Mid-morning on my second day of walking along the ancient Japanese pilgrimage route known as the Nakahechi, I found myself looking for an egg shaped rock to fool the serpents that haunt the nearby shrine. The logic for this: serpents love eggs; so offering an ‘egg’ will appease the beast and I might then pass this treacherous spot without incurring some dreaded curse.
The trail was sandy, the surrounding forest quiet, the morning beginning to warm. I had already traversed two ridges and just descended the steep slope from the second.
I dropped my pack and backtracked along the trail looking for a suitable stone.
When I finally placed my offering in the shrine and leaned back to take a digital snapshot, a single drop of sweat from my forehead splashed onto someone else’s egg-like gift. This made me think. This trail had been used for more than a thousand years and yet I had been lucky enough to find an egg-shaped rock. I felt a surge of joy, blessed with good fortune. I believed this must signal more good luck is to come.
I took a long drink of cool green tea, shouldered my pack and got moving. There was still a long way to go !
I'd chosen the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodo (Kumano old roads) for my Japanese trek because it offered a historic walk through great terrain with comfortable local inns to stay in at night. I would travel light and eat well. An extra bonus was being able to plan my trip on my own; using the maps and guides on an English language web site in the months before I arrived in Japan.
The Nakahechi walking route I chose is one of five major routes in the Kii-hanto region. The Kii peninsula juts out into the Pacific about 250 miles southwest of Tokyo. The region is about two hours by train from Osaka or Kyoto; but despite its proximity to these urban centers has a surprisingly wild and remote feeling.
The Nakahechi path runs from the west coast of the Kii peninsula deep into its sacred green mountains. This region has been considered a home of the gods since ancient times and is central to the Shingon school of Buddhism. This region is a center for the practitioners of Shugendo who believe they can achieve supernatural strength through ascetic mountain practices.
During during the Edo period, at the height of this historic pilgrimage route’s use, pilgrims were so numerous they were said to resemble a swarm of ants. In these historic times pilgrims from Kyoto would boat down the Yodogawa River to a port near present day Osaka, then travel south along the coast to Kii-Tanabe, where they would turn inland toward Takijiri-oji. Here they begin the 40 kilometer trek across the mountains to Hungo-Taisha, the first of the three great shrines of the Kumano. This route from Takijiri-oji to Hungo, is called the Nakahechi. Earlier pilgrims would then continue their journey down the Kumano-gowa River to Kumano Hayatama Taisha or overland to Kumano Nachi Taisha for a journey of 330 km.
I began my modern trek by taking the express train Kurishio from Tennoji station in Osaka to Kii-Tanabe in just 2 hours. Then a local bus took me from the station to Takijiri where most modern walkers start. Once I stepped off the bus I’d left urban Japan behind. The air was cool and clear as I crossed the bridge over the rushing Tonda-gawa river to the Takijiri-oji shrine.
In preparation for this walk I had poured over the beautiful Kumano Kodo route maps I'd found on the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism web site, but within the five minutes of being on the trail, I knew this hike was going to be more difficult than I had expected. The path began by going straight up. In some places the path was paved in old stone, in others it is a tangle of rocks, roots and leaves. I had debated bringing my old hiking boots all the way from the States, but in the end I was grateful I had then. The first segment of my walk -- from Takijiri-oji to Tsugizakura, the village where I would stay in at Minshuku Tsugizakura, was 18.2 kilometers. It would me take about 6.5 hours -- just about exactly the time predicted on the tourist web site.
After reaching the height of first ridge, the path leveled out and became sandy, the walking easier. I passed through brushy woods of cedar, beech and bamboo. Small birds I could not see made short musical calls, telling me I was hiking in Asia. I experienced that bliss which comes from beginning a new adventure.
All along the Nakahechi are numerous small shrines (-oji) and legendary places each marked with a descriptive sign. At one of the first, the Tsurugi Sutra Mound, I was lucky enough to find an abandoned bamboo walking stick. It would become my companion for the next three days and soon felt like a natural appendage of my arm. I planned to take it home with me a souvenir of the walk, but my stick had other plans. I left it in Yunomine. I imagine today it is still wandering the Kumano trails with other walkers.
When I came upon a hut about mid-day I tossed off my pack and dug out the two onigiri I had picked up for lunch. A hawk circled overhead. Onigiri are rice triangles wrapped in dried seaweed and stuffed with a tasty morsel of fish or meat and cleverly wrapped with a layer of plastic between the seaweed wrapper and the rice, so the seaweed wrapper remains crisp and delicious.
After about two hours the trail brought me to a small cluster of houses. An old woman gestured me into her shop. I showed her my empty water bottle. She led me into the back and pointed to the faucet all with much bowing and thanks. When I was ready to set off again she led me out into the lane and pointed up the hill. "Kumano Kodo," she said, bowed again and was gone.
A bit more than an hour later I came to the spot where a Yamabushi ascetic had long ago, on an auspicious day, witnessed a moon rise in which the moon appeared in three places - the Three Fold Moon. This filled him with a great power. Today this spot is legend.
The tail continued along a forested ridge. In some places the forest was filled with flowering laurel. The ridge became very narrow, dropping off steeply through the woods on each side of the trail until I began to descend along a small stream into the village of Chikatsuyu.
With hand signs I managed to buy an orange from a woman at a farm stand and while eating and walking, began to climb again, no longer on rough trails, but paved country roads toward Tsugisakura. As I approached this village I spotted trays of green tea left in the sun to dry and in one place came upon an entire family roasting this tea outside their house. Everyone smiled and waved.
By the time I reached Tsugisakura it was a little after five. I did not have the detailed map of the village so I missed my turn and walked until I knew I'd gone too far. Here I came upon a young woman and her children playing in the street. She led me back along the lane, with her daughters skipping alongside, to where a path descended the steep slope to my minshuku .
