Sweat is dripping down my forehead, seeping down my neck, before finally making it into my undies. Moving along this trail, far from the wandering crowds, and well beyond reach of emails, phones and all that ‘life’ stuff, I think I am in heaven. And, from the depths of this meditative state, I feel completely connected to my rawest self.
This experience in Japan is my first multi-day, lightweight mission. All I am carrying on my back is a small five-litre running vest pack. It contains only the bare essentials – a change of undies, a singlet, shorts, thermal, rain jacket, toothbrush, electrolytes, sports gels, cash, phone and a few tea bags. I learnt last time I visited that even in Japan I can find myself in tea deficit mode. On that occasion, I had reached a teahouse surrounded by tea plantations only to find that they only served coffee!
On each day of this spontaneous adventure I am aiming to cover anywhere from 35-55 km through relatively remote, mountainous terrain. I am on the Kii Peninsula which lies to the south of the mega cities of Osaka and Kyoto. As I would later find out, I had been all too dismissive of the word ‘mountainous’, which in Japan really does mean huge, sharp climbs in excess of 1000 m, followed be slippery freefalls back down the other side, only to repeat again.
On rare occasions the trail dips into the valleys that gently cup small, remote villages where a rural life of rice paddies, tea plantations and persimmon trees adorn. Here, I am greeted to a hospitality unlike anywhere else in the world. Stooped women eagerly grasp my empty water bottle, or offer me some ‘chocolate, just for you’ when I step into her home (which also serves as a café). When the time comes to stiffly stand up and bid farewell, she stands at the hearth of her home, waving madly like I am her daughter. I feel so connected to them even though our homelands are waters apart, and our native tongues struggle to express our gratitude.
In this rural region of Japan attention to detail is everywhere I turn. Small rest stops enroute are cleaned to 5-star hotel standards, with the toilet paper folded into a ‘V’ shape to highlight just how carefully prepared it is for my sweaty bottom. When I finally arrive weary, muddy and salt-crusted at my ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for the night, I am greeted by unphased cheerful smiles, a pair of slippers and a white fluffy towel. Later, as I soak in the healing onsen and revel in the warm fuzzy feeling of a day of adventuring, my futon bed is carefully prepared by Japanese pixies.
Prior to this personal four-day adventure, I led a group of trail runners on one of our Find Your Feet Trail Running Tours in Japan. At the end of each day, our tradition is to share highlights with one another. This offers a beautiful insight into the small moments that can, at times, be life changing for our guests. The practice provides not only a connection with one another, but also allows our guests to get in touch with a side of themselves which may feel unfamiliar and nuanced. At the end of this particular trip, we asked each guest to share the one element of Japan that they wished to return home with. It was, without a doubt, the most remarkable conversation. Unanimously, collectively, the group’s highlight was the Japanese custom of generosity and compassion – given so freely and with no sense of entitlement in return. It is this experience that draws me to this unique country and continues to prod my heart as I plod, huff and puff my way along the weaving trails.
Out here, on a trail to somewhere, I love to watch the way neighbors connect in the street, chatting gaily to one another. To marvel at the lack of fences and their community gardens. To watch them sweep, clean, and live alongside one another. Individual lives, connecting together and being enjoyed collectively. And yet, beyond this camaraderie there is another Japanese custom that profoundly strikes me – self-compassion.
Many of the small towns in which I slept had onsens, frequented by locals who would tug their gumboots off at the entrance and pad their way down spotless corridors in a pair of slippers. Many of the women were stooped over from years of toiling in the rice paddies, tea plantations or vegetable allotments. From labour to self-love, the onsen is where they come to nurture, preen, be mindful, and leave renewed.
When I step into this steamy environment at the end of the day, my dirty feet padding a contrasting path across pristine white tiles, I cannot help but observe the relaxed nature of the Japanese women sharing this space alongside one another… and me. We are all nude. We are all different, some with more curves here, and some with less there. Taller, shorter, rounder, smaller, it doesn’t appear to matter. These women look at themselves in little stumpy mirrors whilst poised on small plastic stools. They appear to observe themselves with a peacefulness that could only come from a lack of self-judgement, and a lack of judgement of others.
In contrast, back home, many of us are warriors in the bathroom. I for one, am far too quick to judge and rush through a routine of in, out, dried, clothed and on my way again. It is about time… time… time… or lack thereof. But in Japan, there is always time. Somehow, the days feel spacious, the heart fuller, the body more capable of brimming with self-gratitude. And of course, connecting to both oneself and others.
My adventure passes. Back in the concrete landscape of Osaka and awaiting my flight home, I cannot help but pine for those hazy memories of steep mountains and unknown pathways still to come. So, in the shadows of dawn, I pull on my running shoes one last time and slip from the hotel, weaving my way out onto the foreshore overlooking the man-made island now forming the impressive Osaka Kansai International Airport. Rain clouds boil with potency around me. As the sun begins to bead light onto the earthen walls where families and fisherman throw their fishing lines into the sea, a bold rainbow manifests. I pause briefly, revel in the fact that I have had this glorious experience, and continue onwards. Never once does it occur to me to share this moment with the unfamiliar faces around me. However, I am soon pulled from my inner glow by another jogger. He is waving madly at me and then madly at the sky, all the while hosting a broad, goofy smile. ‘Rainbow, rainbow!’ He is calling to me, connecting with me, wanting me to see what he has seen. We pause together – two individuals connected by an appreciation for nature’s finery, each exchanging unfamiliar words of excitement before continuing along our solo pathways. Moments later, just as two nattering women in broad, floppy hats are wandering towards me, the rainbow has spread into a two-layered beauty with an arc from ocean to ocean. I wave madly at them, and then up at the sky. I know I am sporting a goofy smile but I cannot help it. They stop in their tracks, conversation now on pause, and look up. Then they are squealing, pointing, waving at all the other wanderers. We become bundled together, connected by an arc of colour, all pointing and cheering. ‘Rainbow! Rainbow!’
Had that first gentleman not taken that moment to connect with me, I would never have learnt that generosity can be as simple as sharing an arc of colour as it seeps across a sky. Had I not connected with those women in the onsens, I don’t think I would have ever fully understood the gift of self-compassion when I now turn on the taps in the quiet of the bathroom. We need connection, both to ourselves and to others. It makes the rainbows shine brighter, judgement seep away and compassion rise to the surface. It allows us to stand on a set of steps and wave goodbye to someone we do not know. And it gives a sense of having more time. More time to greet a neighbor in the street. More time to share a random act of kindness with no sense of entitlement in tow. More time and excitement to explore wilder trails, knowing that you will be taken care of, both by yourself and by others.