“If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together”
For me this quote encapsulates everything about my Japan experience. Last year I took on one of Project Futures International Challenge’s to hike the Kumano Kodo – a rugged pilgrimage walk that has been used for centuries as a rigorous training ground by Buddhist monks because of its steep mountains and isolated surroundings – and also raise $2000 to go towards fighting human trafficking in Cambodia. If you would like to know more about why I initially got involved you can read my past blog post here.
The first challenge was to raise $2000 – At first I thought this would be easy, I thought this was such an amazing cause so who wouldn’t want to contribute? I thought that because I was so passionate about it I could simply share my views on social media and get people to give me their money, surely I could get 100 of my 1600 Facebook friends to donated $20? No, not quite. While my Facebook posts attracted a few likes and spread a bit of awareness, everyone was pretty reluctant to hand over their cash. I fundraised at a couple of small existing events but was still well off my target with only a couple of months to go. A lot of people were talking to me about it like I should be stressed, but I wasn’t. I knew everything would work out, I just needed a new plan.
I decided to run a dedicated event to generate some hype, awareness and hopefully funds to really get the fundraising going. I was blown away by the response to the High Tea that raised over $900. Further to that it created some much needed momentum, I was invited to events to speak about Human Trafficking, people started approaching me wanting to donated, people kept coming to me with ideas on how to raise more and my Rotary club got right behind me to run a fundraiser night that raised over $700. I found that once I actively started doing stuff to spread awareness and actually got in front of people to tell them why I wanted to join the fight against human trafficking that so many people showed so much support. Once I got people involved and on the journey with me the funds flowed in and I ended up raising just over $2700.
With 2 weeks to go before I was venturing off to Japan, I was incredibly unprepared to say the least. My hiking boots were barely worn in, I didn’t really know what hike appropriate clothing I needed, I had no idea if there was anything I needed to do before entering Japan, I didn’t even know what the currency was there or how much money I’d need to take. Most of this information was in the info pack we received well in advance, (probably should have read that). Everyone was asking me questions that I didn’t know the answer to. When I look back there was a lot more I could have done to prepare myself but I love going into new things with little expectations and seeing how it plays out. I learn the best by seeing and doing things so no amount of reading up of things could have ever really prepared me for what was to come.
When I arrived in Japan I had to make my own way from Osaka to Kyoto, I was feeling a little nervous about this as I am not the best with directions and public transport. I got there though with plenty of time to spare! What I quickly learnt was that people in Japan are so nice and generous! I must have looked lost a few times as I had a few people come up to me and ask if I was ok and needed help to find where I was going. After I caught the train and the subway and was finally on the right street (I was 96% sure it was the right street) I was having trouble finding the hotel so I went into a shop and asked the man working for directions, he told me I had walked past it and that I was on the left hand side of the road. I went out and started walking back when a few minutes later the man came running up behind me apologising and telling me the hotel was actually on the right hand side. One small example of how beautiful all the people I came across in Japan are.
My first night in Japan was my first attempt at using chopsticks, let’s just say it took me a while to eat my noodles. I quickly learnt that Japanese food = amazing and if I wanted to enjoy it I needed to master eating with chopsticks. Happy to say by the end of the trip I was pretty pro, at least to my standards.
The first full day in Japan was spent on an urban hike exploring Kyoto and getting to know the awesome bunch of people I would be spending the rest of the trip with. It was fascinating seeing how every detail has a story behind it, the attention to detail and meaning was amazing. One of my favourite stories was about why the foxes were the sacred guards to some entrances. The short version of the story is that rice is like gold in Japan and there was a time when mice would come and eat all the rice, then came the foxes who ate the mice and saved the rice. All hail the Fox, protector of the rice. The whole day we saw countless shrines and temples, I climbed through a hole in a rock that was supposedly meant to bring a new relationship into my life and I ate the head of an octopus. We walked down these stairs that if you trip while walking down you will die in three years, when one of us almost tripped there were a lot of relieved faces looking our way. Today before the actual hike had even began I walked over 27,000 steps. A good warm up.
