KUMANO KODO: The Nakahechi Pilgrimage 3

After days in the forests and mountains ,tiny rural hamlets and ancient temples , re-entry into “normal” urban environments were a shock to the system. When I say ” normal” of course it’s all relative. The suburban house we hobbled to from the Daimon-zaka slope was a guest house that the host didn’t live in.

Everything was automatic. Lights came on as you moved from space to space. No switches. If for some bizarre reason you wanted to exercise some control yourself there were various remote controls to dim or higher or lower or increase a multitude of functions and devises. If you entered the toilet the light came on, the lid came up and the heated seat and bottom washing jets were ready for action.

I did admire the nifty idea of having the cistern refill as a hand wash sink. So sophisticated and yet, ironically, the few remaining simple squatting style toilets are signed as ” Japanese style”. Some of this “smart devices” and ” Hive” and ” internet of things” may be common or garden to many of you but for someone who lives in a two hundred year old pile of stone with a bunch of reeds on top, it was a future shock to stab at the living room light remote and have a wall size projection suddenly start up, informing me of the date, time , weather , moon size and position and offering me the whole of the WWWeb for my viewing pleasure. I just wanted to see where the tea was.

We retreated to the ancient temples.

Or actually we retreated to the natural wonder that gave reason for the temples origin. The sacred Nachi Falls. Emperor Jimmu discovered the 133 m waterfall over 2500 years ago while being guided by Yatagarasu, the three legged crow, and they have been worshipped ever since. Along with a number of sacred trees on the site the falls are the object of the original nature worship that has been joined by the Buddhist temples and Shinto Kumano Nachi Taisha in a multi belief system syncretism. No religious fundamentalism here.

They were beautiful and awesome and mighty and thundering with life and energy and the kind of thing I could get behind on the worshipping spectrum. As were the trees and general surroundings. Other people seemed to agree and they left prayer papers, burnt wishing sticks, bought power amulets and rang bells and shook long hollow logs full of potents. And took pictures.

In the sightseeing mode we took the bus down to Kii Katsuura on the coast for a different perspective of the mountains and have a ramble around. The place is tuna central with a big fleet and a massive market. Tuna tuna everywhere.

There were lots of Onsen around, but not open till later, so we settled for the public foot Onsen, where people casually took off their socks and shoes and sat bathing their feet for awhile on the Main Street. As you do. There were even tuna at the bottom of the foot bath.

On our walk across town to the beach and bus/ train station we admired the mish mash of urban architecture. Surprised to see that planning and regs seemed loose to say the least and that the clean cut minimalism I associate with Japanese style was not universally employed. Also that my preconceived notions of the wealth of the nation could have been misplaced.

Got to the Pacific and had a paddle before catching the bus to our bed in Albergue Kodo.

Our last full day in Japan and we had our last of the three Grand Shrines to visit. A short bus ride up the coast was Shingu and the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, symbolizing the past, while Nachi Taisha covers the present and Hongu Taisha the future. By worshipping at all three one is thought to find salvation, peace and good luck for each realm. But first we needed to visit another shrine, the Kamikura- jinja, where the gods first descended from heaven. It is nestled under the huge monolith known as Gotobiki-iwa, halfway up Mt Gongen and offers panoramic views of the city.

The magnificent and sacred rock, bound by a massive shimenawa rope, is at the top of a flight of 538 ridiculously steep stone steps that on the 6th of February every year, 2000 men dressed in white throw themselves down in a frantic nighttime race whilst carrying flaming torches. Pure Shinto madness representing sperm cascading down from the male phallic rock to enter an archway of women awaiting at the Torii gates below. And hopefully awaken the sun and bring fertility.

We clambered down slowly with caution horrified at the idea of uncontrolled leaping from those heights. At the bottom we crossed town to the Taisha, again agog at the buildings on the way.

The shrine was more peaceful than the other two had been, with the usual mix of ritual water, and prayer, grand structures and simple nature. There was a 1000 year old sacred podocarpus nagi tree and a family ceremony of some kind.

We had a picnic lunch after climbing to the top of the old castle ruins gazing out to the green forested mountains we had become so intimate with over the previous 9 days. The blue river that flowed into the sea here was the same one that carried countless pilgrims on boats from Hongu.

