Xian Jie standing beneath the Waterfall of Clarity as he elaborates: “For the last 1,000 years, people have been standing under this waterfall to feel the Gods.”
In a way, the tour has brought me closer to my roots. It’s good to know more about Shintoism and to be reminded of the importance of gratitude.
One thing about the tour that I truly enjoyed was how Xian Jie conducted various quizzes and activities throughout the hour-long experience to keep participants engaged. This also ensured that we were listening and following along.
For example, Xian Jie paused the video right as we stood before a torii gate. He drew our attention to pieces of white paper in the shape of a lightning bolt on the gate. Then, a question appeared on my screen, asking us to guess what the papers represented.
Once we’ve made our guesses, Xian Jie revealed the answer: “These are called ‘Shide’ and they basically attract the Gods in the trees.”
Another activity that captivated me was when I got to “talk to a God”. At the second shrine, there was a board with many words scribbled across it, and a canister filled with Omukiji sticks, also known as Oracle sticks.
How it works is that if people wish to seek a divine answer to their questions, all they have to do is stand before the shrine, bow and clap.
You’ll then have to shake the canister until a stick falls out. Then, you can read the “fortune” that corresponds to that number on the board.
As ours was a virtual tour, we were told to simply select a number based on intuition and Xian Jie would interpret it. I chose 13 and he read: “The person who has gotten this has a lot of hope in his or her heart. But you must remember to do everything one step at a time. Only if you do [so] with all your heart can a big amount of good fortune fall onto your lap.”
Wow, that seemed to have really answered the question I had in mind, which was about the various volunteering projects I was working on.
As we couldn’t be at Mount Inari physically for the forest bathing experience, Xian Jie led us to do a “standing meditation” instead.
He got us to get up on our feet, turned to our windows and faced the sun. We then stretched our bodies very slowly while closing our eyes, holding our breaths and trying to focus on the here and now.
Well, I wished I could stretch under the thick foliage of a serene forest and not my room.
Truth be told, I was sceptical as to how interesting the tour could be since it was going to be virtual.
However, the sound of Japanese bush warblers chirping away paired with views of the torii gates, rock altars and tracks bordered by maple, oak and cedar trees made the experience so immersive that for fleeting moments, I felt as though I was actually present in the forest.
Xian Jie was also very informative and engaging as he shared about the Shinto shrines through interactive quizzes. Within the span of an hour, I’ve learnt so much more about Kyoto and its history. Even my mother didn’t know some of the information presented during the tour.
Overall, I appreciate this opportunity to “fly” to Kyoto and complete the Fushimi Inari hike all in the comfort of my own room. But I also can’t wait to forest bathe at Mount Inari in person. Will we get to travel soon?