Kumano Kodo: Modern Pilgrims on an Ancient Route (part 1)

 Ready and eager at the bus stop at Kii Tanabe 

Ready and eager at the bus stop at Kii Tanabe 

One of the primary goals of our travels is to spend more time in nature. We both know that we feel most alive and ourselves when we're out in forests, on mountains, by rivers and on beaches. So, to balance our Japanese adventure, we followed up our week in Tokyo with a week in isolation in Kumano Kodo. Why did we choose Kumano Kodo? It involved seeing some really inspiring images and stumbling upon a blog Koya Bound, which described all the elements and the adventure we were looking for: isolation, rural villages, and some effort to reach the destination. Is it an adventure without some hard graft and stepping out of your comfort zone? That's when the true journey begins as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard eloquently explains about climbing Everest (yes, a bit more challenging than what we did) in the brilliant documentary 180 Degrees South

"You get all of these high powered plastic surgeons and CEO's, they pay $80,000 and they have the sherpas who put all the ladders in place and 8,000 feet of fixed ropes, you get to a camp and you don’t even have to lay out your own sleeping bag, it’s all laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. And the whole purpose of climbing something like Mount Everest is to affect some kind of spiritual and physical gain. But if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back."  

Inspired by these words, we put our living quarters on our backs and hoped to gain a glimpse of what Chouinard was talking about.

 Yes, we can do it!

Yes, we can do it!

Here is our day by day story of walking one of the most ancient pilgrimages in the world. It's a mapping of where we walked and notes on how it felt, and a log of where we stayed.

The Kumano Kodo is a whole network of pilgrimage routes located south of Osaka and Kyoto on the Kii Peninsula, in the Wakayama prefecture. The two most famous routes are the Nakahechi and Ohechi dating back to the 10th Century and can really be seen as one route. There are two other routes, the Iseji which is a more modern route dating back to 17th Century and the least traversed Kohechi route. Guess which one we chose? The least used one of course! It’s an adventure after all and as far as we know, comfort zones and adventures don’t mix.

 The routes have many a small altar on the way, leave a penny for good luck on your journey. 

The routes have many a small altar on the way, leave a penny for good luck on your journey. 

We decided, inspired by the guys at Koya Bound, to walk from the south of the peninsula to the north and finish at the sacred temple town of Koyasan. That means the Nakahechi route from Takijiri-Oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha, and then the Kohechi route from Kumano Hongu to Koyasan, the reverse way to how most walk it.

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Nakahechi Route

Day 1: Osaka – Kii-Tanabe – Takijiri - Takahara

We set off early in the morning leaving Osaka, bound for the small city of Kii Tanabe (not to be confused with Tanabe), where we would catch the bus to Takijiri-Oji. The journey is easy and there is a good English-speaking Information office on arrival at Kii Tanabe, but check the bus time tables in advance because, as we found, the buses are rare and after 5pm, assume that everything will be closed. We messed up with timings and ended up getting a later bus to Takijiri, which actually turned out to be in our favour as we trekked at 4pm when it was considerably cooler and the sunshine had that warm orange glow.

The trek from Takijiri to Takahara is a bit of a baptism by fire. All the maps we found before the trek did not do the upward climb any justice. It was a tough hour scramble up a hill with no let up, but luckily we were full of “first day enthusiasm” which gave us enough energy to get to the top. Once the ground levelled out and we caught our breath, there was the inevitable question: “Is the whole thing going to be like this?” It is here that I need to pause and explain that this is the first time either of us have attempted an 8-day 100km trek, with a load on our backs. As it turns out, there is a reason that the allegory of climbing a mountain is so pervasive in our culture, it’s tough work! But it’s incredibly rewarding. This first trek was a perfect example of that, because we arrived sweaty and panting on top of a beautiful mountain overlooking the valley and the nicest accommodation on our journey. We stayed at Kiri-no-sato ryokan (a Japanese inn) which has stunning views and our first ever ONSEN! We don’t even know where to begin to explain the virtues of this Japanese hot spring bath. For a trekker it is a MUST at the end of the day (how do you trek without one?) The onsen would become the thing we dreamed about whilst climbing up yet another mountain or slipping down the side of one.

