Why would somebody stand in an ice-cold waterfall in a loincloth on a quiet Saturday afternoon instead of staying in Tokyo sipping latte in a trendy café? I could quote Steve McQueen from the Magnificent Seven: „It seemed to be a good idea at that time.”, but there is more to it. But let’s see first how I got to the point of even considering such an insane act!
Oku-tama is one the nearest spots in Tokyo that is not an exaggeration to call a mountain (that’s a rather brave sentence from a Hungarian, as our highest mountain barely exceeds Mitake-san). Moreover, our friend, Chisato grew up on the top of the mountain and the priest of the local jinja is his brother-in-law and her sister runs a nice old ryokan now. Third, kóyó was definitely ON. That’s already three pretty good reasons to visit Mitake-san, so when Chisato called us, I signed up immediately.
Taki-gyo, (滝行 - that is the “ waterfall-going”) was an optional part of the excursion, but I signed up, so once arriving at the ryokan we got a quick course on how to behave under the waterfall (try not to think of the cold, gather your consciousness in your solar-plexus, if you feel bad, just walk out), we did some mediation (I am not quite sure if I did not doze off a bit on the way) and headed off for the waterfall, about three quarters of an hour away in the woods. There we changed quickly into fashionable loincloths and – lead by the sensei – did some invocations that also served well as a stretching exercise.
Then he went in.
He seemed to spend an awful lot of time there (was it really only 10 sec?) and I was next. “Empty your mind” I tried to remember “and do not think about the coldness”. Oh, yeah... In I went and it while it was shockingly cold, my 10 secs passed relatively quickly. So did the second time, as well. The third time we were supposed to do 30 seconds under the waterfall. As the first two went well, I decided to do it properly and leant fully back, letting the water hit my head. It was not cold in a way one usually experiences cold, but more like a huge weight slowly crushing me as time went by... I tried to ignore it but was impossible not to deal with. Somehow I managed to hang on but it was a tough round; once I got out it took a while until I recovered and regained the feeling in my head and neck. It is scary to think how quickly one would deteriorate in a real-life situation like this e.g. falling into icy water…
But out I was and happy. As I suspected, after the exercise one feels pretty good, my adrenal glands worked like hell and therby clearly elevating my mood. I was just cheerfully chatting away with the girls in my sexy loincloth when I got the Eye. It came from a local lady in the other group, a kind of passed-40-and-searching-for-something type, who kept discussing deep philosophical dilemmas with the sensei during the hike. I would approximate that it was her 27th taki-gyo and apparently there were a few more to come. The reason for the Eye was that I did not realize that there were some more stretching exercise left to do for the local kami-sama. Deeply humbled I re-joined the group and surely saved my soul from this deadly sin.
But back to the original question: why? I have realized a number of times that doing some unconformable or even tough things feel really good once it is over and you can talk it over a keg of beer (or saké) afterwards. Thus the exercise becomes a tool to enjoy the beer and the conversation more than just after one day’s dull work; that is; a sort of twisted Epicureanism*. But of course, there are other, more earthly explanations, as well. For instance: would any self-conscious male compagniero in a company of 7 female friends be so sissy to simply declare that „nay, I don’t do this kinda stuff, it’s too cold for me”? That sounds rather unlikely... But the other thing I learned during the year that doing some crazy stuff together with other people is a great way to make friends (or make friendships stronger). And one more thing: when you are 70, what will you be more likely to remember? Your 76th caffélatte or your time under the waterfall?
* for my Hungarian-speaking readers: there is more on this here.