hiking Japan

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.