Oh Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you. Amen.
left Geneva on 27 November, the day of “Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal”, to begin this second pilgrimage to the Kumano Way.
I had a stopover at Amsterdam, and before reaching the airport I saw some rainbows in the sky. I say some because first I saw two small ones and then a beautiful full one with another on the outside rim – double rainbows! I thought this was a good omen for this journey. In Amsterdam I was to meet Orietta Prendin, who was coming in from Venice, and Stella Pelissari coming in from Paris.
Orietta owns a hostel in Viloria de Rioja on the Way to Santiago (she also represents the Jacobean Cultural “Paso a Paso” (Step by Step) Association, and came to accompany and help me with all the work. She participated in my Pilgrim Path process and knew the best ways to photograph, film, help me to dig up the paintings, clean them, put them on their frames and set up the exhibit – really a lot of work to be done in nine days!
Stella is a Brazilian journalist who lives in Paris. A few days earlier, I had gone to Paris for the exhibition at the Grand Palais, and on that same day I was interviewed by her for a Brazilian magazine called Versatille. In the middle of the interview I told her that I was going to Japan and she said that her dream was to visit that country. I said “So why don’t you come?” It’s precisely from initiatives of this sort that great encounters and moments are born.
This time we arrived in Japan through a different door, Osaka. Brad was waiting for us at the airport and we went straight to Tanabe.
That night we had dinner with Yasuyuki Urano, Head of the Tanabe City Tourism Bureau to promote the Kumano Way, Brad Towler, International Director of Tourism and Development in the same Bureau, his fiancée Miro, and Noriko Furukubo, assistant to Yasuyuki Urano.
Before we reached Tanabe, we passed through Wakayama to buy the material needed to fix and interrupt the interference of Nature in the paintings. Japan is really unique, very feminine and delicate.
I also did some shopping here!
We began our great pilgrimage to the places where I had left the paintings more than nine months before.
The first was beside the Nakahechi Art Museum in Bijutsu-Kan.
I had left three paintings there: Hibiscuses, Three Blue flowers and Path. I was very upset when I saw that the first painting I removed – Hibiscuses – was practically destroyed, but I did not become disheartened and kept smiling. Later on I learned that this spot was previously a rice paddy, which explains why it is so humid.
The other two paintings were retrieved, but one of them (Three Blue Flowers) was reduced to just a small piece of canvas.
Afterwards I met the museum director, who had been the “guardian” of these first works, and gave her my book “The Pilgrim’s Way“. Then we went to the Bocu Café, the biological restaurant where my paintings were buried in the vegetable garden.
It was very moving to find them. I had been afraid that I would be unable to make the exhibition, and besides, I had already ordered the frames and had also dreamed about Monty Shadow (a friend of mine), who asked me: “How can you have the frames made before you know if you’re going to find the paintings?”
The painting called Sunflower was beautiful, so were Bocu I and Bocu II, and Blue Flowers with Leaf was just perfect, waiting to greet me with the magic touch of Nature. This time I did not have to force a smile.
When the work was over, we had lunch at the Bocu Café, a marvelous meal that they know how to make only in Japan!
We went on to Miharashidai, passing through a forest of enormous trees and climbing to the top of the mountain from where we could see the largest Portal in the world, Oyunohara in the city of Hongu. I had left three paintings there: two Ideograms and Hydrangea.
And from there to Yamabushi Mountain, the fourth place to retrieve the canvases. There I had buried Fire, The Mountain, Blue Flowers and Dahlia, which was given as an offering to the temple at Hongu.
And now came the hardest part: recuperating and framing the canvases. `This work called for a great deal of patience, because the drying did not depend on me.
We were installed in a large room in the old building of the Hongu town hall, where we gathered at an enormous table to start the whole process. As usual, I thought: “I’m not going to do this anymore, digging up and having an exhibit at the same time is so tiresome! You don’t know how it’s going to turn out and the risk is too great. Just imagine if the paintings can’t be recovered – or if they don’t dry on time”. A million things ran through my mind. But in Japan they have a time for everything, whereas we Brazilians would go without eating, working all through the night and getting all stressed out.
Not there, things are very different there. We would wake up early, work until lunch time, go out to eat and then come back to work some more until seven in the evening, take a small break for tea and traditional sweets – sheer delights, besides being a treat for the eyes! After that, Stella and I would go for our favorite program: Japanese baths. What a delight!!! Every day the temperature of the water was very high, because these are volcanic waters. The temperature was very pleasant every day, and even though it was late Fall there was still a lot of sunshine. The kindness of the Japanese, and their culture, make the country quite a unique experience.
