Kumano Kodo - shinto pilgrimage in Wakayama

About 2 weeks ago, the lady and I decided it was time to close up shop for 5 days, and embark on a bit of pilgrimage; her to do another leg of O-henro with her bud Yumi; me to walk the Kumano Kodo.  I was well excited to camp for 3 nights in the beautiful mountains and forests of the Kii peninsula-I’ve heard such wonderful things about it while living in Osaka, and to pay my respects at the various shrines and oji I encountered along my pilgrimage.

The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage trail that links various points in Japan (Kyoto, Ise, Wakayama, Koyasan) to 3 important shrines on the Kii peninsula: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha.  In 2004 it was awarded the status of Unesco world heritage due to it’s historical significance.  I chose to walk the Nakahechi route; which starts from Tanabe in the west, and ends in Nachi in the east-I chose to walk it “backwards”; starting in Nachi and ending in Tanabe-the reason will become clear in the next couple paragraphs.


After leaving Osaka and Hana Hostel’s new location in Shinsaibashi (thanks Ken!!) I took the Kintetsu to ShinJu and checked out Kumano Hayatama Taisha.


Instantly recognizable as an important spot; the ancient trees, the throngs of pilgrims, the incense everywhere-I could tell I was back to something I love.  First though, I had some practical concerns.  I had read that there were no restaurants/convenience stores after the second shrine (Kumano Nachi) I was planning on visiting that day, so I was scrambling to find some sort of provisions-to almost no avail.  Not a single convenience store in the city (at least where I was walking) so I bought some bananas from a small super and some fish cakes from the train station kiosk.  Next stop was Nachi-Nachi no taki (waterfall), Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seiganto-ji (temple).


After my offerings at the Shrine were made, it was time to hit the actual trail and start walking up, and up and up (not the yellow brick road) but the moss covered green-stone trail.


Not an overstatement at all, one of the most beautiful mountain-forest places I’ve ever seen/had the opportunity to hike.  Unspoiled, old-growth forests, lush valleys and amazing cloud strewn winding foot paths.  The first mountain pass I traversed was pretty intense (at almost 900m, one of the highest on the trail) and I definitely took a much need rest!


Being that it was starting to get dark, I was getting a little concerned about being so high up in the mountains (for this trip, I was using a hammock) and I really started moving quickly to try to get to a lower elevation.  But, as I have little or no control of the sun, it did start getting dark and I had to camp mid-mountain-albeit in a beautiful spot surrounded by boulders and ageless trees in the clouds-literally.  Things were going great, had my dinner of fish cakes and chocolate, laying in the hammock reading Soseki’s Botchan and just dozed off when…I heard the dreaded pitter patter of rain.  Should be no problem, the hammock I was using had a pretty great rain fly, and wasn’t a problem until it started raining horizontally.  So, my down sleeping bag got wet, rendering it useless and I was cold the rest of the night-though did manage a good 3-4 hours of sleep.


Needless to say, I was happy when the sun rose and I was able to exit my wet womb, drink my can coffee and start the process of drying my gear.  Hitting the trail, I immediately realized that it was all worth it, because I was walking through the clouds through old tea house ruins, over fallen trees-completely alone.  In fact, I didn’t see a soul for over 24 hours, in Japan!!- quite a feat in itself.


The 1st people I did see were a French couple who were walking in the other direction-then I quickly saw 2 other solo Japanese hikers-all looking super happy.  Next major landmark was the village of Koguchi (with a vending machine!!) with a couple accommodation spots, I was having nothing to do with that though.  The next section was jaw dropping beautiful, pretty much ridge-walking with unspoiled vistas as far as…you know.


By 2pm, I was approaching Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the major sites on the pilgrimage and one of the most important shrines in Japan.


This was by far the most “touristy” place on the pilgrimage, with tons of restaurants, souvenir shops and onsens.  I was looking forward to the latter of those options with much gusto.  Unfortunately, the one that was the closest to the shrine was closed that day for some reason and for me to walk to another would have been a decent detour.  So, I sucked it up, bought a macha ice cream and a local beer and hit the trail.  Interesting fact about this shrine is that it used to be located on the river until there was a major flood and it was washed away.  They moved it to it’s present location after that.  In its stead, they erected a huge black tori where it used to be located-quite a magnificent site!


On this section of the pilgrimage, there are tons of oji which are subsidiary shrines of the Kumano deity, which line the route. These were important sites of religious rites and offerings and are still essential elements of the Kumano pilgrimage.


I ended up camping that night in front of a toilet, mainly because it had an overhang and I couldn’t stomach another wet-cold night.  It did end up being very cold and I wound up putting my hammock on the ground and just sleeping inside of it on the ground (sorry no photo, wasn’t one of my proudest moments I must say).  Though, strangely enough, I did manage to sleep quite well!

Next morning I had a pretty decent breakfast (which I purchased at a family mart the day before) and hit the trail nice and early.  I planned on spending one more night on the trail, but I ended up walking a lot faster than I thought I would, I made it to the end (well, actually the beginning) of the trail at around 5pm.


On the way, really hit some beautiful hidden places, stark vistas long expanses of hallway-like trails.


A book could be written on what I saw and felt during those 3 days (I won’t bore you with it but…).


It really gelled for me why I embarked on this pilgrimage and reinforced my decision to start a hostel with Noriko in Matsuyama that can help people experience pilgrimage.  There is something very fundamental about pilgrimage; walking with a pre-stated purpose or goal seems to be a very basic human urge and is prevalent in every major faith on earth.  It not only gives one time to reflect on his or her life, both the past and present, but gives one the opportunity to prepare for the future; and decisions that must be made in the future.  I feel it’s sort of a lifestyle fast, that helps rejuvenate will and intention.  Alright, I’ll stop rambling, but I do hope I can influence more people to experience something like this.