One final temple, one final stamp at Asuka- jinja.

One final treat when a man appeared from nowhere and led us into the temple where he played a bamboo flute for us.

A tune called Kumano Kodo.

We are moving on to Western Australia now, for treks in the bush, but before we leave the Land of the Rising Sun I want to thank the Japanese people we met for their hospitality, their kindness, helpfulness, generosity and good humor. I would also like to thank the ones we didn’t meet for their hard work keeping the Kumano Kodo trails as beautiful as they are.


KUMANO KODO: The Nakahechi Pilgrimage 2

We needed time to see the Grand Shrine of Hongu properly which meant taking a day off the hike. So we missed out on the shortest and easiest section of the whole pilgrimage, a low level 13 km route to Koguchi. Waking in the morning to rain we were happy with our decision and it gave me a couple of hours to post the last blog. The rain had turned to intermittent showers by the time we got to Hongu town and leaving our packs in a luggage locker (it’s all so organized) set off up the flight of flag bedecked stone steps. The Kumano Sanzen is a collective term for the three Grand Shrines of the Kumano pilgrimages. First appearing as a single religious institution in the 11th century they were originally for the worship of nature but adapted to and included the incoming Buddhist beliefs. Because of this diversity of interpretations Kumano has developed into a sacred site for a wide range of religious traditions, each worshipping side by side in harmony.

The whole place was amazingly transferred from its riverside site in 1891 after a tremendous flood devastated the area and the architecture is astonishing. The huge thick roofs that slope and curve so gracefully are constructed entirely of cypress bark and are replaced about every 50 years.

With the wealth of cedar and cypress carpeting the surrounding mountains it’s no surprise to see such copious quantities used in the buildings but still awe inspiring. As is the detailed carpentry with no nails and fine joints.

The main sanctuary is entered through the Shinmon gate, decorated with a giant Shimenwa rope, made of hemp and silk for enclosing the spirits or a sacred space, and a curtain printed with an image of chrysanthemum flowers.

We called to the temple office and a monk escorted us to a huge drum that, as duel pilgrims, we were encouraged to beat in the complex rhythm he showed us. Honour indeed. Outside of the main area were all sorts of ritual spaces for drinking and washing, leaving offerings, ringing bells, burning incense and buying a massive range of charms and amulets. Time to move on.

In the cultural Heritage Centre we learnt more of the history of the Kumano Kodo. How incredibly busy it had been from the 14th century when the pilgrims were discribed as a line of ants across the land, how groups of volunteers work tirelessly on keeping it together and the Yamabushi who often guide on the ways.

By now we had decided to continue our personal pilgrimage on from Koguchi to the Grand Shrine of Nachi Taisha on a continuation of the Nakahechi or the Ogumotori- goe leg. It was the toughest section, climbing 1260m, including an 800m slope and 20km to our accommodation. There were all sorts of horror stories about it but we hadn’t thought the “hike from hell” so bad and after a day off we’re feeling pretty bullish. So we took a couple of bus rides( a pleasant change to see some low level riverside country) to Koguchi and set off from there 6.30 the following morning as the village was still wrapped in mist. It was immediately and relentlessly steep and a little slippy as we climbed the ancient stone steps onwards and upwards.

We came to a mossy spot where a rock was carved with 3 characters representing the main deities worshipped at the Sanzan. It is here that the Kumano spirits are believed to meet and chat over tea. Perhaps our labored breathing prevented us from hearing them.

At a little covered shelter there were some thoughtfully plumbed taps for drinking water to quench our thirst before continuing on up.

Now the silent forests have taken over the land it’s hard to picture people living here but a sign described how busy this remote area had been servicing the pilgrims of the past.

And then came the Dogiri- zaka translated as ” Body Breaking Slope”. You get the idea.

But all things come to an end and eventually, and actually by 9am, we were at the top of the Echizen-toge pass at 870m. As the famous poet Fujiwara Teika said in his pilgrimage diary from 1201, ” This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is”. And if a famous poet can’t I am certainly at a loss for words. I will only quote another poem, taken from the last “poem monument” installed on this route.

