Japan. A country of magic, mountains and mystery. A nation famed for its onsen, exquisite cuisine and vast creativity that seeps into all corners of the land and beyond. My experience with Japan offered all of this but it offered something else too, something that would change the course of my life for the next few years.
By Sarah Brownlee
There is something intensely spiritual about Japan. Shrines adorn the grounds across the nation, each of them with their own unique energy and revered by the population as sacred. Even the food has a spiritual element to it.
Oh, the food! Sushi, sashimi, okonomiyaki and yakitori to name a few; delicious breakfasts in the ryokan consisting of several small dishes, each one with a superb layout and delectable taste, fish on one plate, vegetables on another and egg yolk to the side. Japanese food is healthy - even in the drink machines you will find pure sugarless green tea, rather than Coke or Pepsi. Among deeply spiritual circles, nutrition plays an important role and though it didn’t cross my mind at the time, I look back and it intrigues me that the country where I had such an intense spiritual experience should be one which places high value on health and nutrition.
My trip to Japan lasted for two weeks. I visited two popular cities, Kyoto and Osaka. However, it was during my stay in the mountains for several days where I had a life-changing experience.
It is worth pointing out that prior to my visit to Japan, I had every intention of leaving the UK for a while, my place of birth and homeland. My dream had been to live in Japan temporarily even though I had never visited before. So this trip was, in part, because I wanted to experience what it would be like to live in the country, if only for a short amount of time.
During my second week, I travelled to Yunomine Onsen in the mountains of Japan, about a three hour train journey from Kyoto. It was not a well-known place among foreign travelers; most of the visitors to this onsen were Japanese natives. It was a beautiful remote mountain village where you could bathe in the hot springs and even boil eggs in them.
Onsen are Japanese hot springs. Outdoor or indoor natural springs that cleanse and refresh you, internally and externally. Yunomine Onsen has an extremely sacred energy to it and is home to the only UNESCO registered onsen in the world. Its onsen were reported to be as old as 1,800 years and it is said that a famous military commander traveled there and was cured of an incurable disease when he bathed in the hot springs.
In this village there was access to a pilgrimage walk called Kumano Kodo. After a delicious breakfast of fish, vegetables and tofu, I decided to take a walk on this trail. I had read about it prior to arriving at the village and I found it deeply intriguing.
The pilgrim walk would have taken days to complete if you carried on until the end, but my plan was to walk for a few hours so that I would be back at the village for a late afternoon soak in the hot springs.
So I walked, higher and higher up the mountain on this pilgrimage walk, and as I walked, it grew quieter. The silence was extraordinary; not a sound to be heard except the slight rustle of wind or a bird flitting to and fro among the trees. I kept walking with no idea where I was going or where I would end up, and along the walk, I passed several small shrines.
After walking for a couple of hours, I was so high up that all I could see were trees and the sky. I came to a halt and several feet in front of me was the largest tree I had ever seen. It had a reddish trunk and leaves sprouted magnificently from the top.
I edged closer to it and as I went nearer, I felt something from it. It wasn’t a voice I heard, but a feeling; one that was happy to see me. Excitable almost.
I went along with it, though I didn’t fully understand what was happening. I got close enough to touch its trunk and, as I did, this strange feeling of serenity came over me. A sense of wholeness and oneness.
Then - I could not quite believe it - the tree spoke.
Not in the sense that it had a voice. Not vocally. But words appeared in my mind and I knew, somehow, that it was coming from the tree. It was a strong voice, a powerful one, and a regal one.
We’re glad to see you, it said.
So I replied in turn:
“I’m happy to be here.”
You’re doing well, the words came into my mind.
“Thank you. I want to move here. That’s my plan.”
No, came the words. You have to go back. Go back and help my brothers and sisters.
I didn’t know what it meant. I only knew that I was beginning to feel sad and upset. I knew I had a plan to move abroad, but I was being told now that I wasn’t supposed to do that.
“I don’t want to go back,” I said.
You must. Go back and help them. They need you.
I still did not know what it meant. I did not know who ‘they’ were, nor who its brothers and sisters were. I didn’t say anything again after that but I could feel an energy coming from the tree, one of love and radiance. I stayed there for some time, just standing next to it, my hand on its trunk. After a while, with some reluctance, I turned and walked away back down the path I had originally followed that would take me back to the village.
The remainder of my time in Japan was wonderful and breathtaking as I travelled to Osaka and other mountain villages with onsen. But when I returned to England, it was the memory of the tree and what it had told me that stayed with me.
To cut a long story short, I did not move to Japan in the end. Circumstances beyond my control did not permit it and my desire to move abroad disappeared. A couple of years later, I launched an international campaign that raised awareness for the Dog Meat Torture Trade in China and across South-East Asia. I will not go into detail about the horrific cruelty these animals are subjected to in countries with no laws to protect them, but my campaign grew to 4,000 strong in number and we worked tirelessly to raise awareness in the international community. An article I wrote about the history of the practice was published by World Dog Alliance and for three years my organization campaigned for better animal welfare, particularly to the UK government and to the US government. Our most notable campaign was in 2018 when we organized hundreds and hundreds of letters to be sent simultaneously from across the globe to the White House, alerting then President Trump, to the cruelty inflicted on these animals. That same year, thanks to the efforts of multiple activists in the USA and across the world, President Trump banned the consumption of dogs and cats in his own country.
My campaign ended after three years but I have no doubt it served its purpose. Looking back, I believe my experience in Japan prepared me for it. I believe now that the strange message I received from the tree and its “brothers and sisters” were the dogs and cats who were, and continue, to suffer. I led the campaign but it was never planned. It sort of just happened.
But everything happens for a reason; this is something I sincerely believe. And the universe will send us messages when it needs us to know something. In my case, it took a trip to the beautiful and mysterious land of Japan to hear an important message that was meant for me. Whether my story resonates with you or not, Japan is one of the most incredible, captivating places on Earth and a journey there will surely be unforgettable.
About Sarah Brownlee
Sarah Brownlee is a freelance writer from the UK. She has written and published three novels and one self-help nutrition book. Her interests include the history of the British isles, healthy living and astrology. She led the animal rights campaign, Operation Hound, from 2017-2020 which tackled the brutal Dog Meat Torture Trade in China and SE Asia, campaigned to international governments, and exposed the cruelty inflicted on dogs and cats in the region. She is an INFJ and Enneagram Type 8: The Challenger.