When I met Nishiyama San two years ago, we both were nervous. He had come to brief me and get briefed about interviews we would be doing together the next day, talks with eighty-year-olds in Totsukawa, one of Japan’s deepest mountain villages. His worries had to do with me: whether my questions would be appropriate, how good my Japanese was. Mine were similar: whether I could communicate well enough with him (and the interviewees) to learn what I wanted to know, whether I would commit some behavioral blunder.

We sat there on the floor, at the low table of my hot springs inn room, sipping tea, sizing each other up, planning questions and schedules. Within minutes, my anxiety was gone. Nishiyama San had a presence, some inexpressible, vibrant depth. We connected. Two years later, he remains with me–both that connection and the things he taught me–even though we no longer talk.

The interviews were even better than I’d hoped. These old people talked about childhood in the valleys–treks to the mountain shrine, trapping rabbits for food, playing with home-made toys, fearing the school teacher’s ruler, shivering around the lone wood stove in the winter. But the talks with Nishiyama San were even better. They spoke to my soul.

He told me his story as we drove, and as we ate at a village café. He’d once been a Christian, living in Hollywood, hoping to make it in a rock band, falling in love with a French woman, witnessing forcefully for Jesus. Now he was a Shinto priest, on the clergy staff at Tamaki Shrine atop a 3,500-foot mountain in the heart of the Totsukawa region. And he was not, he told me, religious, not a man of faith.

Ittai! What did that mean? A priest but not religious? Without faith?

His explanation was as tranquil and reasoned as his face. He had become a priest so that he could be affiliated with the shrine. He was at the shrine because the spirits of the Totsukawa mountains spoke to him. He revered them; he felt gratitude to them; he felt one with them He didn’t question their existence; they were just there. At the shrine, he could chant and meditate two or three hours a day, expressing his gratitude, feeling their vibrance.

The spirits here spoke to me too. How could they not? My journal from the bus ride into the area brims with wonder: “Variegated greens on the spring mountainsides: absolutely alive”; “the road is winding, often too narrow for two vehicles to pass, so we stop and start”; “the slopes go up sharply, giving me a sense of being enfolded warmly by the mountain itself;” “we went through 24 tunnels.” (I’m a counter.)

And when I got to my inn: “the water is cobalt blue, pristine”; “the inn bath is all spring water; it never stops running; you’re welcome to take a bath at any time (I took five.).”

On the narrow hiking paths too: the mountain went straight up to my right, straight down to my left. Bushes and animal tracks and shrubs and wild flowers and a vibrant, energizing stillness: they wrapped me in something deep, something big, something more solid than I knew how to articulate. A spirit? A presence? An energy? I felt wholly alive.

The octogenarians I interviewed spoke the same language. Everyone described the shrine festivals as the best memory of all. “We’d walk to the top of the mountain,” said a retired teacher. “There would be 500 or 600 people at the shrine. We’d eat box lunches, snack on fish, drink saké, dance, then walk home in the dark.” Another told me his favorite was the mochi (glutten rice) balls: “The shrine workers would toss them; we’d catch them and eat.” Their faces shone as they discussed the conviviality, the incense, the chanting, the at-oneness with each other, and with the moment.

I have no theories to explain what I found in Totsukawa, either in the lush, steep mountains and cobalt rivers or in Nishyama’s explanations of a life that made him vital: as energetic as he was tranquil.

I don’t need theories.

I simply know that there was a presence there, a presence that left me feeling wholly connected. A presence that will not leave me.