“The world is one. We are the same”, has been an integral experience for people around the globe since pre-historic times who embark on a pilgrimage or visit a sacred site.
As Covid-19 makes its way to every corner of the planet it is a strong and visceral sign of our connection as humanity—our fragility and strengths. To make it through this time of uncertainty, distress, loss and mourning, our combined universal strength, support and solidarity is essential.
In this respect, our community, which is home to one of Japan’s oldest spiritual centers, with an ancient pilgrimage tradition, is rethinking its meaning and value to humanity.
What can we do? How can we help? What is our value to humanity during this time of global peril?
As always, our first answer is our priority for health and safety: for pilgrims, service providers, first responders, medical front-line workers, and citizens at large.
So we have been diligent in setting up sanitary infrastructure, for example an alcohol spray at the entrance of the information center so people can disinfect their hands easily, counters and other parts of the information that are touched are continuously cleaned, and all staff wear masks.
The mantra of don’t catch, don’t spread is taken whole-heartedly. And we have been supporting visitors with questions compassionately to the best of our ability.
Mourning & Loss
Every day, a constant barrage of statistics race across our screens, the number of new infections and the number of deaths. Each of these numbers has a life attached to them and our hearts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected.
The Kumano Kodo and Way of St.James in Spain are the only two pilgrimage route networks registered as UNESCO World Heritage and we have been working closely with the city of Santiago de Compostela and province of Galicia for over a decade. In the process we have created strong bonds of friendship and love between us. Two very opposite cultures and traditions working together, understanding and respecting our differences, and building on our similarities. It has been a rewarding and life-changing experience for many of us. With religious conflict around the world this relationship is a bright beam of light, an example of how we can work together regardless of religious differences.
So, it was a shock and with very heavy hearts when we received news from Spain that one of our dear friends and colleagues had died from Covid-19. She was so intelligent, kind and compassionate and had the ability to connect with everyone she met, regardless of nationality. The historic relationship between Tanabe City and Santiago de Compostela would never have been possible without her and every project that we have done was touched by her passion and love. She was our angel: always there, always smiling—an inspiration. Her loss is indescribable, but her legacy will live on forever. Thank you Megumi for everything, may you rest in peace.
Understanding Cultural Traditions & Human Needs
The Kumano pilgrimage stretches back over 1000 years with pilgrims from all walks of life, and most recently a diversity of nationalities, making the journey to the three Kumano Grand Shrines in the rugged mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Motivations vary, but from historical journals and shrine texts some of these have been recorded. Not surprisingly, petitions for health and safety, and to overcome epidemics was a common theme for prayer to the deities. This important tradition is continuing as the head priest of Kumano Hongu Taisha performed a ritual for the world’s health and recovery from the current pandemic.
From the beginning of humanity, one of the first motivations for travel was pilgrimage. Pilgrimage offers a universal experience that is often difficult to verbalized but touches the deepest aspects of our consciousness, the essence of our soul.
As guardians and caretakers of the Kumano pilgrimage tradition it is important for us to realize the value pilgrimage has to the human spirit and keep it alive for future generations. As this pandemic takes its unknown course across our planet, we will do our best to understand our cultural traditions and human needs to preserve the Kumano pilgrimage tradition for future generations. More than ever we will need these important sacred sites of salvation and regeneration to give us hope into the future.
In modern day society, people’s livelihoods rely on the economy. Our city, especially in the mountainside is reliant on the tourism industry. As with other places and industries around the globe, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the economy. We have been holding discussions and often emotional conversations with the local service providers who are struggling with the sudden stop of income. All our local associations and different levels of government are coordinating to get information about relief funds and loan information to those who need it as quickly as possible. Lending an ear when needed, offering psychological and emotional support when necessary.
Our office, the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, has also seen a dramatic drop in revenue and are trying to craft a strategy where we can preserve our staff’s jobs and make sure that we are in a position to support our community when the pandemic subsides. Supporting close to 300 local service providers and 10s of thousands of visitors annually, our new-model of community-based tourism systems are vital to connect our isolated settlements with the rest of Japan and the world. We take this responsibility seriously and will do our best to preserve and strengthen what our community members have worked so hard to build over the years.
Sharing the Kumano Message
Our mandate is preserving and promoting the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage culture. But during this unprecedently time in history we have been struggling to find an appropriate balance, especially with the dissemination of information. We have been in discussions with our partners, stockholders, and guests to get a feel for what to do, and we discussed many questions.
- How can we bring some hope and a little bit of distraction to those stuck in lock-down situations?
- For all the people that needed to cancel or reschedule their important spiritual pilgrimages, what should the message be?
- Is the timing OK for social media posts?
- If so, what should the tone be?
- How will messages be received if we send them?
- How do we fulfill our mandate of preserving and promoting in such a time of uncertainty?
- Could short messages and images of our community be a positive chance to interact with people virtually and give them hope?
- Could exchanging messages with guests be a positive way for our staff to deal with the stress of their situation?
And almost all these discussions concluded that we should not stop sharing the unique culture of Kumano but try to interact and exchange with people in the most positive way we can.
Once it is safe to travel again, we need to be ready to support and host pilgrims on their once-in-a-life-time journey along the Kumano Kodo. Kumano is a universal, living sacred site with much value to today’s society and we will do our part to keep this rich cultural landscape accessible into the future. The meaning of a pilgrimage route is with those who are walking it, and our passion is to facilitate these important experiences in a sustainable manner.
We would also like to say thank you to all the guests who have sent us such kind and encouraging messages during this difficult time.
Thank you to our community members who have been so patient with us during these unpredictable times, especially dealing with cancellations en masse.
Thank you to our friends in Spain who are going through a tough period of mourning.
And thank you to our travel agent partners who are so important to our community-based initiatives and struggling to survive the economic down-turn.
Thank you to our staff, who are trying so hard to keep positive during this time of stressful upheaval.
The near future is very uncertain and changing dramatically, but we look forward to when we can have people trekking our pilgrimage routes again: Walking together, living together and experiencing the essence of our united humanity.
The world is one. We are are the same. Let’s overcome this together as a better, more strongly connected humanity.