When all the paintings were framed and all that was left to finish the work was to take the photographs in high resolution; here the Japanese gave us another show of their professionalism. They set up a studio the likes of which I had never seen before. We had to photograph the paintings from above; after considering the idea of using a ladder, we rented scaffolding to guarantee the best possible result.
Now all we had left to do was to assemble the exhibition. The rest was ready: the paintings were framed and duly photographed, and the digital picture frames describing the working process were already functioning.
We had a free day, and it rained. But this was no problem, because in this way we could see the landscape differently and listen to the stories that Brad told us.
Before I went to Japan I had a dream, I dreamed about the little one – a child. I was with Paula, my niece, and she showed me the little one. He was a child standing between two young boys; I immediately thought of Saints Cosme and Damian – and their brother Doum too.
It was a very powerful dream. When each part of the work was finished, Brad told me that since I had placed my work in the earth and then the earth had returned it to me, I should make an offering in the temple. I remembered that on my first trip to Japan to bury my paintings I had seen a child god and in this same place there was a small temple where people left sweets, toys, candies – everything that children like. I thought of making my donation in this temple.
I told Brad this and he informed me that this temple belonged to the other city, not to Hongu. And the offering should be made to the God of Kumano, Hongu Taisha, in the temple where the pilgrims reach the end of their travels.
While we were on this tour on that rainy day, Brad began to talk about a monk who had dreamed about 99 children, an experience that left him enlightened. And every time he dreamed about children, the dream was linked to this place of pilgrimage and to this God. So, everything fitted together!
On that same day we went to a place on the Kumano Way that was the equivalent of the Monte do Gozo on the Santiago Way (the Mount of Joy is where pilgrims get their first view of the towers of the Cathedral of Santiago, then they relax and rejoice, which explains the name). From this site along the Kumano Way the Portal of Hongu, Oyunohara, can be seen.
Brad also told the story of a pilgrim who was having her period (explaining that long ago in Japan women were considered impure during menstruation) and so she was not allowed to enter the Kumano Taisha in Hongu. On that same night she had a dream about the divinity of Kumano. In that place there was an Oji, the small local God: in the Shinto tradition, the Oji are pieces of the larger God, as if they were His children. Dispersed along the whole length of the Kumano Way, they protect the pilgrims and are usually represented by stones.
She dreamed that she could enter the Taisha, and that was a sign that showed that everyone could enter this sacred place, even women during their period. On that occasion she also wrote the following poem:
Beneath unclear skies, my body
obscured by drifting clouds,
I am saddened that my monthly
obstruction has begun.
That night the Kumano deity came to her and replied:
How could the god who mingles
with the dust
suffer because of your
But even today there are temples in Japan that women are not allowed to enter.
We were very happy to bring this work to an end, and the next step was the offering in the Kumano Hongu Taisha temple, a marvelous place with the following history:
“Oyunohara is an ancient sacred site located on a delta at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers. It was the original location of the Grand Shrine “Kumano Hongu Taisha” and believed to be a “yashiro”, a holy place where gods descended in prehistoric times. In 1889 a tremendous flood destroyed a large portion of the shrine complex and the salvaged materials were used to rebuild the pavilion at their present locations. Of the original buildings, only 3 were reconstructed. The entrance to Oyunohara is now marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world at 34m tall and 42m wide. All of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes lead to this serene and mystical clearing.”
The ceremony was very beautiful, I began by washing my hands to cleanse myself, then I donned a white kimono and we entered the temple of offerings. Brad did the translating. It was all very moving and magical. First I went through a purification ritual which was done with a long mobile made of white paper – or at least that is what it looked like to me. Sounds reached me through the paper walls, they seemed like chimes and clapping carrying me to another dimension.
When I came out of the temple I wrote a card to Paulo, because he was the first person I wanted to share this magic experience with. There is a mail box there with a bird, the symbol of Kumano. Its three feet represent Heaven, Man and the Earth. And this mail box is also the symbol of the union of Men and Peoples – all very profound.
Afterwards we had tea with the monk who led the ceremony and we received some gifts, which is a Japanese tradition. The monk, whose name was Ietaka Kuki, was very enlightened.
These were nine days of hard work for both the body and the soul. I came back exhausted and deeply satisfied. I do hope that other opportunities will appear to return to this marvelous place called Japan.
