The Kumano Kodo was the main reason I traveled to Japan. A hike through the mountains of the Kii Peninsula that was once looked at as a spiritual proving ground for samurai and emperors. When I arrived in Tanabe I originally planned to immediately get to the trail, but I really loved the city.. The home of Benkei the Unbeatable (famous samurai who bested 999 men) and the final resting place of Ueshiba Mourhe (the founder of Akido). Best of all, Charlie Chaplin allegedly loved the restaraunts there. Legend has it he ate 300 pieces of shrimp tempura in one sitting, they even have a mural of his likeness. After a few days at Guesthouse Tako I was ready to hit the trails.
I took the bus to the Kumano Kodo Welcome Center with a few hikers from Hong Kong and a Trump supporter from Texas who was literally the worst person I have ever sat next to. Trumpers are like militant vegans, they force it into every conversation. We are in the misty mountains of Japan, about to set forth on a 40ish mile / 3ishday hike to some of the holiest sites in Japan; the last thing anybody cares about is Donald Trump.
To top it all off, she had no supplies and did 0 preparation. She was wearing frigging cowboy boots. There was no sense of irony when I said "you seem to expect a lot of help for someone who hates socialism." We ditched her ASAP. The first day was one of the hardest things I had ever done. You start climbing a barely marked path to windy trails and slippery stone steps with occasional stints on the paved roads. Don’t let any of the little declines fool you, you spend most of your day walking 13 miles up. Up. Up. Up. In to the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. My new friends were bad ass and I told them to go ahead as I took a break. When I started up again I stumbled upon a zen monk. They’re around on these Japanese hiking trails and they’re always the most pleasant people.
As he and I hiked the second half of the first day he asked a lot of questions about my life between nuggets of zen wisdom. He ended the day by giving me two of the many bracelets he had on his wrist. When I asked why he said I needed these more than he. When I asked him what they meant he looked me in the eye and responded, in all earnestness, “you are a wise young man, you will find all the answers you seek.”
I arranged to spend the night in a guest house owned by a former chef in Tokyo. While checking in I come to find my new friends from Hong Kong made the same accommodations. The former chef and his wife prepared us an amazing dinner (with desert and homemade plum wine), breakfast and a packed lunch for the road. They made the most amazing bread I've ever had, the egg sandwich lunch was amazing. FYI, the Japanese love a good egg sandwich. After breakfast we hit the road, this time a little scared of what was to come. Our hosts told us about all the people who fell to their deaths in the next part of the trail, most recently an Australian woman trying to get the perfect selfie. Morale was weird as we pushed off..
Again, they were stronger hikers than this grizzled old veteran and I agreed to meet them at our destination. Walking alone I stumbled down slippery rock stairs, with a 40 pound rucksack strapped to my back. At the bottom of what felt like an endless staircase was a group of Japanese girls who thought my clumsiness was totally kawaii. They told me they were taking a bus past the danger zone that would pass our destination and drop us off at the first main checkpoint of the spiritual pilgrimage "it’s not like we’re really cheating,” one said. It was an easy sell.
Oddly enough, the bus hit that main checkpoint the same time my friends did. They teased me for cheating as we enjoyed our packed lunches. We walked together until it was apparent I was slowing their pace. Again they went ahead. This portion of the hike is said to be the most spiritual, there are many legends along the way including one of the more morbid shrines; in honor of a man who died along the trail. He is presumed to have died of hunger when he got lost, they found him days later with coins in his mouth. In honor of his passing, pilgrims leave him a few yen for luck on their journeys.
Rice fields and villages; mountains and valleys, until you reach Kumao Hongu Taisha. One of the holiest sites in Japan… sort of. When the Japanese government forced Shinto and Buddhism to combine they moved many of their landmarks, including this one. The giant Torii Gates remain in the position of the original while the temple was moved to the top of the mountain. Governments… right?
I met up with my friends at our accommodations for that night, JHoppers. JHoppers is an onsen (natural hot spring) hostel and one of the nicer hostels I’ve ever stayed in. Super cheap too. Located in Yunomine Onsen, a little village with a hot water stream running through it. The stream is so hot people use it to naturally boil their eggs. Over dinner we discussed the trail and all marveled that we never came across that Trumper again, we wished her well while mutually agreeing she was literally the worst. That night we made some new friends from South Africa. Up late at night, playing Uno, they told us all about the “stereotype of a bad American” they met along they way. Sure enough, it was our Trumper.
The next day I set off alone for two holy sites in the area. The bus to Kumano Hayatama-taisha would get me there with enough time to take a quick tour, say my blessing and get the next bus to Kumano Nachi-taisha. While waiting for my 2nd bus a random car stopped short in front of me and demanded to know where I was going. The driver wanted to take me there, roughly 90 minutes out of the way. I’d seen too many horror movies to agree. He persisted and I figured I was a samurai now, I could take the risk. He was pleasant and was thrilled to meet someone from New York. “Finally, I practice English.”
He and his fat little dog drove my up in to Nachi as we chatted small talk. His dog looked as confused as I was, we were both cautious but going with it. We got to Nachi, took a group selfie, and they were off. Natchi should be on everyone's bucket list. I spent as much time as I could, appreciating the temple before the last bus to the train station.
Natchi is incredible, no photo does it justice. You climb the stairs to a busy temple filled with lovely attendees and monks. The energy there is high and everyone was as friendly as the stranger who gave me a lift. I JUST make the last bus to the train station and decide to reward myself with a sushi dinner from 7-11. Yes, THAT 7-11. Oddly enough the 7-11s in Japan are nice. Their egg sandwiches are like crack and their sushi rivals most American sushi restaurants. There, at an empty train station, I ate the most rewarding sushi dinner of my life… so far.