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!
In my last two posts about this trip (“the uphill climb” & “flower, bird, wind, moon”), I spoke about the history of the trail – what the long distance walking feats meant for the pilgrims many, many years ago. In this post, I’ll reflect more on how I felt, what the walking was really like, and interesting natural wonders I saw along the way.
The third day of hiking was by far the most challenging day. We hike from 9:00 am and didn’t return to our next destination until the evening before dinner. For most of the day I was motivated and enthusiastic to keep walking, but at some points, I was tired and my legs were feeling sore. The hike overall wasn’t demanding in the sense that you’re faced with technical routes or strenuous ups and downs, but it is a long trail and in that sense, it was tiring.
We walked mostly in the forest. Occasionally the path was “paved” with stones like the photo above, but often it was just a narrow dirt road. Enough room for one or two people to walk comfortably side-by-side. The tall trees around us reached great heights into the sky. Their trunks bare, until the canopy tops reached the sun and bloomed to grow, conveniently providing us shade from the sun.
We continued to walk along the path and noticed I noticed small stones placed on top of tree stumps. It was the most peculiar and beautiful things! People passing on this trail would pile small stones on flat surfaces such as tree stumps, signs, larger stones… and collectively people would just create piles of misplaced-replaced stones. I found myself also doing the exact same, picking up pebbles from the dirt and letting them sit next to other pebbles on tree stumps.
Next to the stone placed on top of stones, my favourite moments in the forest were watching dancing ferns!!!! Internet people, please tell me you’ve seen a dancing fern! My biggest regret was not filming it when I saw it. I only saw it twice, but it was fascinating. Luckily there are other curious humans who find the dancing fern as entertaining as I do!
Well anyways, I read a very confusing but interesting academic physics and biology paper. It’s actually not dancing… but shaking of spores for reproduction. Nature is fascinating (nature likes to party!)
Farmhouse in Fushiogami (伏拝)
I am so grateful that each accommodation on our trip exceeded my expectations – each place we stayed at was unique with different design and food. Our stay at a farmhouse in Fushiogami was rustic or “old”, but in a charming way. We ate probably the most traditional Japanese meal at the farmhouse. The meal was intricate, with many small plates full of vegetables, fish, and meat.
In the middle of our low table was a pot suspended over a small fire. The fire was boiling with soup stock and we had our own hot pot as part of our main meal.
Remember the story I shared in the first post?! (probably not: “the uphill climb”). Before we started our journey, my mother and sister were sitting next to an elderly couple that was also about to begin hiking. During our breakfast conversation, we realized that we would be staying in the same farmhouse and they left us a really kind message in the notebook. It was incredibly nice of the elderly couple to write us a note and encourage us on the rest of our adventure.
This is going to be a longer post, so keep on scrolling!! I’ll keep the text shorter, but it makes me so happy that you’re enjoying the photos so far!
Collecting stamps along our pilgrimage was a love-hate relationship. Most of the time it was love – we were motivated and way too excited when we saw the small bird house like wooden boxes that housed around stamp and a red ink pad. It was fun to follow along with the map and announce when we were approaching our next stamp.
Sometimes the relationship between us and the stamps fell towards the other side of the spectrum, where it was frustrating finding the stamp stands. One stamp really made Claudia and I go crazy! We were running back and forth around this small area where the map indicate a stamp was located. Overall, I’m glad we set aside time to collect the stamps as a way to remember significant places we passed on the hike.
From afar we see a very important site! Currently, the largest torii in the world is this one at Kumano Hongu Taisha in the small town of Hongu in Wakayama.
Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社)
We made it to the end (Kumano Hongu Taisha 熊野本宮大社)! Although this isn’t the end of our journey, our hiking sort of ended here with a decent into Hongu Taisha, offering a spectacular view of the shrine’s massive torii gate. This was the first of three significant shrines that were very important to people on the pilgrimage.
The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide). This Torii is called Otorii, O means “big”. It really was massive!
After days of incredible sunshine and beautiful weather, finally, the rain had caught up with us. We were told that this area of Japan, due to the mountains, was quite a rainy place so we were expecting to be wet. But the rain came at such a perfect time just as we neared the end of our trip. We were truly thankful for the weather!
We stopped at the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center, located in front of the Kumano Hongu Taisha (Grand Shrine). It was a beautifully designed museum that was truly inspired by its surrounding. There was wood and it featured a diversity of exhibitions and facilities focused on the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”. It was really interesting to see many signs and displays about the Camino de Santiago as well. I think that it’s really unique to have two very culturally different Destination Management Organizations partner in a collaborative way.
Kawayu Onsen 川湯みどりや
I keep saying, this is my favorite accommodation. And honestly, to each person, I’ll probably answer differently on what I’m feeling. If I’m hungry I’ll give you a different answer where I enjoyed the food the most, if I’m seeking nature my answer will change, and if I’m feeling stressed then I’ll probably tell you Kawayu Onsen was my favourite stay because of the relaxing feeling I had in a hot bath beside the river.
We had to wake up early, really early to be alone but it was worth it. It was worth it to feel the cooler, crisp air of the morning in contrast to the warm, steamy water of the bath. It was even slightly raining so the drops in the water and lightly falling on your face is so calming.
The next day we traveled by boat along the river to the second main shrine. I think these tours have become quite popular in the recent years – our tour guide, like the accommodation owners, had to learn English recently to facilitate the foreign visitors. This river boat was actually how many (wealthier) pilgrims traveled around this area in the past.
Hayatama Taisha (速玉大社)
After a journey across water, we make it to the second of the three important shrines in Kumano.
I really noticed the stunning contrast between red and green. I started to notice it everywhere. When there was a red shrine, it was always in partnership with a blossoming canopy of bright green. There was something beautiful about the natural and artificial objects complimenting each other… well at least that’s how I saw it.
Walking through the quaint town we also passed many stands selling mandarine oranges.
More stairs! More green and red! More uphills, rewarded with breathtaking scenery!
This shrine is well-known because there is a famous festival that takes place at and along the narrow stairs. The location of Kamikura Shrine is said to be one of the oldest sacred places in the Kumano area. Every year 2,000 men wearing white clothing tied with a straw rope and holding a torch run down the steep stone steps. Of course, I don’t have any photos of the festival but I saw signs and it looks like a running fire down the mountain. It’s fascinating and terrying because the stone steps are so steep and narrow!
A giant bolder was perched atop a cliff that steeply rises from the ground. It’s wrapped with a rope and adjacent to a shrine.
The last several days of the hike were truly moments I will cherish for a lifetime! One of my favourite, and last moments, on this trip will be shared in the fourth and last post of this small series. To be continued!