For six days I walked the Kumano Kodo old sacred mountains through the Nakahechi route. I’m a modern pilgrim; I carry my trusty camera1, an umbrella and no religious beliefs. For six days I opened myself full heart to the customs and rituals of the people along this path, here’s the documentation of what I saw.
The first morning was about traveling, moving away from from the hub of the big Japanese cities and into the countryside of the Kumano Kodo region. I left Kyoto early in the day and went down the peninsula by train, following its western coastline. After the train, one more hour by bus took me to Takijiri-Oji, the beginning of the walk.
It is on Takijiri-Oji that the passage into the sacred mountains begins, there is a sense of crossing a frontier into an old forest populated by forgotten deities. The trail starts with a steep ascent, going up 300 meters in less than a kilometer—a trial by fire—as if the mountain is asking if I have what it takes to start to uncover its secrets.
Walking alone invites a new perception of yourself and the environment around. It opens the door to meditative walking, to be mindful about the interface between body and nature. To be conscious about your breathing, about the sounds and smells of the forest, about the light filtered through trees and mist. It’s a unique state that gets slowly reinforced by the routines of the mountain and by the inevitability that the next day comes together with the next walk.
The day ended in Takahara, the village in the mist, a small ridge-top settlement that overlooks one of the mountain ranges of the Kumano. As the evening arrives, the fog slowly fills the valley, unfolding its pawns and embracing the settlement. I enter the Hoshizora-no-Yado guesthouse and I’m greeted by Ichiro san, the owner, he only speaks Japanese, the max I get from him—and all locals during the trip—are some hard-earned English words. Communication is done mostly by pointing and body expressions.
Here I’m presented to a unique routine that is pervasive across the inns of the path. After arriving at the guesthouse, the first thing I’m shown is the bathing room. There I’m given a Yukata, a wide sleeve robe for using after bathing, from gestures and faces I understand that I’m expected to go directly to the bath. The shared bath precinct has a pre-room with baskets for you to put your dirty clothes, the main room contains a couple of low stools in front of taps and shower heads and a bath. First, you wash and rinse yourself crouched on the stools, and then you can soak into the hot water of the tub. After a day of walking all this makes a lot of sense.
Night comes early in the mountains, wrapped in my Yukata I sit for dinner at 18:30. Food is another unique ritual, I’m presented with a multitude of small plates, all from local ingredients. It’s hard to say what most of those plates had; I lack the knowledge to trace back the food back to its original elements. The meals on these mountains always come with different kinds of preserves, something sour, vegetable combinations, some fish (cooked, raw, or both), rice and no red meat. Everything delicious.
Ichiro san make his own plum wine, among glasses of the liquor gestures and pointing actions were not being enough to sustain the communication, but the technology was there to help us. Google Translate intermediated our speeches, we spoke into his iPad and outcome broken translations that hanged by fine lines to their original meanings. Ichiro speaks with a purposeful intonation; it was almost possible to understand what he was trying to say before getting the misshaped machine translation.
The second day, as with all days in this pilgrimage, started with the first morning light. After a substantial breakfast—also composed of multiple porcelain plates—I was out to face the day’s walk. As I leave Takahara the valley was still gently covered in mist; it’s a beautiful aesthetic that will be a common sight throughout the trail.
Along the whole Nakahechi route there are several ojis, they are small shrines that line the Kumano Kodo trail to protect and guide the pilgrims, they house the child deities of the Kumano, story tell that they were created by old ascetics that used to travel those forests. The ojis give a rhythm to the pilgrimage; they surface the story of those who used to cross those mountains long before us.
The trail goes up, passing by three ojis, and then down. After the descent I’m greeted with an overview of Chikatsuyu, the village is one of the most significant settlements in the region. As I enter it I see a blinking sign of coffee, quirky but effective, my pacing so far has been good, so I take the time to sit down and appreciate the hospitality of the local store.
There’s cold rain again and a slow climb on paved roads, as I arrive at Tsugizakura, today’s destination, I’m welcomed by the local oji. Tsugizakura-oji is beautiful; big old cherry trees surround the torii and staircase that leads to it and give a palpable weight to the site, some of these trees are believed to be more than 800 years old. Close to the oji, there’s the Toganoki-jaya, an old teahouse kept by a local lady as a place of rest for the pilgrims, the floor is unpaved up to the start of the tatami, I’m offered hot tea and an origami, for good luck on the trail. Legs crossed, I see the rain coming down as I sip the hot tea.
A few minutes down the hill and I’m at today’s accommodation: Mishuku Tsugizakura, a charming house with three bedrooms. After the bathing rituals, I talk and plan the next day walk with the three other guests of the inn, the dinner table of the guesthouses offer the perfect setup to get to know better the other pilgrims you’re sharing the road. The owner of this guesthouse, Mr. Yuba, worked for 15 years in Tokyo as a professional chef, after retirement he decided to come back to his hometown. The dinner he cooked was composed of eight courses of carefully combined ingredients and flavors, just when I thought the food here could not get any better.