The Kumano Way extends over a sacred land that shelters Taoist and Buddhist temples, many portals and several legends; it is a pilgrimage route similar to the Saint James Way. There, nature is sacred – it imposes its rhythm. On the grounds that I left more than a hundred paintings along 800 km of the Camino de Santiago during two years, the tourism department of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, and the city hall of Tanabe, in Japan, also invited me to bury my canvases along the Kumano Way. I learned later that it is a tradition of the monks of the Yamabushi Mountains to bury their sutras and sacred objects in these highlands, which are now on the Unesco World Heritage List. My work was accepted with great modesty and respect. The Kumano Way and the Camino de Santiago are considered to be “brothers,” for their likeness.
I took 15 canvases with me, eight of them were already finished, inspired in old paintings by the Japanese artist Ito Jakuchu (1716 – 1800). I worked on the very locations the canvases would be “planted,” using natural and vegetal pigments. In addition, I inserted many ideograms I came to know along the trip.
I went to an exposition in Paris and I fell in love with the work of the painter Ito Jakuchu. He not only portrayed nature in its exuberance, but he also revealed its abrasion done by time, reasons that resemble my work. As I received the invitation, I thought it to be the ideal moment to honor Jakuchu. It was a great pleasure to finish this activity. It was so intense, that I felt graced on my return from Japan.
The criterion to select the locations was to choose them according to their historical importance or for their proximity to an important spot. The canvases were buried in Boku, Miharashidai, Bijutsu Kan and in the mountains of Yamabushi. But I also felt and followed a very strong intuition.
A Shinto monk gave me a mirror and told me that every time I looked at my self, I would be seeing my heart. At the Shinto temples there are no images at the altars. In one of them there is a window through which we can see a grandiose and sacred waterfall.
An example: I left some canvases at a vegetable garden, next to an organic restaurant – which food, as it happens, was delicious and prepared by two young women who were the ones who kept the vegetable garden. I chose the exact location in which the radishes would be planted. I thought they would transmit the energy of my work to the food that nourished the local regular customers as it was being prepared. There I placed four paintings: one of a sunflower, another one with hydrangeas and worked the following ones with some pigments and local vegetation. This place was called Boku.
I saw a quite interesting ritual in the city of Hongu. Some men came down a steep mountain during the night, carrying torches written with the names of their families and the profession of each one of them. At the end of the course they come out as real heroes, even though some of them are hurt. This is a rite of passage in which men show their courage. And the effect of the fire on the dark, the white clothes and the torches, which make a different sound as they collide, is very beautiful. Normally there is a lot of sake drinking before they descend the mountain.
It is always a surprise. I never know the result of the canvases, only at the moment they are unburied. This always produces a great emotion in me. For it is not just about the physical aspect of what a canvas becomes, but about all the energy that comes from the pilgrims and the location.
In Japan, I was welcomed with great modesty and respect, as in the region there are the monks, who, like me, bury their sutras. The most fascinating side in this trip – besides nature’s harmony and the architecture of the temples – was the people. To name just a few: the two farmer women that planted and prepared the food; the monks, who always generously offered me gifts, such as the mirror.
Another Buddhist temple, also near the waterfall, had a little altar with the image of a man and a baby crawling: this really fascinated me, as the print had a sublime aspect. I entered this temple and saw that there were many toys, candies and sweetis to be given as offerings to the spirits of the children. A very elderly monk approached me and tried to dialogue with me through gifts: first he gave me an envelope and then, smiling, he gave me a box. As I opened the box, I saw that it contained a drawing representing the Chinese year of the ox, and it had a little bundle of candies made of brown sugar, as those given to the children. The artisans seemed like Manga characters and resembled angels.
In addition to all of that, in a little store in the mountains, I saw a bracelet with three symbols: a virgin, a ball and a key – the very same ones I found earlier, in the streets of Geneva, a little while before my trip. As I looked at the Japanese bracelet made of braided leather with these three allegories, I felt the impulse to buy it, but at the same time I saw a couple approaching me. As I said I wanted to purchase the armlet, they said they were the artisans who made the objects sold at the shop, and they were very touched that I liked their work so much. So they gave me some fruits made of cotton flowers, as delicate as themselves. I felt they were spiritual and benevolent beings as angels.
Mr. Urano – and his entire team at the tourism office – also showed matchless kindness, introducing me to the typical foods of each region and the ryokans (typical Japanese inns) that offered warm volcano water baths. I found the smoke that rises from the rivers of transparent waters especially curious.
At the airport I had a pleasing surprise, for they brought me treats: a beautiful silk belt, used to tie the kimonos and green tea with rice grains. The same happened when I visited the mayor of Tanabe – he gave me a fan and a bottle of sake. In Japan, people are very polite; one of their traditions is offering gifts.