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Walking Japan's Sacred Kumano Kodo Trail


Influenced by religion, history and nature, Japan's Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage is more than a trek through sacred mountains. It's a puzzle that leads you back to yourself with every carefully chosen step. By CHRISTOPHER KUCWAY. Photographed by SCOTT A. WOODWARD.

Published on Aug 8, 2017

 

"Do you know what shape your mind is?"
a monk by the name of Nobuhiro Tamura asks. We're standing late one autumn night in Okunoin, a thousand-year-old cemetery in Koyasan, the center of Shingon Buddhism. This major sect believes the secrets of life are found through meditation and, in a few, choice words, Nobu has given us a lot to ponder below 600-year-old cedars that scrape together high above this otherworldly setting. A jovial monk, he doesn't wait for an answer. Our mind, Nobu says, is the shape of the moon. Like the lunar orb, it's in constant flux. Full one day, ebbing a week later. Yet, wherever we find ourselves in that cycle, eventually, just like the moon, our minds will be full again. These are brain-bending thoughts, surrounded as we are by centuries of Japanese history condensed into more than 200,000 moss-covered markers, tombstones and mausoleums, the immortal remains of once-powerful shoguns, a handful of emperors and, most importantly, Kukai, Shingon's founder, who is widely seen as the father of Japanese culture.

Over the next nine days, we're going to trek more than 90 kilometers of the Kumano Kodo, a 900-year-old pilgrimage on the Kii Peninsula, a mountainous thumb of land south of Osaka that takes in Kumano Sanzan, the three grand Shinto shrines found at Hongu, Nachi and Shingu. It's one of only two pilgrimages listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the other being Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Kumano Kodo
This way to the next shrine.

The Kumano Kodo has many layers. As a pilgrimage, it's a mental puzzle, a key that partly unlocks the syncretism between Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan. Our trek is set up to follow a pattern of death, rebirth and life: you die once but are regenerated on the Kumano Kodo, a Japanese expression points out, one of the many mysteries hidden within this peninsula. It would be tempting to romanticize this as purely the stuff of legends, but Japanese history is as dense here as the stands of hulking cypress. The pilgrimage itself dates back to 907 when former emperor Uda, preoccupied with the ideas of rebirth, transformation and enlightenment, made a similar journey over 30 days. Yet, like the landscape itself, the Buddhist and Shinto beliefs underpinning the journey far predate Uda's undertaking. On this strenuous walk, crossing rivers is seen as a form of purification; ascending mountains, a fusion between man and the sacred environment.

From the start, we're immersed in the deep end. Steps from the cemetery and after a 10-kilometer trek to Koyasan, we stay in a shukubo, or pilgrim's inn, and dine on shojin ryori—vegetarian dishes that include mountain vegetables, several types of tofu,  tempura and rice—all a reflection of the spiritual life. Awake before dawn the next day, we attend a Buddhist prayer service that remembers those who have passed before us, stop in at the Kongobuji temple, the heart of this isolated monastic complex, then transfer by van down the Hiraka-gawa to the coast and the start of our pilgrimage. In all, there are seven Kumano Kodo routes that knit the Kii Peninsula together; we're headed to Tanabe and the head of the Nakahechi trail. But at lunch, before taking a single step on this trek, we're rattled by a small earthquake. If it didn't already, the Kumano Kodo now has our full attention.

A Buddhist monk at prayer.
A Buddhist monk at prayer.

 

Tree roots form uneven, muddy steps; narrow earthen paths are held precariously in place by stone retaining walls, some as old as the cedars themselves. Sheer doesn't begin to describe the climb through dense forest to Takahara, a peaceful hamlet perched on a remote hillside. "Tsuru, tsuru," our guide Alain Sabourin warns us—it's slippery. Alain had mentioned more than once in the previous two days that our initial stretch along the Kumano Kodo, while short, would be precipitous. Halfway along that sodden trail, breathing heavily, I search overhead for the ridgeline—with no luck. I do spot Alain squatted down on one oversized step, elbows on his knees, arms askew, lost in his own thoughts, waiting for us—American retiree Jeff Johnson, photographer Scott Woodward, and me. French Canadian by birth, now living in Nagoya, Alain has adopted Japan as his own. It's easy to see why. The country's southern forests, resplendent in autumn colors, shed leaves of crimson red and citrus yellow that fall in slow motion along our walk. Another year is dying off, headed into the seclusion of winter, and the effect is hypnotic.

Hiraka-gawa
Autumn colors along the Hiraka-gawa.

Once atop the ridge, the trail eases, rolling with the terrain. The saving grace to this day's harsh trek, aside from its brevity, is that it ends in off-the-map Takahara. Seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho wrote of walking the Kumano Kodo to free himself of all things familiar, and this village with its thousand-year-old camphor trees makes it feel like we've already done that. On our late-afternoon approach, a ceiling of angry clouds cracks open to the west and sunlight pours into the valley, turning dried grass golden, bathing the handful of homes in this one-road village with a light found only in nature. Two women let us in on a local secret: That night it will rain and, come morning, the world will have turned upside down; the roiling clouds above us will have sunk down into the valley and we will be buoyed above the mist. Our comfortable inn, Takahara Kiri no Sato, is the perfect spot for contemplating the transforming valley. Immediately, Jeff and I conclude that this front-row seat to the Valley of the Mist is a two-onsen stop: one steaming bath before dinner, another early the next morning.

