Walking the Kumano

Inspired by the scenic photos of misty mountains and cobbled paths and swayed by a wish to be surrounded by nature, away from the hubbub of cities and every tourist attraction ever, I decided that the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route was for me. I admit that there was probably also an element of romanticising the idea of walking a pilgrimage route with the hope of coming to some deeper understanding of myself and my faith.

The Kumano Kodo is an ancient Japanese pilgrimage route centred around the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Like a spider’s web, routes span out from these three shrines, stretching across the peninsula and beyond. I walked one of the best known routes from Takijiri-oji to Kumano Nachi Taisha via Kumano Hongu Taisha before taking the train to visit the final shrine of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, right on the Pacific Ocean.

29th December 2017

Accommodation: Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route

Start point: Takijiri-oji

End Point: Takahara

Hours walked: 2

Daily overview: My first day dawn bright and early in Tanabe. As the walk was going to be relatively quick, only two or three hours according to the route book, I took my time packing and headed over to the Kumano Travel shop to store some of the luggage I knew I would not be needing. From Tanabe I caught the bus up to the Takijiri-oji trailhead, admiring the mountains as they gradually began to loom over the road. I was the only person on the bus for the entire journey despite it being close to the new year, a major public holiday in Japan.

After collecting the Takijiri-oji stamp, I started out on the day’s walk. And what a start it was. Guide books and route maps can only go so far in describing what a trail will be like and they had not fully imparted just how steep ascending three hundred meters over a kilometre would feel. What made it particularly challenging was the way most steps were only ever conveniently positioned tree roots or slightly less jumbled rocks. This meant there were a few occasions on which I was left trying to decide if a slope was the path or not.

After this shaky start which had me more than a little worried about my chances of completing the Kumano, the path became a little more legible and I was able to enjoy more of the scenery. Admittedly, the scenery was mostly cedar trees and rocks but it was a welcome change from the city landscapes I have spent so much time in recently. The lodge was lovely, and I luxuriated in having a room to myself instead of the shared hostel dorms I normally bunk in. Like all the meals I had over the course of my journey, dinner was of a traditional Japanese style with lots of different little bits that I can only hope I ate correctly. It was accompanied with a delicious glass on homemade umeshu or Japanese plum wine.

30th December 2017

Accommodation: Guest House Mui

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route

Start point: Takahara

End Point: Tsugizakura-oji

Hours walked: 6

Daily overview: After a filling and tasty breakfast, I set out on the next leg of my journey. There was a definite bite to the air but the steady uphill hike quickly warmed me up. Re-entering the forests of Japanese cedar felt a bit like entering the depths of Mirkwood with a perpetual gloom enveloping the forest floor. Despite being initially amazed by their height and the straightness with which they grew, after about four hours of almost nothing but cedars (they even blocked any potential views out over the mountains) I began to get a tad bored of them. Another thing I began to notice is that, like cedars which were planted in great quantity after WWII, very little of the landscape has been left to chance with many of the streams and rivers set between concrete banks.

I was the only guest at the guesthouse. Apparently it is too cold for most people to be gallivanting around mountains. A part of me has to agree. The dinner was probably my favourite meal from while I was walking the Kumano and I had a lovely chat with the innkeeper. I was impressed to learn that both he and his wife had walked the Camino de Santiago before coming to run the guesthouse, something I have been eyeing up for 2019.

31st December 2017

Accommodation: Yoshinoya Ryokan

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route and Dainichi-goe

Start point: Tsugizakura-oji

Via: Kumano Hongu Taisha

End Point: Yunomine Onsen

Hours walked: 7 to Hongu Taisha, 1.5 to Yunomine Onsen

Daily overview: This was the longest hike at over 23 kilometres and I was a little worried I would not manage to finish it before sunset so had a contingency plan to get the bus from Kumano Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen if needs be. However, I arrived at Hongu with plenty of time to spare and was able to walk the whole way.

The day started off with rain and foggy glasses and I was extremely grateful for my walking trousers which kept my leg nice and dry while still being extremely comfortable, unlike many waterproof trousers. Most likely because of the rain, I only saw one other person walking until the final stretch, an American with amazingly yellow waterproof trousers who I ran in to a few times. He seemed to move at an astonishing speed that I confess to somewhat envying.

In 2011 a typhoon caused a crack to form in the mountain next to the path so a permanent detour has been put in place. This was probably the most brutal part of the route, with lots of steep ups and downs. Even the spectacular views of mist shrouded mountains couldn’t make up for it. I think what made the whole detour particularly nasty was the lack of place markers. The actual Kumano has five hundred meter markers and small shrines or teahouse remains that are all marked on the map. However, the detour had nothing so it was impossible to mark my progress.

