Travelogue Japan: Kumano Kodo, Part I “the uphill climb”

I hope you enjoy this short series about my experience walking the Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) with my sister and mother in April 2017. Kumano is the name of the mountainous region at the heart of the Kii Peninsula in the Wakayama prefecture of Japan. ‘Kodo’ is Japanese for an ancient road. The Kumano Kodo is an extensive network of ancient pilgrimage routes that travel through the Kii Peninsula and mountain ranges.

For over 1,000 years people have made the journey to Kumano to undergo physical strain and solitude to gain wisdom and enlightenment. The trails pass through significant sites of both Shinto and Buddhism religion. While my purposes for this pilgrimage weren’t (directly) tied to religion, it was incredible to be immersed in a place with such historic significance and of natural beauty.

What I write, like most others posts, are a reflection on my experiences – the feelings and thoughts that came with the journey, so please don’t take my writing as a guide of any sorts. Most of the words are taken straight from a scribbled journal that I kept with me on the trip. Happy reading!


 

IMG_1008
Kii Mountain Ranges

We sat around the breakfast table on the first floor of the small hotel we were staying at in the small town of Kitanabe. Today was the going to be the first day of our journey! We were all packed, our shoes strapped, and we were ready to begin our week-long pilgrimage.

Sitting next to us at breakfast table was an elderly couple that definitely appeared to be ready for a hike. We asked them if they were going to be hiking the Kumano Kodo and they smiled, then nodded their heads in sync. They told us about their route and even mentioned that they would be staying at the same farmhouse home stay that we would be staying at, but one day earlier. They told us that they would leave a nice note at the farmhouse before our arrival.

The elderly couple told us about how they have done many hikes in Japan, and even several treks abroad in Canada and New Zealand. It made me so happy to see them happy, they really seemed to enjoy the whole experience of walking slowly over long distances. Fueled by the tasty breakfast and high spirits from the couple we had just talked to, we were ready for what was ahead of us on the journey.

IMG_0793IMG_0800

If you asked a pilgrim over one thousand years ago why they were going on this ‘tabi’ (journey), and undergo the physical hardships and solitude of the mountains they would tell you something like this:

“To undergo the suffering and hardship of the long and dangerous trails, combined with frequent cold water purification, is to be relieved from all sins, so that he can receive rebirth and rejuvenation from the Kumano deities living in the Kumano Grand Shrines.”

If you asked a pilgrim me over one thousand year ago why I wanted to go on this ‘tabi’ I would answer, “to be immersed in the natural and cultural landscape overflowing in Kumano… to be surrounded by forest, rivers, and to just let my feet and body walk.” How often do pack a small bag and just walk? We are so reliant on so many modes of transportation that sometimes I think we take for granted our incredible two legs.

IMG_0849

I also wanted to take this hiking pilgrimage because apart from the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way) in Spain, these are the only pilgrimage routes that received World Heritage status. In 2004, the Kumano Kodo was registered as UNESCO World Heritage as part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” property.

Although Kumano is located in the far east of Asia and Santiago de Compostela is located in the far west of Europe, both ancient roads testify to a parallel history of faith.

If you “officially” walk both pilgrimage routes, the Kumano Kodo and the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago), then you receive recognition as a “Dual Pilgrim”. The program was developed to celebrate and honor the stories of those who have completed the contrasting walks. For me, I think this is an incredible initiative because it promotes the history of the pilgrimages as well as encourage people to experience two very different cultures through tourism. As a personal side note, the idea of pilgrimages was a topic I was very interested in exploring for my research. To understand why the modern pilgrim feels drawn to taking themselves out of their everyday lives to walk over long distances.

IMG_0816

To officially complete the walks, if you want to be considered for this recognition, you have to collect stamps along the path. It was actually motivating to find the stamps and watch our book grow with red circles. The first stamp, collected with no effort at all, was at the very start of our pilgrimage at Takijiri-Oji.