“One drop of sweat with every step, while climbing Ogumotori-goe in the depths of the Kii Peninsula “.

A victory selfie and an offering of thanks for safe passage and we were off on an up and down path for the next 6 km.

There had been a big landslide which meant a diversion on a forest track adding an extra 40 minutes to an already long trek but it emerged back on track at a lovely rest shelter, accessible by road, complete with coffee vending machine and a little garden. Life was good.

A couple of km uphill on the tarmac then off into the depths of the forest again on some more beautiful sections alongside streams, through bamboo groves and past hundreds of rounded rocks that looked like volcanic ” bombs” to me but I’m sure I’ll be corrected.

You’d have to give thanks for all this beauty and the little wayside shrines gave us the opportunity. We came to a grove where a Torii gate seemed to protect a sacred cypress and someone’s beloved dog.

On the approach to Mt Myoho we came upon some fellow pilgrims, all smiles and chat. This area is the Abode of the Dead. The souls of the dead gravitate to the higher mountains and spirits inhabited this section of the trail.

We reached the Funami-toge pass not long after and were able to enjoy our bento box lunch in the sun soaking up the views of the Pacific Ocean below us to the south. 4km downhill from here to the Nachi Kogen Park just above the Shrine where there was a pile of abandoned pilgrim sticks.

The Park was a bizarre and neglected place with the look of a white elephant. Perhaps built with world heritage money spent on something nobody wanted??

All the more strange for it to be on the outskirts of such a popular and sacred Grand Shrine that we now approached on the last flights of stone steps. ( Or so we thought!)

We explored rather wearily but we’re excited to climb through the 800yr old hollow Camphor tree, taking our prayer sticks with us. More amazing structures more ancient history and lots more people involved in timeless rituals.

And then, the sting in the tail, the Daimon-zaka slope. A 600m long cobbled stairway lined with centuries old trees that was truly spectacular but the last thing our knees needed.

Another km or so from the bottom of the steps took us a long way from the misty sacred mountains and deep into a strange suburbia where our bed was. But more on that next time.

KUMANO KODO: The Nakahechi Pilgrimage 1

Gluttons for punishment and intent on spiritual redemption we were catching a 6 am bus to Takijiiri- oki to begin the most popular of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimages. The Nakahechi main route takes 38.5km to reach Hongu Taisha from where, traditionally, it continues another 27 km to Nachi Taisha to the south, although nowadays people often stop at Hongu. Not us of course.

Waiting for the bus outside our lodging we got a hot coffee from the vending machine and watched the light pick up the sulfurous steam rising from the waters of the river that ,as we arrived the previous night, were enjoyed by bathers in their dug out hot pools.

Riding a Japanese bus is a very efficient experience with a payment system that impressed. You take a numbered ticket on entry. There is an electronic sign with all the numbers on and their appropriate fares owing as the journey progresses. So when you alight you read your number’s fare and put your ticket and money in the machines. And the drivers wear smart uniform with hats and gloves.

So the busy roads and villages made us realize we were now in a different environment to the empty wilderness of the Kohechi. The awareness was made more acute when we arrived at the trailhead to souvenir shops, coffee shops and other hikers.

So off through the Torii gates and massed shrines, past mighty roots,to the Tainai Kuguri ( meaning- to pass through the womb) cave entrance. It’s said that women who can squeeze through the gap are said to have an easy labour. So Sally had to have a go on a professional midwifery basis.

With the low hum of traffic in our ears we climbed up a steep and rocky hillside over prominent tree roots glossed by countless boots. More little shrines and waymarkers and a stretch of flagstone pathway running through a tunnel of greenery beside a road. I thought it well that the early roadmakers had not surfaced over this ancient thoroughfare as has happened in so many places.

We were now getting hungry having had no breakfast. The guesthouse had turned our breakfast into a “bento” box of lunch and seeing the shrine figures all bibbed up couldn’t resist opening our parcels. Christmas was early!

We reached the outsides of a village with signs for nice looking places offering accommodation. All so different from the Kohechi, but more varied I guess. It’s always interesting to us to see other cultures gardens.

We got to Takahara Kumano- jinja , the oldest shrine on the whole route, stood over by a 1000 yr old camphor tree.

