Hiking the Kumano Kodo
Hiking the Kumano Kodo was the main reason I traveled to Japan. When I was traversing Europe I heard about the Camino de Santiago and my research for it brought be to the Kumano Kodo. I became obsessed with the hike through the mountains of the Kii Peninsula that was once looked at as a final 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 little city. The home Benkei the Unbeatable (famous samurai, bested 999 men) and final resting place of Ueshiba Mourhe (the founder of Akido). Best of all, Charlie Chaplin allegedly loved the tempura there. Legend has it he ate 300 pieces of shrimp tempura in one sitting, they even had a little mural of him. After a few days at Guesthouse Tako in Tanabe I was ready to hit the trails. But first, I had to make ONE LAST stop at the amazing French/Japanese fusion bakery in town, it's called "D'Oh" and I always imaging it being Homer Simpson shouting it.
I took the bus to the Kumano Kodo Welcome Center with a few Aussies from Hong Kong and a Trump supporter from Texas who was literally the worst. Trumpers are like vegans, they force it into every conversation. We are in the misty mountains of Japan, about to set forth on a 30-40ish mile 2-3 (sometimes 4-5) day hike to some of the holiest sites in Japan; the last
thing anybody cares about is Donald Trump. Top it all off, she had no supplies and did 0 preparation. She was ill amused when I said "you seem to expect a lot of help for someone who hates socialism". Fortunately we ditched her when the staff at the center convinced her “to go with no supply would be unwise”, it became the metaphor for the hike as we ditched her. This hike takes preparation. I've hiked a lot of trails and this was one of the more challenging trails I've been on. 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 paths with occasional stints on the road. But, don’t let any of the little declines fool you, you spend most of your day walking about 13 miles up. Up. Up in to the misty mountains of the Kii. Those Aussies were bad ass and I told them to go ahead as I took a break. When I started up again after a breather I stumbled upon an obvious monk. They’re around on these Japanese hiking trails and they’re always the most pleasant person. Each of them responded to the same way when I asked for a picture with them “I prefer not, but will if you must”. I mustn’t. I had plenty of pics of the hike anyway….
As we hiked the second half of the first day, he asked a lot of questions about me and 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 them what they meant, he looked me in the eye and responded, in all earnestness, “you are very wise, you will find all the answers you seek”. He said goodbye when we got to my lodgings for the night, where I met up with the ladies from Australia.
I arranged for us to spend the night in a guest house owned by a former chef in Tokyo. He and his wife prepared us an amazing dinner (with desert and homemade plum wine), breakfast and a lunch for the road. They made the most amazing bread, 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. It was a wet with the infamous Japanese rains and our hosts told us about all the people who fell to their deaths in the next part of the trail. So, morale was weird.
Again, they were stronger hikers than this grizzled old veteran and I agreed to meet them at our destination. Walking alone I stumbled down a 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 “so it’s not like we’re really cheating”. It was an easy sell.
Oddly enough, the bus hit that main checkpoint the same time my Aussie friends did. So, 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. A shrine in honor of a man who died along the trail, presumed to have died of hunger when he got lost, he was found with coins in his mouth. So, pilgrims leave a few yen for him for luck on their journeys.
Past rice fields and through villages, up into the mountains and down into the valley between them 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. But, the giant Torii Gates remain in the position of the original. Governments… right?
I met up with my Aussie friends at our accommodations for that night, JHoppers. JHoppers in an onsen (natural hot spring) hostel and one of the nicer hostels I’ve ever been too. Super cheap too. It’s in Yunomine Onsen, a little village with a hot water stream running through it. 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 but mutually agreed she was literally the worst. We made some new friends from South Africa, a few guys who claimed to have crossed paths with “a stereotype of a bad American” and sure enough, it was our Trumper.
The next day the Aussie’s parted ways and I went off to the two remaining holy sites I wanted to get to. From the Kumano Kodo Center located across from the stairs up to Hangu Taisha I caught a bus to the next location. 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; a temple overlooking Natchi Falls that should be on everyone’s bucket list. When I was waiting for my 2nd bus with about 15 minutes to spare a random car stopped short in front of me and demanded to know where I was going. Then he damneder to drive me there, roughly 90 minutes out of the way. I’d seen too many horror movies to agree, but 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 and pleasantries. His dog looked as confused as I was, but we were both going with it. We got to Nachi, took a group selfie, and they were off. Luckily, because there’s not a chance I was going to spend enough time appreciating the temple before the last bus to the train station that would get me back to either Kyoto or Osaka, I hadn’t decided yet.
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 brought me there. 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.