Up before the sun, the clouds below us as predicted, we find Takahara even more enchanting. It feels distant from the modern world, much closer to nature. After that second spell in the onsen, over a Japanese breakfast of river trout, rice and miso soup, I yearn to stay another day. But the trail beckons, so we head away from this patch of paradise. Local guide Jennifer Fujino joins us for the day. A Filipina living in Japan, Jennifer's easy laugh echoes throughout the forest as we walk and talk: an American and three Canadians trek into a Japanese forest… Above the clouds, literally and increasingly spiritually, we're enjoying the day and are headed ever higher along an endless series of log steps. We trudge into a green world of Japanese peaks, our muddy path wending its way through the shaded side of a mountain dense with pine. Slide down one mossy path, clamber up the next, repeat. One slippery log bridge straddles a cold, shallow creek at the base of a particularly high hill. The sheer beauty of the scene moves us to… silence. We've walked into a woodblock print. Sunlight splits through the upper reaches of the trees, to the moist earth and wet hikers along a section of the trail that was navigated nearly a millennium ago, and first written about only 100 years after that. Aside from our gear, the scene is unchanged.

Takahara
The golden valley of Takahara.

This is how each day will play out. During those moments when the wind is the only music to our ears, we drift off into our own thoughts. Alain fills us in on the history and meaning of where we are but recognizes the importance of the lulls. I hear his kumayoke, or bear bells, and our carefully chosen footsteps, but little else. We dip into stretches of silence as often as the trail falls into another valley. Repetitive stands of Japanese cedar and pine, carpets of red maple leaves, vivid mossy stepping stones just waiting to trip us up—quickly, these patterns become a visual meditation. Kobo Daishi, as Kukai came to be known after his death, asserted that we all have the nature of Buddha within us but it is up to us to put it into practice.

Our stop for the next two nights is Yunomine Onsen, a 1,800-year-old hot spring that is said to be Japan's oldest. It presents a last chance to purify ourselves before entering the first of the grand shrines. Cold, wet and caffeine-deprived, the onsen is an easy sell.

Kobo Daishi
Entering the sacred ground of Kobo Daishi's mausoleum in Okunoin.

If it hasn't sunk in yet that this is a trek like no other, the next morning's directions—turn left at the Japanese man boiling eggs in the roadside spring—puts that to rest. We're headed for the first of three Shinto shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha. Distinct, sulphurous air in town quickly gives way to the clean scent of Japanese pine as the trail ascends into low clouds. Our guide for the day, Hitomi Tamaki, says she's been told we're an oddball quartet—that sneaky Jennifer!—whose conversation veers between veneration and vending machines. Our laughter eases the sting of the path, a rock-and-timber escalator taking us away from town as quickly as our legs will churn upwards. We pass the Kakihara-jaya teahouse, built during the Edo Period and in use as late as the 1970s. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Kumano Kodo is how little the modern world infringes on its setting. These ruins of tea houses, their foundations being sucked back into the wet earth, are a perfect reminder. In turn, they cause Scott and me to pose our daily question about the proximity of any Japanese vending machines—the kind dispensing hot coffee. Alain, as always, laughs off the query, telling us to enjoy these remnants of the past and our immediate present. He's right, of course. Humid air wraps around us but up we go, hundreds of meters before we switch to a roller coaster of a trail through soaring pine so dense that we're cut off from daylight.

That said, all is not well. Alain is concerned about the forecast for rain later in the day. This peninsula is the wettest area of Japan, with upwards of five meters of rainfall annually in some areas. As we reach Hosshinmon-oji, a peak towered over by a simple wooden torii, Hitomi bows deeply, and we follow: this is the outer entrance to the grand shrine and as we pass, raindrops arrive.

Hosshinmon-oji
 Arriving at Hosshinmon-oji.

Twenty minutes downhill, while we sit at lunch in a small covered shop—one that serves hot coffee—Alain scans the sky. "Zaa-zaa," he murmurs, a prediction of heavier rain. Once we finish our bento boxes, the skies open, so we zip up and speed walk through the last few kilometers to the shrine, the rain soaking everything except our spirits. Even in an autumn downpour, Kumano Hongu Taisha is a spectacular sight. All paths on the peninsula lead here, a trio of wooden shrines left to their natural colors and pieced together with intricate joints, some masterful woodwork, the whole structure set against a towering green backdrop. It's a reminder that nature, not the shrine itself, is what is sacred.

Our route to the hamlet of Koguchi begins in a convenience store the next morning. Stocking up on water, sandwiches and onigiri, we turn at the store's parking lot into deep forest. The first few hours of this 13-kilometer walk ascend. Always, the steps. Uneven. Treacherous. Rock. Root. Mud. Morning shade means a cool climb through sweeps of fernsthat do little to absorb the previous day's downpour. Intermittent oji, stone statues that stand between the border of life and death, oversee our progress.

