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!
Before starting this pilgrimage I had very little knowledge about the different routes you could take, as part of the Kumano Kodo (the ancient or old trail of Kumano). I learned that in the 12th century, the pilgrims would walk over 200 km from the old capital of Kyoto to reach the “final” destination, which was three shrines in Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha. Together, all three shrines were known as the Kumano Sazan.
We took the well-preserved and beautiful Nakahechi trail. It was a walk of hills, mountain, and mostly forested landscapes, with occasional villages in between.
Despite being one of the more popular routes, I was (pleasantly) surprised at how little people we came across on the hike. I think it would be a very different feeling being on a pilgrimage when you can’t find a space to be alone.
In the villages, you would see some small group of people but on the trail, we seldom passed by people. For the most part, and interestingly, we came across many foreigners on the hike.
We had many conversations with the owners of the accommodations at the different places that we were staying at, and almost all of them expressed shock at the increasing number of Europeans that had visited this region. They said they still receive Japanese travelers, especially during Japanese holidays, but they rarely received Chinese (or other Asian) travelers. They really saw the designations of World Heritage as a turning point for their clientele and increase in overall visitation.
It was funny because most of the accommodation owners were living quiet lives with their business, but a sudden growth of tourism opportunities meant that they had to quickly try to learn English. They even adapt meal plans to accommodate the diversity of people they were receiving. I can understand that all three meals of rice and fish in the morning is hard(er) to stomach for the Europeans.
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
One of the best things about the hike was just observing nature – observing everything from towering trees to small rocks shaped like rocks. When we weren’t talking while hiking, and it was silent between us, I had a chance to just look and really experience hiking with full attention on my environment. I became much more attentive to the sights, sounds, and smells of my natural surroundings.
As we were walking I suddenly heard faint sounds of music coming from the forest. Claudia and I followed this sound, taking a small detour, into this area that looked like the start of a shrine. We continue to hear this music in the wind and suddenly an old man carrying a flute was smiling and walking slowly towards us. He greeted us in Japanese and we start to have a small conversation.
He kindly offered to play us his flute and we sat down on the bench and listen to him play a simple but lovely sounding song. He laughed and then he even asked me if I would like to try playing the flute. We learned that he manages this shrine, but he mostly has free time so he plays music and makes crafts to give or sell to the people who travel along this trail.
花鳥風月 (Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon)
“花鳥風月” (kachou fuugetsu) is a simple Japanese proverb that reminds us to “experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself”. I wonder if it’s that simple – to observe and be immersed in nature and through that experience have a deeper self-understanding? I think that this poem is a reminder that nature is a space that allows you to reflect and become more self-aware.
Going up, up, and up! Claudia and I out of breath many times on the trail. There were sudden and steep up-hills – in those moments and with those views we really felt like we were traversing the Kii Mountains. Since most of our hike we were shaded in the forest, it was a beautiful change to see the view around and below us.
We passed my many flags of flying fish (the koi 鯉). The flags are knowns as ‘koinobori’ 鯉幟 and they symbolize Children’s Day in Japan, held on May 5th every year.
The koi is a fish that is specially bred in Japan. The koi swims upstream, and can even leap out of the water. I read that the koi is used as an icon for Children’s Day to signify the parent’s hope that their children will be strong and determined like the koi.
Arriving in Chikatsuyu
This small village is one of my favourite places along our journey. I also think that our stay in Chikatsuyu was my favourite… actually asking which is my favourite accommodation is a very difficult question since they were all very unique and special. It’s a different feeling being at the foot of the mountains, instead of being “eye-level” with the mountains like the previous night.
We walked on the road leading to the entrance of the accommodation house when we were immediately greeted with smiling faces of a couple that appeared to be the owners. We were shown our room, again a beautifully simple tatami (straw) flooring with three small stacks of ‘futon‘ or a thick blanket laid on tatami (布団). Of course, the next thing we did after dropping our bags was run to the public bathing facilities and soak our feet and rest our bodies.
Our view was one of the reasons why this village was one of my most memorable sites on my trip. Our accommodation was located at the side of the river. Around us was mountains and trees of different colours. There were so many signs of spring around us. I think that sometimes we miss the change of season in the city – we’re so focused with whether it’s raining or not, but we forget to see the way that life appears and unfolds.
This was our cozy corner of the room, set up for our evening dining. It was again a tatami flooring with simple flat cushions for sitting on. I have to admit that after several hours sitting on your knees it gets really tiring and numbing, but I like eating low to the ground around a small table. It’s intimate! And again we were grateful for the incredible view, even from inside.
The food, hospitality, and view made this stay truly memorable. It’s a view that pictures and paintings can’t capture – it was a feeling of peace and joy, made especially special because of the company of my mom and sister. I know this is one of the places I will look back on with only the fondest memories. Before we left, the owners wished us a safe journey and hoped that we would one day return… I wonder if my feet will one day walk the Kumano Kodo. For now, I will cherish and reflect the times I had on the pilgrimage.
(to be continued!!)