Beginning in Tohoku, with spirit

The legendary haiku master Bashō wrote one great travelogue in his career. It was called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and it was the story of his 1689 travels to Tohoku, the region that stretches to the northern tip of Japan’s main island Honshu. We are Matt Goulding and Nathan Thornburgh, the co-founders of Roads & Kingdoms, and we came to Tohoku to see the land that Bashō once crossed on foot. The fundamental building blocks of the place, as we saw them throughout the six videos of this series, remain the same as in the poet’s day: wild coasts, verdant mountains, ancient temples, fresh seafood. For our first episode, there is no better place to start than in Yamagata, the Tohoku region most closely associated with Bashō.

Yamadera Temple

A practicing Zen Buddhist, Bashō was looking for meaning—a glimpse of the eternal in the cacophony of human life—in all his travels. But when he came to Yamadera Temple, he created his own timeless work. His haiku about the cicadas, about how their cries fall into the silent rocks, remains of Japan’s most famous poems. And the temple that inspired it, a series of buildings set into the side of a dramatic cliff, seems equally without time. Visit early to light incense, walk the stone steps, and drink in the soaring valley vistas, just as Bashō would have done in his day.

Sake, Drink of the gods

One tradition you will notice at Yamadera—or really any temple in Tohoku—is that by many shrines, there are small offerings of sake left for the god. The spirituality of that iconic Japanese rice wine has a long history. So it should be no surprise that, in a region filled with mountain temples and cold, clear streams, sake has a long pedigree. The Dewazakura Brewery is one of the oldest family-run sake establishments in the North. Their careful attention to handcrafting sake, from sprinkling the koji starter over the rice to polishing the rice itself, has made it a famous drink throughout Japan.

Yamabushi Mountain Mystics

With sake crossed off the list, it is time for a final dive back into Tohoku spirituality. The Yamabushi—a group of devoted mountain mystics—dress themselves in white funeral shrouds and make the pilgrimage up Dewa Sanzan, the trinity of holy mountains. The trek up Mount Haguro’s 2446 stone steps is arduous, and must be done in silence, but it ends in a well-earned and spirit-stirring resurrection ceremony. At night, you can stay in the Daishobo pilgrim lodge and spend time learning from Master Hoshino’s wisdom, ready to keep up with one very Zen premise that he mentions in our video: “accept everything.”