Within the first 5 minutes of our hike, I managed to get our family lost. Can you believe it!? Actually, maybe you could believe it if you knew me since you would know directions are NOT my strength… it was a fork in the road and both paths looked viable and well… I chose the wrong path, which gave us a 30-minute dangerous detour. We had to turn around and basically restart the journey. From there it was a continuous uphill battle as we gained the most elevation compared to any other day. Our high spirits from the morning were quickly diminishing as we realized that this would be a hard day of hiking.

Luckily! We had a really tasty bento box lunch that was prepared by the hotel. It’s quite common for the accommodations in the Kumano area to also offer a lunch service that prepares lunch for you in the morning before you depart. Usually, they were a variety of ‘onigiri’ (rice balls) and other small, packable items.

IMG_0891

Passing through the villages was actually one of my favourite parts of the hike. It was really relaxing to see the countryside of Japan. Everything seemed to move at a slower pace, not in a bad way, but that there was no apparent sense of hurry in the people or the place. Everyone was also very hospitable and friendly, maybe because they were used to seeing many passerbys.

Almost everyone we encountered greeted us with a smile and a soft-spoken hello. Sometimes they would engage in conversation, which never (ever, ever) happens in Tokyo. You’re lucky if you get eye contact, but now a conversation!!! It was a beautiful exchange that felt even more meaningful since we were so deprived of stranger-to-stranger interactions in the city.

IMG_0923

IMG_0947
Japanese Maple

I dropped my bags and ran to this tree when I saw it on our hike. The “Japanese Maple” (イロハモミジ) is a deeper orange-red colour, but pink at spring. So happy (I could cry) at the beautiful array of colours in the Kii mountains.

We walked by a local who made his life working with wood. He had a small “Wood Working Gallery” where he sold small handicrafts to hikers. It was so beautiful! We even took home a free souvenir, a small piece of cut wood – it was so fragrant. I wonder how long the woody smell will last!

IMG_0893

We had to ask for directions several times once we arrived in the village to find our accommodation. When we finally arrived I was so glad that I forget how tired my legs were… the view of mountain ranges, as far as the eye could see, in contrast to the tiny homes in the village was incredible.

IMG_0927

IMG_0973

The place we stayed at was similar to a B&B (bed and breakfast), but the place was unique because it incorporated elements of traditional Japanese accommodation with modern design. We had a little open balcony outside of our room and we sat there until the sunset. Sipping on tea, watching the sun fall behind the mountains… happiness!

IMG_0996a

Please just look at that rocking chair. HEAVENLY.

IMG_1050IMG_1037

IMG_0957
Tatami (Traditional Japanese straw flooring)

The fooooood. The food! The food was (almost) as heavenly as the view. My belly and I were happy to be reunited with Japanese dishes. It was a mix of vegetables, sashimi, and TOFU* (!!!!) as an appetizer. The main dish was a Japanese curry as well as a beef dish prepared on a personal cooktop. There were also small dishes that kept being served throughout our meal. We also enjoyed beer, which we felt earned after a full day of getting lost in the forest and hiking uphill (hehe).

*tofu is one of my favourite foods, that I’m incredibly deprived of in Europe, the joy of reunited with tofu is (perhaps) indescribable

IMG_1021IMG_1026IMG_1030

At breakfast, having a coffee overlooking the same mountain view as yesterday, made me almost sad to move on. I had been longing for a view like this since the moment I arrived in the urban jungle of Tokyo, Osaka, and Taipei that I didn’t want to leave this peaceful feeling behind.  Yet another day of adventure awaits us – and for that, I am very grateful!

IMG_1056

Santiago is in the far West where the sun sets, and Kumano is in the far East where the sun rises.  They are connected by the sun.

Coming up next: more hiking stories, more local exchanges, dancing ferns, mysterious moving rocks, and a whole lot more nature pictures (to be continued!)