The weekend away that'll turn you into a superhero

The weekend away that'll turn you into a superhero

Power shower: Waterfall meditation is the new (old) big thing in Japan

Mitake waterfall meditationBelieve it or not, this is early November. In chilly Japan.We’ve all seen it. It’s one of the most iconic images in Japan -- a white-robed holy man meditating beneath a freezing waterfall, deep in the mountains.

Truth be told, this is as exotic to modern Japanese people as it is to folk from elsewhere. 

Perhaps for this very reason, the art of taki-shugyo (waterfall meditation) is enjoying a surprising surge in popularity among normal people today. 

How do they do it? More importantly, why do they do it?

They claim they do it because it’s like pressing your body’s “reset button.” Living in a big city like Tokyo may be exciting, but it’s stressful too. We all search for ways to release that pent-up stress and negativity. And this is one of the oldest ways in the book.

My destination is Seizan-so Temple Lodge on Mount Mitake in Okutama, a little over an hour from Tokyo by train.

More on CNNGO: Bouldering booming in Mitake

The three-day misogi program I've signed up for consists of daily hiking, semi-fasting and waterfall meditation. Normally, the local shrine-priest accepts aspirants only in the summer months, but he has agreed to let me undergo training in November.

Lunch on day one is soba with mountain vegetables and a big sweet-bean jelly bun. It will be my last “real” meal for the next three days. 

From now on, I will rise before dawn, hike throughout the daylight hours and stand beneath a waterfall not once, not twice, but five times -- fueled by just two meals of thin rice porridge a day. Sounds daunting, right? Here’s how it went.

Holy hiking

Mitake waterfall meditationOur intrepid ascetics prepare for a weekend of exercise, discipline and midnight skinny dips.

Mount Mitake reminds me of Machu Picchu, with shrine buildings and treasure halls notched into steep hills.

Hashimoto-sensei, one of Musashi-Mitake’s priests, leads me and several others in our training. As we stride through the crisp mountain breezes he advises us to think of them as the breath of mountain gods.

It helps cut the cold, and the greens of the forest give way to beautiful reds and yellows as we work our way up the peak.

I’m a devoted trail runner, and I know from experience that eating too much slows you down. But the porridge I had last night and this morning was a bit too light. I’m hungry. My stomach started growling early and didn’t let up.

With no more food until nightfall, I knew I had to trick my mind. Like a sennin, a Taoist immortal from legend, I pretended to “eat” the mist hanging in the air as I walked. I imagined my stomach filling up with the mountain air.  If it’s good enough form a legendary immortal, it’s good enough for me -- or so I told myself.

It worked. I slowly but surely forgot my hunger, ignoring the growls of my stomach. I even started feeling a spring in my step -- a spring I wouldn’t have felt after a full meal. The human mind is an amazing thing.

Cold shower

Hiroko Yoda/CNNGoSuperhumanity beckons.No discussion of misogi would be complete without waterfalls.

Ayahiro waterfall appeared before us as we approached our destination. I stepped into the icy waters and began my meditation.

Under the watchful eyes of the priest and my friend, there was no room for hesitation. It was cold, to be sure. Shocking, even. But invigorating. I felt strong and full of energy.

Still, this was only our first, brief introduction to the waters. 

Over the course of the weekend, we continued to hike, meditate and sit under the waterfall a half-dozen times. But the peak of the experience came that evening -- my very first night waterfall meditation.

A thick fog covered everything in what would have been a whiteout if it hadn’t been pitch black.

Sensei led the way with a flashlight. The forest around us seemed alive. We heard a flying squirrel cry out as we approached Ayahiro again.

This time, it being dark, I decided to strip off my robe to feel the water directly on my skin. But when I stepped under the falls, I was shocked to find it feeling almost warm!

Perhaps I’d gotten used to it over the course of my “training.” I called out the chant Sensei had taught us, a plea to the gods of purification: "HARAEDO NO OKAMI!!! HARAEDO NO OKAMI!!!"

My voice boomed through the foggy darkness. I felt good. But eventually, my resistance to the cold waters flagged and I started to feel the chill. It was the signal for me to get out.

I was so pumped up afterwards, I felt downright superhuman. Able to leap tall waterfalls and crush rocks with my bare hands. Talk about a natural high.

As we returned to our lodgings in the temple, Sensei required us to take a hot bath.

Feeling cleansed by the sparkling-clean mountain waters, I hesitated at first. But moments in the tub reminded me of how exhausted my body was. The warm water brought me back down to earth.

Eating porridge

Mitake waterfall meditationRice porridge -- the perfect way to rediscover your tastebuds.

Normal lodge customers are served a veritable feast of fish, vegetables and many other goodies with a plenty of rice. Meanwhile, pilgrims like us get a bowl of rice porridge, a single pickled plum, a few pickles and a pinch of salt. 

Needless to say, skipping lunch made me hungrier. So I figured I’d be ravenous when dinner rolled around.

But I was wrong. My body had so adjusted to the low-calorie diet that I could barely swallow a bite. 

But leaving food on your plate is out of the question on holy ground. It’s a matter of etiquette to eat exactly what you are served.

It took almost an hour to finish. How strange to find myself invigorated by a freezing blast of water but struggling to  finish a simple bowl of porridge.

Returning home to “real life” after the three-day experience was yet another shock of sorts. The thing that struck me most after training was my sense of taste.

All of the exercise and eating of nothing but rice porridge temporarily “reset” my palate. I could taste the subtleties in everything, even unseasoned soba noodles.

As I sat and savored a bowl of them, my first real meal in three days, I thought to myself: "Maybe there’s something to this ascetic lifestyle after all."

Getting there: Seizan-so Temple Lodge (Japanese skills essential), 43 Mitake-san, Ome City, Tokyo, +81 (0) 428 78 8798. Website.

More on CNNGO: Vipassana -- surviving ten days of meditation 

Hiroko Yoda runs AltJapan Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based entertainment localization and translation company. She is the author of many books about Japan, including "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," "Ninja Attack!:True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws," and "Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide."

Read more about Hiroko Yoda