Lissa McGovern

Ms. McGovern, standing before Nachi Falls, the tallest in Japan, from Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine in the Kii Mountain Range. The falls are considered a shrine in the Shinto tradition and the site features both a Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple. Buildings there date to the 6th century.

In March of 2023, I traveled through a grant from The Jonathan W. Strom Program for Asian Studies at Berkshire School. I traveled first to Japan and then onto Vietnam in a trip that combined my love of hiking and the outdoors while also offering me new perspectives about the many cultures that are part of these two countries. Working with and supporting international students at Berkshire, I have always been happy when I can talk to students about their home country from first hand experience, and it’s been a genuine pleasure to talk with our Vietnamese and Japanese students about my experiences since I returned.

My experience in Japan was phenomenal. I had the good fortune to travel to the Kii Peninsula in the western part of the Wakayama Prefecture and the small city of Tanabe, which is located on the Pacific coast, and then I walked and hiked on the Kumano Kodo, visiting the three grand shrines which are located in a rather long triangle on the peninsula. The mountains are stunning. The hiking was in some measure difficult and other times easy. But because of the nature of the trail, as a pilgrimage, it was full of wonder. 

Beginning of the trail from Hongu Taisha to Yunomin Onsen on Kumano Kodo, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. The Kumano Kodo has been a pilgrimage trail for more than 1,000 years.

Throughout each day that I was in Japan, I experienced the joy of passing many small oji which offered reminders of the connection I have to those who have walked for hundreds of years. Although I do not have a spiritual practice in Buddhism, I feel a deep connection to those who seek spiritual guidance throughout their lives. For me, walking and hiking are indeed an important aspect of my spiritual life. I was able to visit all three of the grand shrines of the Kumano Kodo and experience remarkable beauty along the way, from the stunning shrines themselves, to the Nachi waterfall which is spectacular to behold. 

While the land is beautiful, I met many wonderful people as well. In fact, having hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain about five years ago, I had hoped that I might have the opportunity to meet and know people in a similar way on the Kumano Kodo, and indeed I did. I met many people of remarkable generosity of spirit and appreciation of the region. Staying in ryokan and onsen, I was able to spend time with many others who were traveling either on the Kumano Kodo or enjoying the simple hospitality of guest houses. Due to the kindness of people I met throughout my trip, I was able to complete the shorter of the hikes and receive a dual pilgrim status. Even as I hiked, I met a number of people who had walked both routes and being able to share this experience was tremendous. We are, as citizens of the Earth, connected in so many ways. 

School children near the entrance to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

After experiencing the wonder and beauty of the Kii Peninsula, I traveled on the second leg of my trip, to Vietnam. Since we have students from the north and south of Vietnam, I knew it was important to me to go to both the south and north. I began in Ho Chi Minh City, and I spent two days exploring the area and focusing on historical places connected to the war. As someone who grew up watching the war unfold on the evening news, I knew I wanted to gain a better perspective from the Vietnamese, and I am glad that I did. I know that no country or culture would want to be known by its conflicts and indeed, in this exploration, I had opportunities to know a country that is deeply socially connected, in which people are kind and fun-loving and deeply connected to the past and the present. 

Nighttime in Hanoi, Vietnam

After leaving Ho Chi Minh City, I traveled northward to three amazing locations: My Son, an historical site with 117 Hindu temple ruins that were built from the 4th – 14th Centuries. My Son is both a sanctuary and a marvel built in the mountains of central Vietnam. It holds great beauty while also holding the scars of years of conflict in the region. From My Son, I spent time in Hoi An which boasts a culture that married the local culture with deep influences from the Japanese and Chinese that both traded there and at times exploited the region. Here ancient homes reflect these three cultures literally in the way homes were built and maintained. I also was able to travel on the Halong Bay which is easily the most beautiful water experience I have ever had. There, limestone islands jut out of the beautiful green water of the bay. Again, in these places of beauty, I also came to understand the country so differently from the single story I heard in my youth. There are indigenous people who steward the bay and both promote its heritage and its beauty for their nation and for a growing tourist trade. Finally, I visited Hanoi, a vibrant city which holds the ancient and new in delicate balance. I visited both contemporary sites and ancient temples. I was humbled by the kindness and welcome I received from people throughout my visit to Vietnam. 

Floating pearl farming village, Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam

In reflection, there are many “take-aways” from my trip, including reminders of how much we are connected to each other throughout the world, how much beauty there is almost anywhere we seek it, and the knowledge that we are all working for a better future. There was a thread that wove its way through each day of the trip, and it was one I hadn’t considered, but each of these cultures, with the blending of beliefs, offer many opportunities for people “on the street” and in the business of the day to find spiritual renewal. A day didn’t pass during my whole 16-day trip that I didn’t pass by or pass through a place of spiritual practice, from the many oji I saw in Japan to larger temples and shrines there and in Vietnam. Access to connection with the spiritual is everywhere in these two countries and access isn’t behind a closed or locked door, it’s on the corner of a lane or along a hiking trail or in an open temple on a busy street.