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Tokyo to Kumano: A World Apart

November 6, 2012

By Alena Eckelmann

Part 1. Nov 6, 2012

The sun is gloriously setting behind the distant mountain ridge and the forested slopes are glowing in the warm rays of the evening’s last light.

The happy voices of some children playing in the fields before their mother calls for dinner are ringing in the air. In the nearby shrubs a pheasant is calling for its partner.

I am sitting still at my desk in front of my laptop and I am taking in the scenery that unfolds outside of my window each evening.

My mind refuses to compile the next paragraph for a business article and my fingers don’t want to type right now.

I am pressed for time as the deadline for this article is looming, but at this moment this is of no relevance.

Time stops, and I pause. Body and mind are still.

All my senses are busy though reaching out and soaking in the views, the sounds, the smells and the feeling of this place, a tiny village in the Kumano Mountains.


A year and a half ago, I was sitting at the same desk and in front of the same laptop, writing the same type of article, but my window to the outside world was different.

The grey concrete walls of buildings too close-by for my liking blocked my view. The forgotten washing on the messy balconies of my neighbours were a rather sore sight.

There was the constant noise of road traffic and the metallic hamming at the ever-present road construction sites, the rattling of the commuter trains and the ding dong of the gates closing down every few minutes for yet another train to pass by, the vans with speakers announcing recycle services in hourly intervals and the impatient taxi drivers tooting the horn.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved Tokyo.

My life was intertwined in Tokyo’s myriads of activities and it was pushed along, or pulled depending on my condition on the day, by the constant sense of urgency in this mega-metropolis

I was all settled cosily in the minimal space and in the tight time that Tokyo allocates to its citizens. I had no intention of leaving Tokyo in the near future, although somewhere in my heart I entertained the fantasy of living in the countryside in the mountains one day.

This day came sooner than expected.

Change announced itself with the shaking of earth in the early afternoon on Friday, 3/11.

I had just come out of a business meeting in the Roppongi area and I wanted to get back to my desk ASAP to catch up with piles of work when the highway above the street started swaying and its metal mounting began screeching eerily – a noise that reminded me of a scene in the movie “Alien”.

What happened in the hours and days after that at the coast of Tohoku and at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is stuff for a blockbuster indeed just that any constructed plots and carefully designed computer graphics would pale against the heart-wrenching stories and shocking images that reality produced.

Big events, be they manmade or nature-made, have the power to change the lives of millions, and the life of one.

Did 3/11 give me ‘permission’ to change course?

On July 1st 2011 I packed my whole Tokyo household in a rented truck, and my partner and I drove west for several hundred kilometres.

Our destination was Kumano in the south of the Kii Peninsula, an area known as the ‘spiritual heartland of Japan’.


Each evening when I breathe in the fresh mountain air and watch the sunset across the Kumano Mountains, I am feeling connected.

Connected to all that is in front of me and around me
Connected to what I see and to what I don’t see
Connected to something much bigger than I can imagine

And I feel like switching off my laptop, and the internet and the smart phone and whatever else artificial communication channels we have now.

And I feel like switching on something in me that communicates through my senses, through my feelings, through my intuitions.

But I don’t quite know how.

Where is the button to press and the announcement that gives instructions? What is the price to pay and where does insurance come from if something goes wrong?

Ups, there is no ready-made answer this time
Hm, I have to figure it out for myself
Now, how exciting…


About the author: Alena Eckelmann grew up in East Germany, and it has been change and transition ever since the Berlin Wall came down. She took up Southeast Asian studies without having ever been in Asia. Thanks to some scholarships, she spent over a year in Vietnam. Next she went to London to learn English from scratch with no money in her pocket but then made London her home for nine years. She worked herself up the corporate ladder to manager position and executive training in Japan before changing direction and embarking on full-time aikido and weekend taiko training. Alena has been working freelance as a writer and researcher in Japan for several years now with second thoughts twice, which took her back to the corporate sector in Tokyo. Currently she lives in the Kumano Mountains where she tries to ‘do less and be more’ while pursuing journalistic, touristic and spiritual projects. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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