Kumano Kodo: Modern Pilgrims on an Ancient Route (Part 2)
Throughout our journey on the Nakahechi route we did have a feeling that maybe we got off lightly? Maybe there is something else to come? Everyone we told that we’re doing the Kohechi route raised their eyebrows and went “oooo” and one guide said: “It’s a tough one. The hardest in Japan.” Maybe this had something to do with this feeling. But our apprehension was met with equal excitement. Yes, we’re doing a tough one! And so it started…
Day 4: Hongu – bus to Yakio – Hatenashi-toge Pass to Totsukawa
We woke up early to a beautiful view of the valley, the sun shining and time to explore an old Japanese house on the farm. When we think of Japan, we often have the image of houses with thin paper screens, tatami mats and open spaces. Everything is delicate and well though out. Unfortunately, Japan has cared very little for its heritage (what we love about it) and most old buildings have been destroyed in favour of the new. It is hard to come across these now. So we took the time to savour this old house, delicately restored and loved by its family. (You can stay with June via Airbnb or WWOOFing and see this for yourself.)
June kindly helped us book our next accommodation (book early! It’s hard to find this stuff and sometimes they don’t want foreigners as they can’t speak English), checked bus timetable and drove us down to the bus stop. Goodbyes were full of hugs, smiles and selfies and off we went on our next adventure.
The bus stops in Yakio, right where trek starts. You hike 5km up and 5km down, from 300m to 1114m above sea level. The route has 33 Kannon statues along the way, they are like small stone Buddha statues. Apparently they are the 33 manifestations of the Japanese deity Kannon. Number 17 marked the top of the mountain, and we were soooo glad to see it! This was definitely the toughest route we had done so far! One thing we learned early is that if you find a good stick, do not let it go! (We don’t have trekking poles you see…) Although this trek was hard and took us 5 hours, it was by far our favourite one. The Kannon statues really do make it special. When you see one, you can leave a few coins or put some nice branches around it. It’s a tough but ultimately rewarding and beautiful trek.
The 5km down the mountain turned out to be tougher than the climb up in the heat. Why? Well it always is, but on this occasion there is also a stone path laid out. No doubt this was done in good will, hoping to help trekkers up and down, but in fact it is slippery and treacherous. We ended up walking down by the side of it. The end of this trek (which is not the end at all as it turn out!) is by far one of the most beautiful experiences of our entire journey. Walking through fields of cosmos flowers you feel elated and grateful to the world for such beauty.
Our adventure didn’t end there… You know how June booked us accommodation for the next two nights? Well of course she did this in Japanese. We speak zero Japanese. When we got to the village we thought we were staying in, turns out we weren’t staying there at all, but somewhere else. Far away! We spoke to a kind shop owner who, together with her husband, used their phone to call our accommodation, kindly passing the receiver to us. We quickly realised that after “Moshi moshi” there wasn’t much else we could say to the lady. After much gesticulating with the owners, google translate, and another twenty “moshi moshi’s” we agreed that the lady was going to pick us up and take us to our accommodation. This was 20 min drive away in the middle of nowhere. Thanks to Google translate the lady took us to a food store and we stocked up for two days in a village in the mountains, totally separated from modern society. What felt like a confusing and difficult situation turned into one of our best memories of Japan!
Day 5 – Day of Rest
We woke up in a beautiful old Japanese house (with all the mod-cons of a house in the future – everything was remote controlled!), in a quiet village amongst beautiful mountains. Our bodies ached and our feet were ready for a break, not walking for a day certainly felt good. This gave us time to explore this tiny village of only a couple of dozen inhabitants. Most of them were over 60 and the school opposite our house had been abandoned many years ago. Only some lonesome child explored its empty rooms, playing with their modern plastic toys on the ancient wooden floors. The toys lying there testified to the emptiness of the place, they threw the empty benches into stark relief. This is Japan of today, all young people have fled to the cities.
Walking around in the evening this became even more evident as we came across a rice harvest. Two old men and two old women, (were they in their 70s? or 80s?) were working hard to move the rice off tall poles, separate the grains from the straw, pack and carry everthing, all without help from any young people. With no ability to explain that we wanted to help, we just dug in and started helping to pack the rice onto the wheelbarrow, carrying it up and down the hill. It was hard to say whether they appreciated it at first, or just thought we were in the way, but eventually, as the work flowed faster and we all fell into a rhythm, a smile started emerging on the old man’s face, the ladies laughed and looked bewildered. We went home feeling like we’d achieved something, tired and ready for a bite to eat, but more than anything, we felt that this gave us an insight into these communities that not only tourists but also their own people had forgotten.
