It was my fault that we were drenched when we arrived at the start of the Kumano Kodo.
Grey sheets of rain were pounding down in Tanabe early that Monday morning. We’d bought our bus tickets for the 40-minute ride to Takijiri-oji, the trailhead where we were to start the Kumano Kodo, and Magellan, Lynn and Ward were getting hot coffee from the vending machine. I was waiting at the covered bus stop, anxiously.
Our first day on the trail. Eighteen kilometres to hike. A difficulty rating of four (out of five). An estimated time of nine hours and forty minutes to reach our destination, Tsugizakura-oji. We had to catch the 06:50 bus.
When I saw a Meiko bus pull up across the street, foolishly, I panicked and thought it was ours. “Run for it you guys,” I yelled. “There’s the Meiko bus!” By the time we dashed across the street, realized it was the wrong bus and then raced back to where I’d been correctly waiting (“I was going to tell you to stay,” said a debonair young French man in his skin-tight black hiking outfit who had been waiting alongside me), our waterproof jackets weren’t the only things being tested.
Spice screws up
”There’s the Meiko bus,” she yells
False alarm soaks us
The Kumano Kodo is a series of seven ancient pilgrimage routes connecting shrines on the mountainous Kii peninsula in Japan. In 2004 it was declared a UNESCO pilgrimage—one of only two in the world to attain this status, the other being Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Like most hikers, we were following the Nakahechi route.
Mountains have been sacred to the Japanese for thousands of years. Before Buddhism arrived in 816 AD, Japan’s main religion was Shintoism, led by priests considered to hold supernatural powers acquired by asceticism practices in high mountain regions. It was only natural that Japanese Buddhism was introduced in Koyasan, in the mountains of Kumano. And that followers of this sect of Buddhism and another that originated in this area believe enlightenment is possible in this life through physical immersion in the mountains. We were starting the Kumano Kodo at Takijiri-oji, where the “passage into the precincts of the sacred mountains begins, the entrance to the Land ofthe Gods and celestial paradises of Buddhist rebirth.”
In 907 AD, retired Emperor Uda was the first recorded pilgrim to walk the Kumano Kodo. It’s believed he was guided by the three-legged raven Yata-garasu, the symbol for the Kumano Kodo. Here’s a haiku someone wrote about it:
Why mock my plodding two feet
You, with three, and wings
By the thirteenth century, 30,000 members of the aristocracy walked the Kumano Kodo each year. Until the 1800s there was no universal right to travel in Japan, so the 30-40 day pilgrimages were limited to retired emperors and nobility. Pilgrims would stop at tea houses, built about three miles apart along the routes, and stay at minshuku, traditional guest houses with tatami-mat bedrooms, shared bathrooms and home-cooked dinners.
Pilgrimages on the Kumano Kodo reached their zenith about 500 years ago. Even in the last century, marketing for this remote area was almost non-existent, and with little or no English spoken in the area, foreign travellers were few.
Then along came a Canadian: Brad Towle from Manitoba. Responsible for promoting the Kumano Kodo area to non-Japanese visitors, Brad was part of a team that developed a community-based tourism model. The turning point happened in 2006 when Brad spearheaded the development of an online reservation system—in six languages—to promote local services, including lodging, restaurants and transportation. Thank you enRoute magazine for introducing us to Kumano Travel.
Now back to our pilgrimage. In one of the rainiest areas in Japan.
But we’re from Vancouver, which averages 157 cm of rain in October so how much rainier could it be? The Kumano Kodo receives the more rain than anywhere else in Japan—the average rainfall on the Nakahechi route in October is 212 cm!
Our first two hours of climbing in the Kumano Kodo rainforest of cedars was like walking straight up a waterfall on steep, breath-grabbing stairs, our heads bowed as we weaved around rain-soaked rocks and slippery roots. It was the most intense downpour any of us had ever experienced.
Then we reached Takahara (Village of the Mist) and sunshine! We stripped off our rain gear, wrung out our socks and gawked at the views before feeding the vending machine for hot drinks. And kept our cool when monsieur French man appeared and told us he’d walked two kilometres in the wrong direction and asked if we knew where the trail continued? I did!