We availed of the stamps for our new passports and walked on into the village where the big “rest area” overlooked picture perfect paddy fields whose thirst was quenched by a tall working waterwheel.

Past Takahara we climbed steeply into the mountains and away from any settlements for 8 km. There was a neglected cabin and shelter deep in the woods and a little while later a beautifully tranquil pond. Peace descended.

The serenity was somewhat broken at the Jujo-oji clearing where a large group of walkers were having a picnic and at the shrine and stamp box we had to queue briefly behind a bunch of Aussies.

We rose now on our final ascent to the high point of the day at the site of the Uwada-Jaya Teahouse (690m). We had passed a number of these little flat areas where for centuries there had been tea houses or inns to nourish the weary traveller or pilgrim. The trail now descended quickly, sometimes with steep switchback stairways of log stairs, to reach a small creek. We had noticed that this route had far more running water than the Kohechi and wondered about the micro climates going on around these complex crinkled landforms.

One of the above pictures shows a monorail track that snaked down through the forest. We’d seen one earlier at an old abandoned farmstead with a petrol engined trolley for bringing stuff up the steep slopes. I really can’t imagine how they do their forestry work out in such remote and trackless mountains. I’m not sure how much logging or harvesting goes on. We’d seen some in more accessible areas but in most places they had seemed to do a lot of thinning, leaving all the timber out there, often placed horizontally between trunks or stumps, presumably to help stop landslides. The remaining trees were then allowed to grow on to maturity(?) maybe purely to help with erosion. Good news for the planet anyway- there is an endless sea of cedar on this peninsular but as someone who has just spent a lot of money on a cedar ceiling and works hard to gather timber for fuel the vast amount left lying about was hard to deal with.

We continued down passing a rest shelter and picnic area popular in the spring for admiring cherry blossom and down into the largest settlement of the day at Chikatsuyu village. Nearly 1000yrs ago groups of up to 300 pilgrims would stay here and perform cold water purification rights in the river before worshipping.

Climbing out of the village the views of the mountains to the east and south opened up as we climbed 200m mostly on tarmac on the old highway passing a sad number of fairly recently abandoned homesteads. Abandonment was a theme that resonated as we hiked through the area, both in the roadside settlements and deep in the forests where until the 70’s people were farming. Emigration to the cities and rural depopulation is a world wide phenomena and we were witnessing the Japanese story.

But then a cheerier side to the flourishing of this ancient route was shown when we arrived at the lovely thatched rest area with a traditional irori hearth, a chimney less fireplace for cooking and smoking all your roof timbers. Bad for the lungs but good for insect control.

The lovely ladies who volunteered there gave us cups of tea and little gifts of origami and chatted away in Japanese. We were in the shade of the giant cedar trees of the Tsugizakura-oji shrine. These 800 yr old trees, some with a circumference of 8 meters, were scheduled for destruction along with the shrine in the governments ” shrine consolidation ” program in 1906 and were saved by the actions of Minakata Kumagusu, ” an eccentric genius researcher and avant – garde environmentalist “. I like the sound of him!

There was a sacred spring here with healing waters that we unfortunately missed but we did see the ancient cherry tree with associated folklore and got the stamp to prove it.

Finally at Nonaka, after18km and 1200m ascent were our lodgings complete with goats. A couple from Tokyo had moved here 3 years ago to run a guest house and were doing very well. The world map wallpaper in the dining space was covered with pins denoting where all there guests had come from and it was very impressive. Good to see that like the Camino, the pilgrimage route can give new life to a declining rural area.

The finest breakfast so far set us up for what we thought would be a relatively easy day as we were starting at 500m even though the distance was the longest at about 20km. It wasn’t easy.

Continuing along the old highway now a quiet backroad past more neglected spaces awaiting rebirth we reentered the forest and were sent on a detour created after a major landslide after the 2012 typhoon. It was tough going climbing up and over the Iwagami-toge pass at 670m.

