Kumano Natchi Taisha

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.