When the rain stopped around eleven I cheered up a little bit and enjoyed walking through some small villages rather than the gloomy cedar forests which had not improved with the weather, letting absolutely no warmth reach the ground. I eventually made it to Kumano Hongu Taisha which was a hive of activity with ongoing preparations to welcome in the new year. This was a little overwhelming after three days of relative solitude and being wrapped up in my own thoughts so I collected my stamp, had a look around and moved on. The warm promise of a soak in the onsen at my hotel drawing me on.

1st January 2018

Accommodation: Minshuku Momofuku

Route Name: Kogumotori-goe

Start point: Ukegawa

End Point: Koguchi

Hours walked: 6

Daily overview: After catching the bus to trailhead, I set out on the most leisurely section of the route. Gone were the threatening rainclouds of the day before and with the exception of the final descent, there were no particularly steep slopes and many level stretches. The route map predicted four to six hours and unlike before where I’d hovered around the minimum times, I fully intended to take the full six hours to make the most of the sunshine as well as recover from the previous day’s 23 kilometres.

In this second half of the Kumano, I found there was a huge amount more variety in plant life, including many ferns lining the path. With less cedar trees blocking the light, the route was bathed in sunlight and I ate my lunch at the remains of an old teahouse, looking out over the mountains.

This was the only day I didn’t have a lunch box prepared by the hostel so had bought a few things to eat the day before. Included in my lunch were eggs I had hard boiled in the hot spring waters that morning and was very excited about. The only downside to this day was the final descent, not because it was particularly challenging but because it offered an excellent view of what the next day’s hike involved.

2nd January 2018

Accommodation: Minshuku Kosakaya

Route Name: Ogumotori-goe

Start point: Koguchi

Via: Kumano Nachi Taisha

End Point: Kii Katsuura

Hours walked: 6.5 to Kumano Nachi Taisha

Daily overview: This was the day I had been dreading, ranked as the hardest section of the routes I would be walking and to make matters worse, a recent landslide meant an additional 40 minutes of walking along a detour path. Fortunately for me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had be predicting, or rather, it was bad in a completely different manner.

I had been expect a repeat of that first ascent at Takijiri-oji, with an unclear path and lots of roots just waiting to trip a person up. Instead I got a relatively well “paved” path for much of the way. What made the route so challenging was the never ending ascents and descents. The route started out with four kilometres of pure up. It didn’t seem so bad at first, but gradually the constant gradient sucked all strength from my legs and I found myself taking regular breaks. Only the five hundred metre posts kept me going.

When I reached the top, it was only to begin an immediate descent and so on. The only respite from this constant yo-yoing was the detour, which rather sensibly decided to go around the mountainside at one level instead of going up and over, even if it did add to my journey time. After the final descent (another four kilometre stretch), I reach Kumano Nachi Taisha on wobbly legs.

Naturally there were more steps down to the waterfall, but they were worth it. The Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall is the tallest in Japan and is striking against its rocky backdrop. The whole of Nachisan, both waterfall and shrine was crowded with people going about their first shrine visits of the year, despite the scafolding that covered the shrine, so I quickly moved on.

The well marked part of the Kumano ended here, with only sporadic signs showing up seemingly at random. Nonetheless, I decided to walk a little of the way down to Kii Katsuura, mainly I’ll admit, because I wanted the perfect number of stamps to fill up my stamp book. Extra stamps collected, I caught the bus the rest of the way and had a well deserved early night.

3rd January 2018

Accommodation: Hotel Sunshine

Route Name: N/A

Start point: Kii Katsuura

End Point: Shingu

Hours walked: Sporadic Meandering

Daily Overview: The pilgrimage routes that I may have taken between Kii Katsuura and Shingu have long since been eaten up by roads and railways so I took the train to Shingu. From the station I walked up the most vertigo inspiring stairs ever to Kamikura-jinja shine. They were so steep in a few places, I felt the need to use my hands on the steps in front for balance. Fortunately, the view was worth it and after a little time to recover I descended and made my was along to the final Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Even though it was now the 3rd January, the shrine was still extremely crowded with people on their first shrine visits of the year so I took a few photos, collected my stamps and proceeded to wonder around Shingu until my hotel check in opened. This was a little dull as almost everywhere was closed for the bank holiday but I did enjoy looking around a large stationery store and having crepes for lunch in a really cute little cafe.

All in all I really enjoyed walking the Kumano and was amazed by how few other people I met along the way. While I know I have complained about the cedar forests, they were beautiful in their own way and some of the mountain scenery was absolutely breath-taking. I may have not reach some great deeper understanding but time away from the world has allowed me a little space to arrange my thoughts and look forward to the new year.

Now I only need to complete the Camino de Santiago side of my stamp booklet and I’m all set to be a daul pilgrim.