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.