The trail, situated on a ridge 300 metres above the river where we’d started, was easy compared to the morning’s climb in the rain.For the rest of the day, we hiked on a path of forest floor mulch, gravelly stones, even paved roadways.
Our hearts lightened and we got into the rhythm of the hike. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”
We ate our lunch, rice balls and cucumber sushi we’d bought in the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before. When the trail bisected the Gyuba-doji Guchi bus stop, we had ice cream, delicious flavours of plum, yuzu, green tea and mountain berry.
Confession time. There was a reason I wanted to continue walking four kilometres past Chikatsuyu-oji (where most hikers choose to spend the night) to Tsugizakura (pronounced Sue-geez-a-cure-ah). I wanted to stay at Minshuku Tsugizakura. The reason? Mr. and Mrs. Yuba. Mr. Yuba had been a chef in Tokyo, and the Yubas have their own garden and follow Washoku, the Japanese name for serving local, traditional food that’s healthy, balanced and seasonal. He and his wife prepared and served, along with their delicious home-made ume (plum) wine, an eight-course kaiseki dinner: shrimp nigiri, Bonita tuna tataki with sesame, Japanese curry, persimmon with grated toasted nuts, meat and mountain vegetables in a tasty sauce with pickles on the side, rice with chestnut and seaweed, miso soup and fig sherbet. We repeated the phrase “Gochisaousame dashita.” (I have been treated, thanks for the food.)
The Yuba’s minshuku has everything a pilgrim needs. Toothbrushes, razors, notepaper, scissors, buttons, hair tonic, tea, pink-flowered toilet paper, honour-system drinks for sale, hard candies, hiking boot brushes. And they sell Asahi beer!
When we were sitting outside sipping our beers before dinner, a Japanese man joined us. He and his wife were guests staying in the Yuba’s third bedroom. From Nikko, they were hiking the Nakahechi route, too. A jovial man about 65 years old, his yukata spreading open between his legs as he leaned over to talk to us, he was determined to communicate despite the language barrier.
Google Translate to the rescue. Our fellow hiker was incredulous that we had walked all the way from Takijiri-oji that morning. “What time did you leave Takijiri-oji“ he had Google ask us. ”Hmmm,” he replied (a guttural sound we find ourselves emulating to this day), as he glanced at our jubilado bodies in astonishment. It was easy for Google to translate his questions about our family, allowing him to learn that Lynn was our daughter (musume) and Ward our son-in-law (giri no musuko).
“What made you want to explore Kumano Kodo for Japanese morality” he had Google ask us at dinner.
How could I explain that more than 30 years ago on a trip to San Francisco Magellan and I had fallen in love with Japanese architecture and culture, which led us to create a Japanese garden in our first home in Calgary and, after a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto in 1987, import tatami straw to make our own mats, install a “nightingale’ floor in our basement, buy a moon-soaking tub for our bathroom—and hold a cherry blossom party every June for several years? That our interest in the Kumano Kodo started with an article in 2013 in enRoute magazine, rekindled a year ago at a birthday party by a friend-of-a-friend who had just returned from walking the trail?
We said good night (oyasumi) and settled in early. Our tatami-mat bedroom was separated from Lynn and Ward’s by a sitting room where Lynn and I penned a few brief notes in our diaries. Before 9 pm, I closed the sliding panels to our bedroom, settled myself down to the futon on the floor and thought about a haiku by Santōka Taneda that I had copied onto origami paper to place on the pillow of one of my fellow pilgrims.
If there are mountains, I look at the mountains;
On rainy days I listen to the rain.
Spring, summer, autumn, winter.
Tomorrow too will be good.
Tonight too is good.
Bashō., Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.
CNN Travel has a good article about the Kumano Kodo.
An article in enRoute magazine introduced us to the Kumano Kodo.
Kumano Travel was our one-stop centre for the Kumano Kodo. We booked all of our accommodation, meals (or so I thought) and transportation for all of our luggage to arrive at each night’s destination. Flawless service.
Kumano Kodo Hike Info
Max elevation: 709 m
Min elevation: 55 m
Total Time: 08:23:11
Total Distance 17.0 km
Total Ascent 1,331 m
Total Descent 910 m