The inevitability of the next day creates a comfortable sense of purpose, every day there’s a trail to walk and mountain to overcome, no way around it. The third-day walk is from Tsugizakura to Hongo Taisha, one of the three main temples of the Kumano Kodo. It’s the longest section of the trip with 23 km and two small mountain passes. Through hand gestures, the owner of the inn offer to take the other guests and me to the beginning of the trail by car, the four kilometers up to the trail are all paved road along the houses of Tsugizakura, because today is a long day this initial section is often skipped. It’s a cold morning and the rain is slowly coming down, so I accept the offer.
The trail starts with a climb with beautiful views of the mountains and the morning mist; this is a welcome change as the trail often runs deeply surrounded by trees. This year’s typhoons have severely damaged today’s section, creating some unstable landslides, so much so that two significant parts of the trail need to be done through detours. Also because of a typhoon, another route on the Kumano, the Kohechi route which goes north to Mount Koya, has been completely closed upon further notice.
By one in the afternoon, I arrive at Hosshimon-oji, this shrine is the outermost entrance to the Kumano Hongu Taisha’s temple precincts, and it’s known as the gate of the awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment. The section between Hosshimon-oji and Hongu Taisha is a nice descending slope, because of that it’s often done as a day hike. As I stop to eat my lunch I’m greeted by tourists in jeans dropping from their buses. It’s a break from the calm of the mountain so far, but also it’s the only part where there are tourists not doing the pilgrimage.
Halfway through the descent, I get the first glimpse of the massive Otorii on Oyunohara, the biggest torii gate in Japan. It’s breathtaking. On the end of the descent I arrive at the Hongu Taisha temple, it’s said that heavy water purification rituals were done by the pilgrims and ascetics in their way here. The temple symbol is Yatagarasu, a three-legged crown, it symbolizes rebirth, rejuvenation, and guidance. The temple is an important milestone of the walk; it marks the half of the Nakahechi route with its beautiful symbology of awakening and rebirth.
After leaving the temple I cross the Otorii and head into a short but steep trail that will lead me into Yunomine Onsen, that region is thought to be one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, it contains a collection of inns tucked into a small valley deep in the heart of these sacred mountains. Pilgrims used to perform hot water purification rituals in those springs after their long journey and in preparation to worship at Kumano Hongu Taisha. I stay the night in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn called Adamaya, the bath has a continuous flowing hot spring water inside a big wood structure, it’s possible to fell the age of the wood, the mountain water flowing through it have a different weight, I soak in and relax.
The fourth day begins with a 10-minute bus ride to Ukegawa, where the Nakahechi route picks up again. The sun is out for the first (and last) time. It’s a calm day with a slow climb and no demanding mountain passes. I regather my energies as tomorrow has the hardest climb section of the walk. Close to the Sakura-toge pass, the trail opens up to a fulfilling view of the mountains and then slowly goes down into the valley for my next stop: Koguchi.
The Koguchi village is composed of a few houses on the slopes around the confluence of three rivers; five bridges connect the different slopes and river banks. My accommodation is Shizen-no-ie, a high school that renovated as a lodge located on one of the river banks, after arriving I discover that a typhoon warning was in place, the tropical cyclone is predicted to hit the region where I’m in 48 hours. It’s a dangerous situation, but it seemed that I had enough time to finish the last day walk and manage to flee the region. I had come too long and too far to just quit, I knew that the feeling of unfinished business would hunt me forever if I did not complete my walk to the Nachi temple.
The fifth day started with rain and wind, which only got worse and worse as the day slowly unfolded. As promised the walk started with a long and steep climb, almost one kilometer of elevation change in just four kilometers. By the end of Echizen-toge pass, I was thoroughly wet, and the storm was getting worse. The trail had transformed into a river; water rolled over the rocks, every step became a liability. I couldn’t keep myself dry anymore, so I decide to power through and only stop when I reached Nachi, it was a good choice as the movement kept my body warm.
The Kumano pilgrimage and it’s temples are associated with themes of rebirth, old pilgrims and ascetics when crossing those sacred mountains performed heavy water purification rituals before entering the temples. As I crossed the Ogumotori-goe under the heavy rain and wind that preceded the typhoon, I felt like in a water purification ritual myself. After more than seven hours walking, when I finally saw a glimpse of the temples and waterfall from Nachi, I felt anew, I felt ready.
To be able to soak in into the hot water bath of my last day accommodation was all the reward I needed after this harsh day. All the rituals of the previous days, the bathing, the food, the early sleep on the tatami floor; they all made sense; they harmonized like never before. On the daybreak of the next day, the rain stopped long enough to let me take some pictures of the temples in the village. After that I managed to get the only not canceled bus out of the peninsula, my final destination was Tokyo, but when I arrived in Nagoya, in the wake of the typhoon, every transportation method got canceled. I walked to a close by hotel and watched the cyclone embrace the city from its eighth-floor window, what an ending.