Then down again on soft forest tracks and log steps, passing more signs of now afforested old terraces,to eventually reach the valley floor again and the Yukawa- gawa river. Before crossing over we visited the beautifully situated Jagata-Jizo shrine where we learnt that travelers in the area are often overtaken by Daru spirits, serpent like witch creatures capable of taking an invisible form, penetrating the human body and inflicting fatigue and painful torment! They had me.

Crossing the river on another log bridge we began yet another climb, passing another old tea house site and checkpoint where from the 15th century a toll would be inflicted on pilgrims, up to what we foolishly imagined was the last pass of the day, the Mikoshi-toge at about 580m.

The site of the remains of the Doyu – kawa settlement seemed a somber place with the ghosts of the ancestors hanging about, as did the more obvious remains of the Michu-no-gawa hamlet where there were 17 households at one time.

Soon after we crossed a large area of landslide management. A lot of this goes on and must cost the state a fortune.

We descended to the river Otonashi-gawa where there had been bad flooding that had taken out a bridge which meant there were diversions in place. The route to Hongu was sent straight on and the side route to Yunomine, where we were staying ,went right on the Akashi-goe trail. We went right. There was a lot of serious engineering work being done on the river and they had luckily installed a log bridge just days before that took us over the river to the start of a big slope.

We should have looked at the altitude profile for this ” shorter” route. It must have been because it came at the end of a long day of ups and downs but the climb to the 450m pass seemed to go on forever.

Claiming the summit at last we continued up and down along the ridge with occasional stunning views across the green cloaked folds and past another old tea house and cemetery finally given up to the forest in the 70’s.

The track got perilously narrow on the edge of a big area of felled forest and a view to reengineered landslip.

A carved waymarkers from 1855 pointed us down the trail towards the ” hell slope” where steep and slippy mud and flagstones took us down through the hot steam and sulphur smells of Yunomine Onsen.

Discovered some 1800 years ago and thought to be one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, the healing waters are pumped into a number of baths around the village including the tiny Tsuboyu Onsen, a World Heritage site. We got our tickets for it and quickly dropped our bags at the hostel, returning for our allotted 30 minutes of wonderfully restorative hot healing for our weary muscles.

It had been a tough one and we realized we’d been pushing it a bit with not enough downtime for seeing the offtrail sights.

So we decided to finish this pilgrimage at Hongu, in the traditional style, and give ourselves some time by taking the bus to Koguchi. The weather was forecast for rain so the timing is good.

So we will now visit the three major sacred shrines of the Kumano Kodo, the Kumano Sanzan, the Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha in Shingu and I’ll get back to you.

KUMANO KODO: The Kohechi Pilgrimage 3

So much to tell- so little time. By the time we finally get to the trailhead at the end of the day and find our beds there is just enough time to take a few cups of fresh green tea, take a muscle relaxing Onsen bath and have a delicious dinner before collapsing onto the freshly laid out futon. But wrestling with when I have time to blog is definitely a first world problem.

We had an early multi course breakfast in the ancient farmhouse by the river in Miura-guchi. The son had been up since 5am hacking and coughing through the , literally, paper thin walls and noisily sliding the various layers of outer walls backwards and forwards. So by soon after 7 we were saying our goodbyes and following the Singapore couple across a suspension bridge in the mist.

We were a little alarmed to read a sign put up at the bridge but figured “that was months ago- they’re not gonna hang around”!

They’re was a lot of big engineering work being done all along the river bed whether because floods or landslides or earthquakes or volcanos I don’t know but seeing damaged landscapes made me appreciate how safe and soft our Irish environment is. What’s a little rain?

And so we began a mammoth ascent of actually only 815 m as measured by science. My muscles took a different reading as we slowly worked our way up through the towering cedar forest, passing the abandoned farmhouses of time gone by. On the lower slopes at least there were many old stone walled terraces or rice paddies that had long been given over to trees and I wondered when all this afforestation had happened.

We passed a line of 500 yr old cedar trees planted as a windbreak on a long gone farmstead and other ancient waymarkers and gravestones and shrines and really felt the link to centuries and millennia of pilgrims past before us.

We reached the Sanju-cho spring and drank of the sweet waters to replace all the not so sweet ones now making my sodden T-shirt stick to my back and carried on up and up marveling at the trees around us. I had often thought when walking through big woods that they were cathedral like with their vaulted ceilings and towering columns. But here in Shinto land they are the cathedral – no man made artifice nesessary.