The next day was spent travelling by train to the seaside city Kii-Tanabe. The most eventful thing on the train was seeing the safety instruction card ‘in the case of a tsunami’ I thought the likelihood must be pretty high for them to put these at every seat. When we got to the new city it was beautiful. We enjoyed dinner with unbelievably delicious food and soulful conversations and were getting pumped to be starting the Kumano Kodo the next day. A couple of interesting things I learnt about Japan that night – The streets in the restaurant/bar area are like a confusing maze, they were first designed like this so the enemy would get lost of the way to the castle and now the local business owners benefit when people who have had one too many can’t find their way out so they just go into the next bar. The second thing is that you can’t gamble for cash in Japan but what you can do is win prizes and then go next door and exchange them for cash. It is funny how it is human nature to find ways around the rules.
Hiking the Kumano Kodo – The time had come to start our pilgrimage, to experience our spiritual adventure. The hiking was challenging, there is no amount of walking on flat ground that will ever prepare you for a steep climb up a mountain. Going up was physically exhausting, going down was mentally draining. You have to have complete focus on where you are putting your feet. We started with a long steep climb and then the rest of the day wasn’t so bad. We had a really great guide with us who was not only helped in how to hike but really enriched our experience with his knowledge on the history of the sacred path. Great conversations made the time go faster and before we knew it we had walked for over 7 hours and arrived at our first guest house for an overnight stay. The family running the guesthouse were lovely and prepared a gorgeous feast for our dinner. I crashed very shortly after dinner, I had a solid sleep giving my body some much needed recovery.
The next day I woke up feeling sore but I was keen to keep going. This day was the hardest for me physically and mentally, it was tough. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and try not to look up and how far was still left to climb. I felt so drained and so exhausted. I was also feeling very grateful that the next day was our rest day, I needed rest. At dinner we were informed that our ‘rest’ day would include a 3.5km hike over a mountain. It was optional but I told myself that if I couldn’t get through that active recovery then how would I do the next two days that were apparently the hardest. So I went. I am glad I did. One step at a time.
Day 3 I woke up and wanted to stay in bed. It hurt to move, it hurt to stand up, it hurt to walk. I was thinking ‘how am I going to get through another 7 hours today?’ but this was part of my pilgrimage to overcome the pain, the overcome the fear. To embrace exactly where I was, to generate energy within myself to move forward and to just keeping taking one step at a time. Honestly if I was by myself I probably would have stayed in bed that day, I am so grateful for the amazing people I had with me on this journey. I knew no matter how slow I went, they had my back and that we would get to the end together. This day we showed how strong we had become as a team, finishing the day 3 hours ahead of expected time. We moved together as one, we were inspired by some amazing views, the vibe was high and I think our collective energy made us all stronger. Once my body warmed up I felt like I was on an amazing high for the rest of the day. I had no doubt that I could conquer the next day and complete the pilgrimage through the Kumano Kodo.
The final day of hiking was upon us, this was the day we would face the ‘body breaking mountain.’ In the rain! This was the day that we crossed the finish line and completed our pilgrimage. We started with an 870m climb up and the inclines kept coming from there. We went up and down for ages and then had to go all the way back down. It was wet and slippery, it was extremely challenging and we made it. Today I walked over 40,000 steps, the feeling of completing the challenge and the view at the end was worth everything I had experienced over the last five days. My journey through the Kumano Kodo had many lessons along the way, it pushed me and it almost broke me. It showed me if you know where you are going all you have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and you will get there. It showed me that you really are capable of so much more when you surround yourself with people who life you up and it showed me that if you want to go far, go together.
Love Rachel x
PS - I came home from this adventure feeling so inspired, there are so many amazing things to come out of this trip for me. One is another Project Futures Challenge I will be taking on – The Great Ocean Walk in November this year. Part of this challenge will be to complete the 3 day hike and to also raise $2500 that will go towards ending human trafficking in Australia. Right now there are over 4000 people living in modern day slavery in Australia. I can’t accept this, I can’t accept that some people think they have the right to exploit the fundamental human rights of another human being. When we work together we can change this, it can sometimes seem like too big of an issue to tackle but remember that it is the work on the ground that counts, if my efforts help just 1 person it is more than worth it. If you would like to contribute to my fundraising target or find out more please contact me.
PPS – If you know someone would be interested in hearing about my adventure through Japan, please forward on.