By Paulo Coelho
I got out of the train one afternoon in February 2001, and met Katsura, a 29 year-old Japanese woman.
- Welcome to the road to Kumano.
I looked beyond the station to the setting sun shining into my face. What was the road to Kumano? During the journey, I had tried to discover why it was that this remote place had been included on the program of my official visit, organized by the Japan Foundation. The interpreter told me that a friend of mine, Madoka Mayuzumi, had insisted I visit this place, although I only had five days and had to travel by car most of the time. Madoka had walked the Road to Santiago in 1999, and thought this would be the best way of thanking me.
Back on the train, the interpreter had commented: “the people of Kumano are very strange”. I asked her what she meant by that, and she limited her answer to one word: “religiousness”. I decided not to press the matter: one can often ruin a good pilgrimage by reading all the leaflets, books, guidelines on the Internet, friends’ comments, and arrive at the place knowing everything one ought to be discovering for oneself, not allowing room for the most important element of any journey – the unexpected.
- Let us go over to the stone – said Katsura.
We walked a few meters to a small obelisk, inscribed on both sides, set on a corner – and fighting for space among pedestrians, a convenience store, passing cars and motorbikes. From that point, the road to Kumano was divided in two.
- If you go to the left, you will take the pilgrimage along the path the emperor used to take. If you go to the right, you will take the path of the ordinary folk, said Katzura.
- The emperor’s way may be more beautiful, but certainly the way of the ordinary folk will be livelier.
She seemed content with the answer. We got into the car and drove towards the snow-covered mountains. As she drove, Katsura explained some things about the place: Kumano is a type of peninsular full of hills, forests and valleys, where several religions live alongside one another in peace. The predominant ones are Buddhism and Shintoism (Japan’s national religion, older than the influence of Buddha, based on the adoration of the forces of nature), but every type of faith and spiritual manifestation can be found there.
- How many kilometers is the pilgrimage? – I wanted to know.
Apparently, she didn’t understand. I asked the interpreter to translate into Japanese, but even then Katsura appeared to be perplexed at my question.
- That depends on where you set off – she said finally.
- Of course. But in the case of the Road to Santiago, if you set off from Navarra it is about 700 kms. What about here?
- Here, the pilgrimages begin when you leave your home, and end when you return to it. In this case, since you live in Brazil, you must know the distance.
I didn’t know, but the reply made sense. The pilgrimage is a stage on a journey: I remembered that after having gone on the road to Santiago, in Spain, I only really understood what had happened to me when I spent four months in Madrid, before returning home.
- We see things, and don’t understand immediately – continued Katsura. You must leave behind the man you are used to being: he will remain there and only the good part continues to be nourished by the energy of the Goddess, who is a generous mother. The part which does you harm ends up dying for lack of nourishment, since the devil is too busy with other people, and has no time to take care of someone whose soul is not there.
For almost two hours we climbed a small, twisty road up the mountain, until we came to a sort of inn. Before I entered, Kansura commented:
- A woman lives here, we don’t know how old she is, which is why we call her the Feminine Demon. I’m going down to the village nearby to fetch a woodcutter who will explain to you how you should follow the road.
Night had begun to fall, Katsura disappeared into the mist, and I stood there waiting for the Feminine Demon to open the door.
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