Walking through and being immersed so deeply under the canopy for days I’ve thought about all the stuff I’ve been reading recently concerning the “wood wide web”. The fact that trees are so much more interconnected than we realized. That they looked after each other in all sorts of complex ways.

It’s kinda humbling to be in the presence of living things whose lives , given a chance by us and the deities, can span millennia.

We finally made it to the top of the days hike at just over 1000m. A covered shelter and the Singapore couple greeted us and in a little while we greeted the 3 Americans last seen at Omata bus stop and a little while later the other 3 japanese Americans who had been struggling yesterday. And we’d passed the real pilgrim earlier as well. All present and correct.

Steeling ourselves for a long knee straining descent we headed down another forest path past a 5 story stupa and a view across the valley to an old village. Sometimes the path was on a narrow ridge with steep sides dropping off on both sides. Sometimes very narrow and built up with logs.

There were some new forms of vegetation to us, creeping miniature trees , mosses and funny green dots.

We passed more gravestones in lovely spots and carried on down until all of a sudden Sally gave a start. A pit viper had crossed her path by some old wooden buildings.

Their bites can be lethal so it could have all gone horribly wrong.

Back on tarmac we had completed the mountain stage and there were another 5 km of road walking to our hotel so after meeting up with the others at the bus stop we decided to give our feet a break and get aboard. Before we knew it we were back in ” civilization” looking at things to buy from vending machines and supermarkets in the river side village of Totsukawa.

Our hotel room looked out over the river. We had a shared bathroom- but it was a very big one and included indoor and outdoor Onsen.

Exactly what the body needs after all that muscle and joint straining.

The cleaning rituals are pretty intense. There is a lot of scrubbing and sloshing and showering before entering an Onsen. There are separate men’s and women’s and you disrobe in a dressing room space and take a tiny modesty towel into the washing and cleaning area. You sit on a stool in front of a lot of taps and buckets that you deftly control to shower and douse every part of yourself. And then you lower yourself into the hot mineral waters with the modesty towel on your head. Well I didn’t but seemed the thing to do. All that remained for a total post hike makeover was the electronic foot shiatsu machine.

We’ll all of that made us sleep very well and so it was a late (8am) start on the trail the next misty morning after another massive breakfast.

This was going to be the tough one. The ” hike from hell”. The 1075m climb and the 1170m come down. The finale of the Kohechi Pilgrimage route that led to the sacred shrines and temples of Kumano Hongu Taisha. It started with a very wobbly suspension bridge and carried on with a little riverside walk before the climbing began.

We reached the lovely little settlement of Hatenashi with immaculate rice paddies and gardens and fine wooden houses proudly displaying their drying produce.

From here on we were guided along the route by the 33 statues of Kannon, a Buddhist deity and Bodhisattva of mercy. Represented as both male and female Kannon has 33 different manifestations and to visit each one is to complete a pilgrimage. So today would be a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.

There’s a sample. As you can see there are always offerings- someone left a bottle of saki. Turning a corner we could see way above the ridge we had to climb over. Daunting. We passed a place that had been cultivated back in the day. A rare example of a rain fed ridge paddy field. And later a little wooden Kannon-do temple where we took a break.

And then after another had slog it was all made worthwhile by an opening that allowed a view over the last few days terrain.

Nose down we struggled on up and then we’d done it. The wind was suddenly chilly on the pass so a quick selfie and carry on down towards Hongu. Past more remains of old tea houses and a lunch spot with a view of the curving Kumano- gawa river and the serried ranks of peaks lined up into the distance.

There were more and more of the lovely blue flowers we’d been seeing and also more of the delicate ferns.

As we came out of the forest we emerged onto the riverside road for a few Kms before turning onto tracks again for the last leg up and down into town. They’re must have been a huge amount of pilgrim traffic at one time as the path was wide and worn.

We’d done it. The snakes had left us alone. We left a stone of thanks with the countless others and carried on down passed the Haraido-oji, the final purification station, to the Torii gates leading to our first of the three grand shrines of Kumano.