Day 6 – Totsukawa – Miura Guchi
Our kind hostess picked us up in the morning and took us to the bus stop from where our trek continued (we decided to skip a chunk of the trail that just follows the main road and start straight at the bottom of the mountain). To be honest, we weren’t sure where exactly we were on the map in the village or how it connected to the trail, but we didn’t need to. As soon as we jumped out of the car we could see the familiar sign “Kumano Kodo”.
Don’t know what happened on this day, whether it was the rest the day before, the steepness of the mountain, the monotonous nature of this trail, but I found this the toughest of all climbs. I spent the first two hours swearing to the best of my ability, I don’t think there’s a profanity in any language that I didn’t use. It seemed to be the only thing that would get me through it! Barry kept the pace and encouraged me throughout, seemingly totally cool with this climb.
This is the terrain where we noticed the most amount of deforestation, and the impact of the environmental damage we had read about. In many ways, this trek was an awakening of a different kind, and we descended the mountain feeling rather disheartened. In his book Lost Japan, Alex Kerr touches on this subject. This is evident throughout Japan, that during the years of rapid economic growth and modernisation, much of nature and the old Japan was destroyed in favour of financial profit. The forests that we walked through were a homogenous and orderly rows of cedar and cypress, rather than the wild mix of trees that used to cover these mountains. Walking down towards the small village of Miura Guchi we saw more of this devastation and the damming that was happening in the valley below. You can’t help but feel dejected when faced with such mindless destruction.
We stayed the night at a Minshuku (homestay) which we shared with five other Japanese pilgrims. They were walking in the other direction. We shared what stories we could over an elaborate dinner of a thousand tiny plates and some sake. A truly unique experience. The dinner was had early and by 7pm we were all in bed. The reason for this is of course that everyone got up next day at 5! We stayed in bed for as long as possible before crawling out to breakfast at 6, and getting ready for the new day of hiking.
Day 7 – Miura Guchi – Nosegawa Omata
The next day didn’t prove to be much easier than the previous one. At this point we were used to it, up, up, up, followed by down, down, down. We had a nice packed lunch with us, which we devoured on top of the mountain. Again, we only saw one person on the whole trail. These past few days of walking were very quiet and we were left alone with our thoughts for most of the day. The trail was better than the day before, a mixture of trees made us feel like we were in a more natural environment and meeting two beautiful deer staring right back at us was pretty special too. But what made this day one of the most amazing ones of the whole trek was a cabin that we found at the bottom of the mountain. Somebody had lovingly built a wooden cabin, with a stove, a fireplace, cooking equipment, sleeping bags and everything you could ever need. This is such a gift to any hiker. We decided to stay the night here, as these opportunities don’t happen too often. We cooked our last packets of noodles for dinner and cosied up by the stove. I have to say, we were both a bit scared to be sleeping in the middle of nowhere, in a forest with snakes and bears, but that just added to the thrill. It’s always interesting how we’re so used to urban environments and how being isolated in nature can be quite frightening. It’s a shame really, but also a good opportunity to face your fears, because most of them aren’t rational in this situation. They are often just mental images of the worst things that can happen.
Day 8 – Nosegawa – Koyasan
Our final walk! We packed up early, ate the few cereal bars we had left, had a cup of tea and headed off. This was by far the longest walk and so we set off as soon as we could. However, it also turned out to be the easiest walk, with very little ascent and most of it on the main road. We walked for 7 hours and when we reached Koyasan it felt really odd to be back in society. There were shops, and people, and tourists, and restaurants! Having walked for days to get here we wanted to say to EVERYONE we met: “WE WALKED HERE!” Especially when we saw people arriving in droves on buses. Suckers! We walked! For 8 days! Have that! But nobody cared…
We stayed the night at a temple (most temples here are hotels), but it turned out to be super noisy and not peaceful at all. Trying to feed everyone on time, the servants were rushing up and down the halls, shaking the whole place. On the plus side, they had an onsen and a vending machine with beer, so we took advantage of those and boy did our bodies thank us for the onsen. We managed to squeeze another trip to the onsen next morning, why wouldn’t you?
Despite being tired, we also dragged ourselves up in the morning to join the morning prayer, which was really amazing, listening to the monks reciting their prayers in a singing tone. Having some time before needing to head off, we explored the amazing Okunoin cemetery and left this sacred mountain to join back with society. Feeling elated, satisfied and with tails to tell, we left with a greater sense of Japan and ourselves.