The Kite
Story and photos by Amy Carlson

After a year of too much heaviness and worry, the editor of Travelers' Tales Japan hikes the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail to refresh and begin anew.


A dark year leaves me in a muddy puddle full of attack Beta. Cancer has taken parts of me, chips away at my father's insides, and threatens my brother. Soggy and limp, I desperately need to rediscover the lightness of infinity, and scream a Holy Yes which reverberates through my pores and pushes me over the edge into the world of poetic traveling—longing to see within the ordinary, everyday mud and muck, poems and stories sacred to the core; to live awake; to recover, to reconnect, to respond, to rejoice with each breath I take … over and over and over again … despite the depth of the darkness or the murkiness of the puddle.

So, when I receive the call inviting me to walk the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route into the heart of Japan, I dash to my closet's abyss and dig for my REI duffel. Consecrating myself in closet dust, I become a pilgrim. This journey will take me home to a culture coursing through my life since my early 20s when I taught English in Nagoya.

wings outstretched in blue
a kite circles overhead
laughing deep wrinkles

tea leaves

Up we walk through a small burg surrounded by rice paddies, mikan orange trees, and tea bushes—all on terraces. Stopping at a help–yourself roadside stand, I buy some mikans and organic ocha green tea, dropping 500 yen into a pay box. Frost still lines the contours of the nearby tea leaves. A denuded persimmon tree stands alone with a few withered fruit left hanging. I stand soaking in the morning sun, glad for the warmth on this wintry day. It has been snowing lightly all morning.

Good to be out of the woods for a while. Brad, my traveling companion, agrees. We meander within the gentle hum of human activity, over a hill to a pass overlooking our final destination, the first of the big three—the Hongu Taisha Shrine. Down below, Japan's largest Torii shrine gate marks the original site of the famous shrine grounds, flooded out and destroyed in the late 19th century. Still holy land, pilgrims walk the Kumano Kodo back up the hill to the "new" site, safe from the Kumano River.

We pause at the pass to feel the yamanami, "mountain waves," rolling off into the distance. A single stone on the pass memorializes the life of the female poet, Izumi Shikibu, who walked all this way a thousand years ago, only to see her destination unattainable as she began her monthly cycle. Now impure due to her bleeding, she was forbidden to enter the Shrine. She sat right in this very spot and wrote a poem of her deep sadness. But a Kumano deity came to her in a vision and told her that all are welcome in the Kumano Kodo, the heart of Japan, no matter in what condition. She was invited to complete her journey. Rejoicing, she rose and descended into the valley.

Japan mountains

Since my ovaries got yanked prematurely, thanks to the cancer, I don't have the blood obstacle, but I definitely have a condition that warrants a sad poem if I let self–pity in. But today I only let in a bit of disbelief over my last year, and feel quite skeptical and unspiritual about these legends swirling 'round.

I take my skeptical self and join Brad for our walk down into the Shrine. Two old farmers, lounging in the sun in their mikan orchard, corral us, just waiting for walkers like us to tarry at the rest stop nearby. Seeing my need to wash my hands, sticky from the mikan I just devoured, one of the farmers offers his well water. A wizened gent, skin darkened and wrinkled from years outside, he turns on the tap. He insists on my drinking some as well—fresh mountain well water, cool and delicious. I splash some on my face and squeal with the cold. He's delighted. I'm refreshed.

Anxious to keep moving, I thank him and begin putting on my pack. But again, he insists that we see the view from above his orchard on the hill. Brad and I exchange a "we need to get going" glance. But with a raised eyebrow or two, we silently agree to leave chronos time behind again, for is this not what pilgrimage is all about? We drop our bags and our anxiety about achieving our goal for the day and follow him.

Rewarded by a nearly 360–degree view of the disappearing yamanami, we share a sweet juicy mikan freshly picked off a nearby tree. Suddenly, a large bird, a 'kite' tonbi, soars over our heads. The old farmer laughs, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling as he says, "even if you have no money, you can always have a bit of fun."

He grabs onto an imaginary kite string attached to the bird and begins to fly the bird. Out over his orchard it flies, then he pulls his string back around over his head, and here comes the tonbi, circling back above our heads. Did he know the play on the word 'kite?' Did he know how much I worry about money? He knows no English and he certainly doesn't know me and yet, mysteriously, the moment gives me a gift, a message of grace, internalized forever.

Japan farmer

I begin to realize that this pilgrimage in Kumano Kodo, designated as a World Heritage Site, classified as a cultural landscape—where people and nature meet—truly mixes the power of people and the power of nature into a mysterious, potent elixir of health. I am refreshed from the mountain water. I am refreshed by the mountain farmer. I am refreshed by the kite that flies above my head. I am thankful.

Amy Greimann Carlson weaves travel anthologies for Travelers' Tales, a San Francisco–based publisher. She has written for and co–edited Travelers Tales' Japan and has also written for and edited other anthologies in the award–winning series: A Woman's Path, The Gift of Birds, and Australia and has pieces in A Woman's Asia. Her writing also appears in Guidepost's "Sharing the Earth" and in a monthly series of musings on life & faith called "Wanderings." She lives in the Cascade Mountains with her husband and rabbit.

Related articles:

The Penitent Legionnaire by Robert Ward
Untitled Story, from Asolo, Italy by Edward Readicker–Henderson
Running with Faith by Eliot Stein
Into the Heart of India's Punjab by Joel Carillet

Other Asia travel stories from the archives

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