As much as I love the bustle of mega cities, like Tokyo, there’s something cathartic about delving into the opposite phenomena. A couple of hours north of Tokyo, and only an hour from Narita International Airpot, where you fly in, take the time to chill out in the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu.
There are English-speaking guides at the entrance who will give you a deep understanding of what this 70 hectares of ancient cedar, cypress and cherry trees is about, considering the Shinto shrines scattered throughout were built in 660 BC.
Firstly, we cleanse ourselves at the small pavilion called the temizuya where we scoop water into our left palms, rinse our mouths and wash our left palms again. Now we are ready to walk beneath the imposing vermillion Romon where my guide enthuses that I ‘feel the air change and sense the spiritual energy.’
As I walk along the winding gravel paths, fringed by ferns and moss-knuckled tree roots I look for the kami – the spirits – believed to inhabit the branches above me.
It’s a day of celebration at Kashima Jingua and there are families everywhere, dressed in exquisite kimonos. Children who are 3, 5 and 7 are being blessed to gain protection from the deities. The god of martial arts is the one enshrined here. His name is Takemikazuchi and his origins go back to the beginnings of sumo wrestling. Centuries ago, the samurais worshipped here to gain their energies from the sun goddess who appeared at dawn.
As well as a deer park, where the resident deers are said to be descendants of the ancient divine messengers, there are ponds and scatterings of haiku scribed on posts – as I found out the Father of Haiku, Matsuo Basho, came here to write almost 500 years ago. There’s a great little cafe where you can lunch on tempura seafood and vegetables along with freshly made soba noodles – and you can watch their making from scratch by Master Chef Mr Sasaki in his glass-walled kitchen.
One amazing place not to miss is the museum at the entrance of the Sacred Forest. It’s an opportunity to get up close and personal to samurai armour over 1000 years old. The armour is made of lacquered wood and leather and their saddles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are helmets with full facial hair and shoes made of fur and feathers. Try and lift the replica 3-metre straight sword, the original is on display and was crafted in the 5th century. You appreciate how strong the samurais were to lift such hefty and unwieldy weapons.