I saw Mrs. Yuba pacing outside their minshuku . When she spotted me, she ran up, took my pack and lead me to the house. I sat on one of the simple log stools outside to remove my hot boots and slip into a pair of cool sandals. Inside the house, I exchanged these for house slippers. In a few minutes I was in the shower and cool and clean again. My eight course dinner, began with mochi rice cake, and green tea. Then simmered vegetables with home made ume liquor; tuna sashimi with nori dried seaweed and grated yam; grilled 'Ayu' sweetfish served with egg and lotus root; a beautifully presented tempura with shiso mint leaf and other plants; Tsukemono Japanese pickles (cucumber, Japanese radish); simmered vegetables, and a Kamameshi bowl which I cooked at the table; all followed by sherbet on an orange and more green tea.
I slept soundly in a traditional Japanese room on a futon laid over tatami mats. Breakfast was just as delicious and filling as dinner; then my hosts sent me off in the morning with a bottle of cool green tea and a box lunch. Mr. Yuba had been a professional chef, before returning to his village to open this minshuku. I would stay at another inn tonight, this one in the hot spring town of Yunomine Onsen after I had covered today’s twenty-two kilometers. Yunomine is know for it naturally heated baths and the exceptional therapeutic qualities of the water.
My second day of walking was easier. Perhaps it was all the great food, or the early start from Tsugizakura.
I settled into my pack and boots, I had my walking stick and the Yubas had sent me off with that great lunch.
If anything the trail's hills became steeper and the descents into the valleys deeper. Today for the first time I began to see a few westerners and by the time we reached Yunomine we would all be chatting to one another like old friends.
The Waraji-toge Pass is named for the place where the traditional simple sandals made of woven straw would need to be exchanged for a new pair. The pass itself was a rounded deep groove through a high ridge. I could imagine this depression being worn through the ridge by centuries of passing feet.
Along each side of the sandy trail the ground was littered with dried cedar branches and cones. The trees were tall and straight forming a green canopy high overhead. For the most part the ground was bare under the cyrptomeria, but here and there a thin spindly rhododendron grew. The trail from the pass descended the steep mountain slope through a series of switchbacks.
After passing the egg-for-the-serpent shrine I clambered down a sandy bank, stripped off my boots and soaked my feet in the crystal clear waters of the Yukawa-gawa River. Misogi (water absolutions) were a regular ritual during tradional pilgrimages.
Much of this second day's route ran through managed forest. In a few places there were detours. This region had been damaged by a typhoon. Entire hillsides were washed away exposing the subsurface of sand and loose rock.
Several times during the day I was able to look back from some ridge across a series of lower valleys to spot the distant pass I had come across an hour before. As the morning wore on, the day became warm. I was soon down to my base layers of shorts and a thin nylon shirt.
By the time I near the end of the Nakahechi route at the Shinto Shrine in Hongū Taisha I was walking with Roger, a young trekker from Montreal, and it had begun to rain. Hongū Taisha is one of the shrines important to the melding of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, the so-called, syncretism of kami and buddhas.
After touring the shrine I had a blister which needed attention, the rain continued, and so I opted for the bus to Yunomine. Roger wanted to walk the additional 3.5 kms there. We say goodbye to one another.
Here too there is typhoon damage, a bridge out prevents the big highway buses from reaching the nearby village of Yunomine Onsen, but a small van run by a Yunomine civic association now makes the trip a few times each day. But I do not know where the van leaves from. I ask a taxi driver waiting outside the shrine. He asks a shop keeper. She is not certain, so he locks up his cab and motioning me to follow, jogs through the town to the regional tourist office, where he hands me off to a guide, bows and rushes back out the door. I watch him run back through town to where he's left his parked cab. As has so often happened in Japan, people are so helpful it is absolutely humbling. I determine not to ask for any more assiatnce unless I am really stuck. The simplest question can lead to a cascade of activity.
The friendly proprietor at Minshuku Adumaya-so speaks English and shows me to my tatami mat room. Declaring that I am a 'large' man, he goes to find me a bigger yukata. Wearing this I descend to the inn's private wood lined bath in the basement. Out the window of the steaming bath a cool mist is now falling and the stream below steams as it flows by an old water wheel. Steam curls lift off the water of my bath. I am soaking. The tub is made of cedar wood. Everything is warm.
Upstairs we eat supper together cross legged at low tables. Roger, the Canadian, ends up sitting next to me. Again there are many delicious courses served to us by our host and an older woman I take to be his mother. She makes quite a fuss over us, the only Westeners, pointing out this dish, chattering away. In the morning, she appears before we depart and blesses our journey, giving Roger and I each a few small gifts in simple paper bags. I get a small sake container. We both receive plastic toy railroad cars.
Neither of our train cars has any wheels. Grandma is very sweet. We bow deeply to her.
It is here I leave my old bamboo walking stick with the simple black tape grip in the lobby umbrella stand.
I hope it has found good use.
This excellent English language web site is the central location for travelling in this region. It has maps, many photographs, descriptions and a reservation system to plan your trip. The staff is very helpful. There is also a small office outside the train station in Kii-Tanabe. http://www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo/index.html
I took a train to Kii-Tanabe from Osaka's Tennōji station - the Kuroshio, a limited express. The train also has stops in Kyoto and Shin-Osaka. The schedule can be found on the Hyperdia site which I used for calculating all my Japanese train schedules: http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ My train took about 2 hours from Osaka to Kii-Tanabe. Here I boarded a local bus for a 40 minute ride to Takijiri-oji where I began walking. I left my luggage at the hotel in Osaka, which I returned to on my return.