We hurried to the Heritage Centre and presented ourselves and our pilgrims passports from here and Spain and were reverently decreed to be “Duel Pilgrims” and presented with a rice paper certificate.

Then we had to hurry to the bus to our bed from where we catch a 6 am bus to the start of Another pilgrimage route to Hongu.

The man at the Heritage Centre better get some ” Triple Pilgrim” certs made up.

KUMANO KODO: The Kohechi Pilgrimage 2

Koyasan to Omata and Miura- guchi

Koyasan has been a Centre of pilgrimage for over 1000 years. The 117 temples here have been built and rebuilt many times over the millennia and are home to Japanese Esoteric Buddhism.

When Buddhism first arrived in the 6th century there was initially conflict with the indigenous and ancient belief system, Shinto. More than a religion, Shinto was a communal way of living with no founder, no formal scriptures and no absolute God. It did have plenty of spirits though, so many that they are known as Yao- yorozu ( the 8 million deities). They are the Kami and are found in nature – rivers, trees, mountains, rocks etc but also wind, sun, thunder. And animals. And phenomena such as growth and fertility. Kind of nature worship.

Shinto didn’t even have a name until other religions arrived and they needed to differentiate. The two faiths mixed and merged and morphed and evolved. In the seventh century a mixture of mountain worship, Shintoism, Taoism and Esoteric Buddhism emerged in the mountains and forest of the Kii peninsula called Shugendo. The priests saw the wild and natural landscape as a place to attain enlightenment and hiking through them it’s easy to see why.

Before leaving Koyasan I explored Okunoin, the serene forest burial ground where over 300,000 gravestones and monuments are sheltered by massive 500 yr old cedar trees. The founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi , has a mausoleum here and for many hundreds of years others from all walks of life have followed him. Slowly the moss and lichens take them back into the forest.

Then it was back to the temple for the morning ceremony of incense burning, chanting mantras and the ringing of chimes and gongs. All very nice but I could never find the place on the ” chant sheet” and was unable to join in so just soaked up the ambiance and lushly decorated surroundings. Fortified with this and the following breakfast we headed out on the trail at last.

It was steep almost immediately, heading up a gravel then forest track through the trees.

After a few km we came to a little wooden box containing a stamp for our pilgrim passports and the view opened out.

To the horizon the deeply folded steep sided forested slopes rose and fell like giant waves across the land.The autumn colours were a glory on the deciduous trees that formed islands amongst the mass of cedar, larch and pine and cypress.

After being warned of bears, snakes, and boar we studied any tracks with care.

We didn’t have to go too far to be reminded of the killer giant hornets around either.

A sign on the suspension bridge alerted us to their presence.

On the other side of the bridge we had what the guide book described as a ” ridiculously steep road climb” up into the tiny hamlet of Otaki where there was a little all weather shelter and a couple of houses.

Continuing up and up we came to a busy stretch of tarmac for 1.6km known as the scenic Koya-Ryujin Skyline road , protected by elaborate concrete works before turning off into bear country again.

We flattened out for awhile at around 1100m joining an old forest road with varied trees and scrubs on either side and awe inspiring views in the distance. We spotted a lot of the unusual Japanese Umbrella Pine. A living fossil that’s been around for 230 million years it has no close relatives.

A long steep descent took us down on aching knees past a Jizo statue to the riverside Omata bus stop and vending machine where , after a couple of cans of coffee from it, we rang our accommodation and a couple of minutes later were minibus bound for an Onsen,( hot spring mineral water bath) and a wonderful 10 course dinner. A lot of gain for our pain.

The Onsen is a Japanese cultural phenomena. A ritual that involves all the elements of the meticulous washing that goes into an ordinary Japanese hot bath but with a lot of added value. According to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment there are 3000 Onsen areas in japan with – 28,000 thermal fountain heads discharging 2,700,000 liters of water every minute. Some are indoor, some outdoor and some are just dug out of the river bed. They have healing,spiritual and domestic value ( for cooking in).

We had one at our hotel with huge glass windows looking out onto the river and mountains above and it was so lovely we were at it again at 6 in the morning before we started up ( literally) the trail again in the frosty morning light.