Oji
An oji watches over the trail and its pilgrims.

Topping off at bend in the rock face, we take in a vista that, so local lore has it, includes 3,600 green peaks, forest as far as the horizon. There's a certain satisfaction in knowing that we're among the highest points within sight, distant from all things modern and man-made. By the time we stop for lunch, we're 10 kilometers into the day's walk; and have come across a retired Japanese couple who, all smiles, tell us that a year earlier they covered longer portions of the Kumano Kodo than we're trekking. Over the centuries, many have trod these paths, but the pilgrimage's popularity has dropped off from the days when Ari-no-Kumano mode—literally a procession of ants to Kumano signifying a long, continuous line of pilgrims—was common. The next person we see is on the outskirts of Koguchi, an elderly woman carving out her own piece of the trail by hand.

The Japanese say you can sense the heart of nature here in Koguchi, which feels like a forgotten village, wedged as it is between 800-meter green ridges. We head straight for the one store in town and wheedle our way into a multilingual conversation with three local women who are as shocked by our presence as they are by that day's bread prices. We commiserate, then walk to our inn, steaming onsen and good conversation over dinner. Our night's stay is in a revamped junior high school that closed because of a modern concern: Japan's aging population. This village, with five bridges across its river, has few young residents. The inn is more comfortable than 'd expected but once I'm settled in my futon, the flow of the river outside my window mimics rainfall and disturbs my sleep. Or maybe it's thoughts of tomorrow's epic walk.

Hiker
One happy hiker.

 

Dwarfed by nature as Koguchi is, it's only a mild surprise that we've turned onto a long, forested tunnel. Slippery-as-ice rocks, fallen tree limbs, streams of water, this moss-green trail nearly beyond reach of the sun's rays is treacherous and continues for as far as the eye can see. Alain had told us that this last day of serious hiking would be, at more than 14 kilometers, our most difficult, but this aged section of the pilgrimage is brutal. It looks and feels like we're in a different century. Every step up to the highest point of our journey, the 870-meter Echizen-toge Pass, is deliberate and thought out. As we near the top, a moss-encrusted, all-knowing oji awaits amid thousands of soaring pines, with a hint of clear sky peeking down. If the climb to this point has been taxing, the descent is lethal. After the previous day's rain, the path is a waterfall in parts, where it's easiest to clamber on all fours through newly formed rivulets. Jeff leans on his walking sticks like never before; it seems like we'll never get back to sea level. We arrive at a clearing with views of the Pacific but in the time it takes to unpack lunch, clouds roll in bringing a seasonal chill. The valley below feels like a finish line, one our aching calves, knees and feet want desperately to reach, yet there's still a final two-kilometer, joint-wrenching series of stone steps down through thick forest that turns day to night.

Dwarf by nature
Dwarfed by nature on the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage.

Then, the forest parts its cedar curtain to unveil Kumano Nachi Taisha, built in homage to the nearby waterfall's kami, or spirit god. A sacred camphor tree, said to be 850 years old, holds sway over the courtyard and is large enough to enter. At a small altar, the devout say they can hear the beating of the tree's heart.

Delaying the inevitable, we don't tour the third shrine until the following day when we board a train to Shingu to visit Kumano Hayatama Taishi. It's at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa where waters from the sacred peninsula disperse into the Pacific. On cue, it begins to drizzle as soon as we pass under its familiar red torii. Again, we're enveloped by stillness. I don't want our walk to end. None of us does. Still, that's not the same as saying we want to tackle the next rise or slide down another green trail any time soon.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha
At the colorful Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Dreams of walking the Kumano Kodo will haunt me in the coming days and weeks. In my sleep, I'm ascending, descending, carefully choosing my next move across slippery hewn-log bridges, plotting how to circumvent the centuries-old moss-covered boulders down a hillside. But those dreams will also be of the magical sweep of light permeating Japanese pines and one ominous cemetery in Koyasan. Of pure silence, but also the laughter of an elderly shopkeeper as I insisted that, yes, I did want to buy a ¥500 bag of dried mushrooms from her. Of the deer we spotted on our last hike a couple of hours after Scott mentioned, wasn't it was odd that we hadn't seen a deer? But my mind, moon-shaped as it is, will remain forever curious about what lies around the next corner of this pilgrimage, a walk that leaves the familiar behind.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

It's best to take on the Kumano Kodo with local help. Our journey was with Walk Japan (walkjapan.com); tour dates start again this month and last until November. This nine-day walk is ¥362,000 per person, and includes accommodation, a guide, breakfasts and dinners and three lunches, for a maximum group of 12.

 

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Vibrant colors of the season.
  • Scenic Kumano Nachi Taisha.
  • Atop the entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha.
  • One of many Japanese dinner courses.
  • Lights at Kumano Nachi Taisha.
  • Katsuura.
  • Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage.
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