Day two on the Kumano Kodo had its ups and downs and proved the name Luck-Sure-Be Travel that Magellan and I gave ourselves in planning this trip.
“Longer than yesterday but easier,” is how I described Day Two to Lynn and Ward
Easier? False. Very false.
Like Day One, the trail’s rating was four out of five. We had to hike 21 kilometres, climb three major passes, detour for four kilometres because of damages to the trail from a typhoon in 2011, visit the major Kumano shrine and catch a bus to Yunomine Onsen. What a day to awaken to!
The morning air was diamond-clear, sparkling. We packed away our hiking pants, never to be used again on the Kumano Kodo, pulled on our shorts and, fortified by the Yuba’s delicious Japanese breakfast, set off early.
Facing a long day—be it hiking a tough trail or meeting an unreasonable deadline at work or whatever—laughter helps.
Our first laugh came before we left the village.
Every 500 metres on the Kumano Kodo there’s an official, sturdy, brown signpost in Japanese and English numbered and lettered in white. Funny signs, like this one, are created by local artists and residents to amuse and encourage pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo.
Another hearty laugh came at the toilets at Kumasegawa-oji. Toilets in Japan—a book could be written on that subject. Even here on the Kumano Kodo, most are spotless, sit-down, full-flush commodes. At the top of Kobiro-toge, the first pass, we were hot, thirsty and in need of relief. Elders first, so in I went into one of the more primitive toilets we’d seen (white ceramic, sit-down), surprised to see a large plastic bottle of water on the floor of the toilet, the first sign of trash on the trail. When I came out, Lynn was filling her water bottle from a yellow barrel and then drinking from it thirstily.
“There’s no potable water symbol on the map,” I said.
“I’m sure it’s okay,” said Magellan. “Why else would they have it here?”
Then I realized that maybe the barrel provided water—not for drinking but for filling the empty water bottle I’d seen and flushing the toilet! Luck-Sure-Be: Lynn and Magellan stayed healthy for the rest of the trip.
We began climbing to Waraji-toge Pass, where our reward was seeing the remains of the Nakodo-jaya Teahouse. Nakodo means matchmaker, so-named because the teahouse is where two passes meet—translated their names are the “male slope” and “female slope.” The detour follows the female slope.
With the steepness of the mountains and monoculture of cedar and cypress plantations, it’s easy to imagine typhoon forces ripping through, unearthing and upheaving vegetation. One thing I’ll say about the detour, the descent provided a cool respite from all that climbing.
Maybe it’s a good thing the typhoon wiped out the trail over the Iwagami Pass because it’s said that people on the Kumano “were often possessed by a languid feeling at this pass and collapsed.” (We knew the feeling. And we were still waiting to reach the first vending machine of the day.) To protect travellers from succumbing to fatigue, a Jagata Jizo was erected at Iwagami Pass. The story goes that before the Great Flood of 1889, the villagers heard a mysterious sound coming from Iwagami Pass that warned them of impending danger, allowing them to hurriedly escape.
Smaller shrines than jizos, the ojis erected to guide and protect pilgrims on their journey are a welcome site to mark your progress on a long day.
Sliding a coin into the back of Mizunomi Oji is said to buy relief from back pain, which, luckily, none of us were suffering from, but we left coins for my sister Judy.
Near Jagata Jizo is the cemetery of the Yukawa clan, a powerful family during the time of Shōgun Ashikaga-Yoshimitsu (1368-1394).
On we continued, the Kumano Kodo a poem in green.
Yesterday’s Kumano wildlife were little orange crabs with whom we shared the trail. Today, spiders enthralled us with their architecture.
My step lightened whenever we saw persimmons hanging voluptuously from their branches. To me they epitomize autumn in Japan, maybe because I first tasted this honey-sweet somewhat dry fruit (the word persimmon means dry fruit) in Tokyo in 1987.
Up we went again to the top of Mikoshi-toge Pass, the third one today, where we plunked ourselves down in the park pavilion and unpacked the bento box lunches prepared by Mr. and Mrs. Yuba.
