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!
This is the last post of my time hiking the pilgrimage of Kumano Kodo (“the uphill climb”, “flower, bird, wind, moon” & “dancing ferns”). This post is about 2 months late… but forgive me, it’s been busy last several months! I’ve been preparing for another journey! If I have to look back on this journey, there really isn’t a moment I would change (even the pain on some parts of the hike made the evening in the onsen (thermal bath) that much more rewarding. I am also grateful that is was a trip dedicated to spending time with my mother and sister – I can only hope that we continue to make girls trips and cherish our time together.
Traditional Heian Costume
One of the special moments was the “Daimonzaka”大門坂 on the way to the Nachi Falls where we stopped by a tiny costume store that rented out traditional clothing. These clothes are the symbol of the Kumano Kodo because the pilgrimage began with the nobles of Kyoto during the period that these elaborate outfits were worn in the ancient imperial court.
Again I see this beautiful contrast between the bright red and the deep green colour. Two colours that are so seemingly contrasting look stunning together. It was interesting to have the owner show us how the costume is assembled. There is a lot going on under the red outer layer! Each piece of the outfit is meant for something, like a necklace with the cylinder is meant to hold medicine.
I have no idea how women before us walked in this type of clothing – it’s crazy! We were barely comfortable walking, but I admire the brave and tough women they must have been.
Once we arrived at our B&B, we were welcomed with breathtaking views and the simplicity of a nice room. At night, during dinner, we were seated next to an elderly man who was traveling alone. He had square-rimmed glasses and around a rimmed hat. His hat and his outdoorsy vest with many pockets are a navy blue color. He seemed like the kind of man that has lived an honest and a simple life, maybe now he was searching for some kind of fulfillment.
He told us that in the morning he will walk to the nearby temple to watch the morning prayers of the monks. Curious, we asked more. He explained to us the history and significance of this particular temple. We learned that it is the first Buddhist temple in this region of Japan. It is considered one of thirty-three temples that are significant to this area. The old man is planning to travel to all thirty-three. We decided that in the morning, at 4:30 am we will join him in the temple.
I feel a gentle nudge and I hear the soft, calming sound of my mother’s voice telling me to wake up. Her voice is the most familiar voice I know. Before I can try to open my eyes the bright lights of the room turn on. I quickly bring my hands to my face, cover my eyes and I roll around – my head isn’t yet ready to handle the brightness of the light. We are lying down on the ‘tatami’ (rice straw floor), with thick covers laid on the ground as a sleeping pad. It’s a traditional way to sleep on the floor, but it’s still commonly used in Japanese homes. The tatami is much softer than hardwood, yet harder than carpet. The weave of straw is gentle to touch. Its sight, pale brown or light green is calming.
Yet it’s not the touch or sight of tatami, but the smell that makes me feel at peace and nostalgic. The smell of the flooring reminds me of my childhood days in my grandparents home. When I walked into my grandparents home it was the smell of tatami that made me feel like I was in Japan. Again I hear, “wake up”. I open my eyes ever so slightly, just barely enough read my watch that tells me it’s 4.20 in the morning.
I quickly remove my sheets and get dressed. As I’m sipping the water from my water bottle, I peak outside the curtain – it is pitch black except for a single lamp-post that makes a small, yellow circle of light on the street. Quietly closing the door behind us we depart on our final, and unexpected, a step of our ‘tabi‘ (journey). We begin walking up stairs made of stones towards the temple. This kind of path of stones placed side-by-side each other has become familiar it the last several days. A third of the trails we walked on were staircases of stone, the other two-thirds were dirt roads. Only a small fraction we walked in villages, either passing through or to find our accommodation.
I look around and the sky is still dark, but gazing into the mountains behind us, we see a soft pink glow. It’s several minutes to 5.00 and the sun must be rising soon. Once we are at the doorsteps of the temple the smell of burning incense is overpowering. We are greeted by a monk, who asks us if we are here to join the morning rituals. We nod our head, yes and we are shown into the temple. The inside of the temple is decorated with many intricate religious pieces, as well as with flowers in large vases, and fruits and vegetables placed neatly on plates as an offering to the gods. We are offered a small, flat cushion to kneel on and a prayer book for following along. As we are about to sit down on the floor, we see the older man from the night before already kneeling down. He smiles, happy that we have taken his offer to join him this morning. We greet each other, “ohayogozimasu“. We are the only four visitors in the temple to observe the prayer.
In front of us is a large statue of a deity. Four monks enter and they immediately begin an unrecognizable chant of sounds as they kneel on the right and left side of the statue. One of the four monks starts to make a rhythm by tapping a wooden stick to a bowl-shaped instrument. The almost song-like chant continues as a much older monk enters the space and greets us with a small bow. He back curved round and his eyes seem tired, but for some reason, he does not seem fragile to me. It must be an inner strength that I can observe physically, but I can somehow feel his presence. He kneels directly in front of the statues and continues to the join the monks in their chant. I feel like we have entered a very intimate space – one where the intimacy is created between the monks and the monks and their god. I have a fascination to observe religion in practice, yet at the same time, I feel a slight discomfort by not fully understanding the religion itself. But I am grateful that we have been given a unique chance to see their everyday lives since for the monks their life is their religion and their religion, their life.
I admire the deep sense of disciple and reverence that the monks embody in the way they act and speak. Once we are outside, we are welcomed by the sun that has risen over the mountain tops. If the whole sky were a painting, half the canvas would be covered with dark green mountain silhouettes, jagged towering peaks, and the other half of the painting would be the blue and purple colour that illuminates the sky behind thin and wispy clouds. We continue to walk towards the ‘taki‘ (waterfall) that is close to the temple. The kanji (Chinese) character for the waterfall is the symbol of water and dragon put together. It’s interesting to see the makeup of the characters to understand how people, long ago, perceived and understood their reality through a language.
This waterfall is the largest in Japan, towering at shy of 200 meters. As we walk towards the gushing sounds of water flowing downwards, being pulled at such a rapid speed by gravity, I finally see it – the sight I have been yearning to see since the beginning of the trip. This image has been in my mind… the red pagoda sits in the middle of a forest on the left, and the waterfall, straight and narrow at the top and wider before hitting the rocks, is in the far backdrop on the right. The pilgrims from centuries ago considered this to be one of the final destination of their journey.
This was the sight that drew me to this part of Japan several years ago. I feel an incredible sense of relief, happiness, and peace as I stare at the beauty that is in front and all around me. It’s moments like these make me gasp, a sharp inhale of air – in the most literal way, a moment that takes my breath away. It felt like the world pauses for a second, and the beauty of my surroundings consume my body and mind.
Nachi Falls in Nachikatsuura, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, is one of the best-known (and highest)waterfalls in Japan. This exact image was the one I had in my mind before starting the hike. It was the image I first saw on my other travel blogs and articles about the Kumano Kodo. Seeing it in person was a sigh of relief and a rush of happiness. ‘I’m here’, is what I felt like saying. It truly was the end of the journey in many ways.
We walked down, closer to the base of the waterfall, to gain a different perspective.
I’m so grateful for this journey and the precious time I had with my sister and mother. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for following along!