The great spiritual centres of Japan are home to scores of temples and shrines open to visitors seeking something of the way of the soul. From the Kumano Kodo sacred sites of Wakayama prefecture to the shukubo temple stays of ancient Kyoto, Japan is not short on destinations for a spiritual sojourn.
Japan's approach to spiritual reflection often revolves around an awareness of the person in relationship with their surroundings. One such approach, born of the Jodo Shinsu Buddhist tradition, can be found at Meiso no Mori, a spiritual retreat located two hours north of Tokyo in the woodlands of Tochigi Prefecture.
The three questions
Meiso no Mori translates as meditation grove and represents the Naikanho approach to self-realisation. One of the more recent additions to Japan's growing list of spiritual centres, the phrase naikanho itself simply means 'method of introspection' and was originally offered as a means for people in trouble with society to reflect and learn from their actions. Based on the questions of what have I received from you, what have I given you and what troubles have I caused you, the method has spread and centres like the one in Tochigi can be found in many places across Japan.
Silence is golden
Week long retreats form the basis of Meiso no Mori. Participants making the trek to Tochigi will surround themselves with silence - the modern world of information technology is left behind as visitors make do with themselves. Seated in their private spaces, participants reflect on the three questions, seeking answers and insights into their attitudes and behaviours. Every two hours or so, a guide will visit to listen to what has been discovered.
A modern experience
Other than these short interview sessions, everything else at Meiso no Mori is quietness and solitude. Meals - which are delicious - are prepared, served and removed by instructors while time is made available for bathing and cleaning chores. The rest of the time is spent in silent contemplation, discovery and revelation.
In this day and age of energy tourism and brand name experiences, it is a sobering thing to discover that from such simple silence and reflection, life changing experiences can be born. A modern taste of Japan's capacity to change the visitor, Meiso no Mori in Tochigi may be just the Japan experience a person needs.