A very long, very steep trek up through the cypress forest was finally relieved by a bit of flat ground where a farm had been until the 1980’s. Now there is just a charming cabin where you can spend the night for free complete with wood burner and fuel and insulated beds. There’s even a wall clock.

Onwards and upwards past some mushrooms that could have been on the menu last night and into some lovely beach forest with lime and linden and cherry and maple all putting on a lovely show. At the Hinoke- Toge pass at over 1200m we stopped for another rest and met up with a lovely pilgrim. The real deal.

Following the trail along the ridge for another couple of km we slowly rose to the highest point on the whole Kumano Kodo pilgrimage the Obako-toge pass at either 1246, or over 1300m according to your source. Beautiful views, good picnic spot and another free shelter although not as nice as the other.

There was a gathering. We had caught up with a group of 3 Japanese/American and a couple from Singapore and 4 more joined from the other direction from Canada and we shared stories. Unfortunately the Canadians told us we were heading for ” the hike from hell!” in a couple of days. And there I was thinking I was in heaven! Actually the route down did get a little trickier with fallen trees, landslides and very narrow paths.

We came to our first cobbled or stone stepped section and another couple of wayside statues on the now steep finale to our day, reaching the river at Miura- guchi. Stepping through the ancient wooden portal we were ushered into a very traditional 300 yr old house ran by mama and son.

Very simple but good food and hot water and soft futon. After a hard day on the trail what more could you need?

KUMANO KODO: The Kohechi Pilgrimage 65km


For forty years we’ve been thinking how wonderful it would be to travel to rural Japan. Back then we were macrobiotic , a belief system that came out of the countries Taoist leanings, and at that time had a big reliance on traditional Japanese foods. Our fantasies of visiting miso, tofu and tempeh kitchens and studying the seaweed farms were economically out of reach and eventually the macrobiotics faded with the travel dreams.

Later I got into hiking. I had a special fondness for pilgrimages and nearly 15 years ago I walked the 880km Camino Frances to Santiago and on to Finisterre, so when I discovered the Kumano Kodo on the Kii peninsular south of Osaka my interest was piqued to say the least.

We were heading to Oz anyway to stay with our son so a 10 day stop over was planned. A very helpful agency ( kumano-travel.com) assisted with sorting accommodation along two different routes to the 3 Shinto/ Buddhist shrines that have formed this pilgrimage for over 1000 yrs.

Starting at 800 m altitude in Koyasan, the Kohechi is the toughest of the half dozen routes, traveling over 1000 m passes everyday on steep tracks through the forested mountains. We arrived by bus on switchback roads from the airport after a sleepless day and nights flight from Ireland via Finland.

We got in the mood for some Japanese style ” forest bathing” in the middle of hectic Helsinki airport where a 360 degree movie of forest, stream and lakes was very chilling.

The real thing came as soon as we got off the bus with a steep stepped path up through the trees to our first shrines and temples with votive offerings of candles, coins and incense.

We entered the Koyasan sacred temple complex through the Daimon gate and continued in the unexpected sunshine to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site.

We had read that the autumn colors could be spectacular- and indeed they were. There were many holy water sources that people were bathing in and drinking from and Buddhist monks were selling calligraphy and assorted charms and amulets.

They seem to dress the statuary for dinner! We called into the tourist info Centre where I had arranged to pick up our ” pilgrim passports”. In 2014 I think, the pilgrimages were twinned with the Camino de Santiago and both declared World Heritage routes. So we collect stamps along the way to obtain the select status of ” Dual Pilgrim”!

We found the temple we were staying in and were led by a cheerful monk to a traditional room complete with sliding doors/walls of paper, futons, tatami mats and a little balcony onlooking a wooded garden.

An early Buddhist vegetarian dinner, where a monk kindly gave me a little stool after witnessing my struggles to manage on the floor, of pickles, tofu, seaweed, rice, radish, raw fish, tempura, miso, shoyu and all our other old favorites was followed by a communal Japanese hot bath and bedtime in our kimono.

In the early morning we will attend the Buddhist ceremony with the monks and after another healthy vegetarian meal will strike out into the mountains on the first leg to Omata. Only 17km but estimated at 8 hours. Must be steep!