 These beautiful flowers came to greet us on more than one occasion when conquering a mountain

These beautiful flowers came to greet us on more than one occasion when conquering a mountain

 

Day 2: Takahara – Chikatsuyu

 

We woke up ready and excited to begin. And so we began what felt like the start of our "real trek" (haha, little did we know...). This is where we would walk and walk and walk some more. In the morning we found out (thanks to a lovely guide who was staying in our ryokan) that there is camping in Chikatsuyu so we decided to head there. The walk was much easier and more varied than the day before. In hindsight, we think it may be our favourite one. This is where we really felt that we’ve entered Kumano Kodo. Unfortunately we also found out in the morning that the main thing to look out for are snakes, and giant hornets. The guy in the tourist office had already told us that this time of year the snakes were most active. So guess what? 30min into our walk two snakes slither along our path not wanting to cross it and get out of our way. Luckily, they moved their skinny asses and we could proceed with me feeling like I may have had a minor heart attack. Did I say I don’t care for snakes? Barry totally kept his cool (how?). I decided that they were a good sign, sort of animal medicine sent to us on our path reminding us to shed our skins like they do. Trekking up and down mountains feels like that actually, shedding our civilised skins to get in touch with something more profound and deeper about ourselves. But that didn’t happen until later, when we felt in a rhythm with our surroundings and the mountains. 

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On the trek we came across a lovely bridge and decided to have some lunch there, which was packed for us by our hosts at Kiri-no-Sato, and brew up some tea (thank you Jetboil, you are a life saviour for a tea addict!) The walk was overall quite leisurely and we were able to take in lots of sights. We arrived at our village in the afternoon and had time for a stroll, meeting locals and getting our first feel for rural Japan. We were happy to discover that the camping ground lay right next to a river, where we dipped our feet and placed the tent as close as was reasonable. It was isolated and beautiful, we felt like we had the river to ourselves.  The other perk was that the camping ground had an onsen too! So overall, this was one beautiful day.

 Lonely bus stop in the village

Lonely bus stop in the village

 Nothing like cooling off your feet in the stream

Nothing like cooling off your feet in the stream

 

Day 3: Chikatsuyu – bus to Hoshinmon – Hongu – Yunomine Onsen

 

We had read that the walk from Hoshinmon to Hongu (the main intersection of Kumano Kodo and it’s centre) was supposed to be beautiful and that Yunomine Onsen was worth a visit, so we opted for a bus to take us to the start of the trek so that we would have the time to fit in a trek to the famous onsen. (Note: the bus goes via Yunomine and Hongu before reaching Hoshinmon, even though this may not make sense looking at the map, so you’re sort of walking back on yourself.) The walk was a nice stroll down a mountain via cute villages and a good coffee shop. We could even walk side by side, which made a nice difference. We arrived at Hongu, via its beautiful temple, and left our bags in one of the shops there. Obviously this was not enough for us, too easy we cried, and so, after a bowl of soba noodles, we headed off to Yunomine onsen. (You can either take the bus there or walk via a short but steep mountain.) The walk was satisfyingly challenging and short, so not too exhausting. Yunomine is an onsen town where the sulphur rich water flows through the centre of the town and people cook eggs and chestnuts in its steaming waters. The smell’s not great mind you…

 Reading bus timetable, it does arrive at 7 right??

Reading bus timetable, it does arrive at 7 right??

 Businessmen asking for good fortune in the Temple at Hongu

Businessmen asking for good fortune in the Temple at Hongu

 Just a little rest...

Just a little rest...

The town also harbours the famous blue onsen, the only host spring to be designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It's a small blue hole in a shed where you can spend 30minutes trying to not boil yourself in its hot water. But seriously, it’s quite an experience and it must be done, especially as it can be followed up by a cold beer on the street above, overlooking the beautiful town. We were glad we made the effort. That night we were picked up by the very friendly June, our Airbnb host, and were taken to stay in their organic farm above in the hills of Hongu. This is marked the end of the first part of our trek, the scenic Nakahechi route. The real trek was just about to begin…

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 Yep, it's that colour, and the scale is pretty accurate to its real size...

Yep, it's that colour, and the scale is pretty accurate to its real size...