At marker 59 (we’d now walked 12.5 kilometres) we took the left fork toward Hosshinmon, a lovely shrine that marks the outer entrance to the grand shrine of Hongu Taisha.
There are many routes you can take while hiking the Kumano Kodo. Walking to this shrine and back from Hongu Taisha for example.
Hosshinmon translates to ‘gate of spiritual awakening.’ But we were in the mood for a different kind of awakening. And it was right around the corner.
“Are you going to have café au lait or milky tea?” “Really, you’re in the mood for hot coffee?” “A coke is what I want.”
Were we true pilgrims, we would not be worshipping the vending machine gods and thinking about the next two, shown on our map as near markers 68 and 69. True pilgrims would be anticipating their first glimpse of Hongu Taisha at Fushiogami-oji, then falling on their knees and praying, which is what Fushiogami means.
Hongu Taisha, at the centre of a network of Kumano Kodo routes, is the main pilgrimage destination in the Kii Mountains. As Lynn said, with the end in sight “the best thing is that the brutal ascents and slippery descents and the sweat pouring off you in the muggy heat are soon forgotten and are all part of the journey.”
Because it was the end of the day, the usual busloads of tourists at Hongu Taisha had gone.
Here’s Yata-garasu, the three-legged raven, symbol of the Kumano Kodo atop the post box. He appears on many of the souvenirs you can buy Hongu Taisha.
After making a few purchases, we checked out the town, hurriedly, as the afternoon light was falling and we had to find the bus stop.
Walking to Yunomine Onsen, our destination for the night, would have added another arduous two hours with little to see, so our plan was to catch a bus. “Basu to Yunomine?” we asked in a few shops. “Taxi to Yunomine?” No one knew where the bus stopped and it seemed there were no taxis in the town. Then Luck-Sure-Be Travel lived up to its name again. A man in a shop said, Hei, hei” (yes, yes) and walked us over to the Kumano Kodo Museum—where the bus pulled up in less than a minute! (There would not be another bus for two hours.)
Yunomine Onsen is a hot spring village with over 1800 years of history. Unlike our western individual pleasure in a hot spring, the Japanese state of bliss in an onsen is called “yudedako” (boiled octopus) as they reconnect body and mind to community.
The bus stopped across the street from Ryokan Adumaya, a traditional inn that’s been receiving travellers since the 18th century when it was founded by a shrine priest.
Ryokan Adumaya serves an incredible dinner. It was the first time we’ve had premium Japanese beef, which looked a lot like thinly sliced pink bologna, turned grey in the onsen water and tasted divine. The little, bony, mountain fish (ayu), fried and served tail up, kept reappearing at dinners in Japan—Ward named them “Frank.”
Instead of eating in our room, we were seated in a rather unusual room with a (kabuki?) theatre.
Was I so tired I forgot to remove my slippers before entering the tatami dining room? For shame. “No wonder she glared at you,” said Lynn. Bashō’s words give me some solace.
Deep into autumn
and this caterpillar
still not a butterfly.
After this long day, I can’t believe Magellan and I were still up for going out on the town after dinner. No, we didn’t go dancing or drinking! At this time of day in rural Japan, the villages are dark and silent. Walking up and down the main street and stopping to take a few photos took less than 15 minutes. When we returned, I realized I’d forgotten to put Luck-Sure-Be’s nightly haikus on the pillows of our fellow travellers. No one answered the knock at the Kiri room. They were down for the night and minutes later in Ichi room, so were we.
Bashō., Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.
CNN Travel has a good article about the Kumano Kodo, what it calls “the world’s best unknown hike.”
An article in enRoute magazine introduced us to the Kumano Kodo.
We found out more about the trail from the Japan Visitor site.
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.
The spacious rooms at Ryokan Adumaya are all named after trees, its onsens (one for women and one for men) are lovely to soak your tired bones in and dinner was a 14-course reward to our long day.
Kumano Kodo Hike Info
Day 2 Cumulative
Total Distance 21.4 km 38.4 km
Total Ascent 1,061 m 2,391 m
Total Descent 1,447 m 2,357 m