It is said that each day you wake on the Kumano Kodo you are reborn, a layer lighter in mind and body, refreshed and ready for the next stage of your walking journey. The Kumano Kodo is a pilgrimage, UNESCO Heritage listed in the Kii mountains in Japan.
After completing five days of walking on the Kumano Kodo I absolutely felt a renewed sense of self and a deep calm and peace that I had not felt in a long time. Each day gave me time in my head. To process stuff, to solve problems, to help brainstorm stuff and decide on what baggage, if any, I can leave behind. Each day a new layer of worry left me, and it felt awesome.
Coming to Japan in late autumn after a longer summer meant that the autumn colours were prolific. This added to my joy as I had a dream that one day I might see maple trees in Japan changing colour after first seeing them do this one April in Bright, Victoria. Just being in Japan to see this was in itself a blessing.
While I wouldn’t call myself a Pilgrim I do love a journey that includes an element of spirituality. Again the Kumano Kodo delivered. Whether you prescribe to religion or not, I feel this trail offers a deeper connection to yourself and the stunning earthy landscapes along the way. Mother Nature always has the last say on this earth, and over the centuries this trail has moved and detoured after landslides and typhoon damage. So to find a true “original” Kumano Kodo experience, you will be disappointed.
Surrendering to detours and catching buses is part of the experience.
But it was so worth it!!
Because we were travelling from Koyasan to Kiitanabe, we had a lot of trains and buses to catch before the cut off time for our luggage transfer. Miracle of miracles including a two minute transit at Wakayama station we JUST made the train as the door closed suitcases and all. The rest of the day flowed beautifully despite so many close calls as we managed to get on the Trail in time to walk four kilometres to our accommodation in Takahara before dark. Sunset is about 4:30 PM so we had a few hours of daylight to work with. Four kilometres does not sound far but it was uphill and steep gaining an elevation of 400 m in a fairly short space of time.
We were again lucky to have clear skies cool temperatures and time to take it all in. After we completed the water purification ritual and the obligatory start line shot at Takajiri we felt ready to hike. Up here we went through the cave that is said to deliver a safe passage for women on the Trail. I only JUST fit through that gap!
The sun was lowering slowly as a big group of walkers passed us from the opposite direction. I think I said Konnichiwa 30 times in a minute. Very friendly bunch! Other than these people we did not see another soul on the Trail that day.
We accidentally overshot our finish point. Ooops. Walked into Takahara village to use the bathroom before making our way back using Google maps. We recognised our suitcase on the porch landing and was soon welcomed by Ichiro our host and his sister. The language barrier proved challenging (I always kick myself for not speaking every language on this earth when we travel) but we were able to find out that Ichiro’s home was designed by him and included the use of one sugi tree (cedar) that was cut in pieces to create support pillars inside the home. It was an impressive space.
We had a relaxing bath/onsen before dressing in traditional Yukata and being served traditional Japanese dinner, with sake! The foods were meticulously prepared, presented and we lacked the etiquette required for both chopstick use and eating as daintily as the food appeared.
Then our hosts got a glimpse of Ian‘s thermals. They laughed so hard and called him an eskimo. They insisted on taking pictures – hilarious! Even though our walking day was short, the long travel day had worn us out so we had an early night and we settled into our room complete with Japanese futon on the floor. For those who love a good hard mattress or bed, this is an ideal set up. Not all accommodation along the trail is western style so be prepared for firm lodgings 😉
This was such an impressive second day on the Kumano Kodo. Beautiful weather and moderate trails with plenty of uphill challenge through stunning forests, nature moments and a great home stay at the end of the day. Breakfast was incredible – complete with freshly brewed coffee. With so much green matcha tea on offer with every meal and in between, I was surprised to see coffee of this quality. Impressive.
It was a bit chilly to start with but we were soon heading uphill after we bid our awesome homestay host goodbye. Silence, tranquillity and inner peace found me sooner than I had expected. Birdsong, stillness and shrines to remind us of passages of time, traditions and honouring of a pilgrimage. We stopped a lot for photos, to rest and to describe the Trail in our notes. Today it was a variety of rocky and at times narrow paths and slippery mossy sections.
We saw fungi, huge cedar trees, a freshwater crab (dead but it was an unexpected forest find!) and birds. Our lunchbox was so cute, it contained a couple of rice balls and a sour ume. Ume is a Japanese plum come apricot that is grown in the region. Most growers preserve them or sour them and are known for protecting tummies and other healing outcomes. As well as tasting, well, not bad!
We rested for lunch at a roadside restaurant where we had hot coffee and a big break. The autumn colours continue to feature amongst Japanese maples cedar and cypress trees. There are a number of shrines and Oji that stand out – Tsugikazura – wow those trees!! Chikatsuyu, gorgeous!
We had a side trip today up a hillside. There was a great story about an ascetic who had seen a Three Fold Moon – two lunar forms appeared beside the moon rising over the eastern mountains from a high point just off the trail. This was said to have happened on the 23 November. Locals were sceptical but did as he said and they too saw the two lunar forms appear either side of the moon, representing manifestation of the Kumano deities.
Arriving to the accommodation just after 3:30pm meant a good long bath (we were getting used to baths instead of showers) and some downtime before, wait for it, an EIGHT course meal! Our gorgeous host was also a retired chef! Stunning food and as we were their only guests, it was nice to have our own space too.
OK so our third day really was, full of surprises. An amazing breakfast with a mixture of East meets West – sashimi, pickled veg, egg and cheese tomato toastie, fruit, yoghurt, rice, hot seafood bowl (OMG) and we literally rolled onto the trails.
It was a quiet flat start on mostly disused and private roads. Then it was up and over the first pass of the day Waritoge. This was a spot where pilgrims took off and changed their straw sandals having by this stage, worn out a new pair from Chikatsuyu.
Our downhill bit ended on a road that lead us on a detour from typhoon damage in 2011. This would take us up and over our biggest pass for the day. It was a longish uphill section but it was silent except for birds and so incredibly peaceful. We had only seen 2 other walkers up til this point and it was humid.
I spent a lot of time in my head knowing I would not miss a shrine or oji on this 4km section. Even though there are trail markers and shrines along the way, they were easy to miss if you got lost in your thoughts. I did a fair bit of problem-solving on that detour bit and finally after two days on the trails, I could feel some of my creativity return. I probably needed this awhile back (after working a bit too much this year) but shit it felt good. I felt one. I felt whole. I felt connected. It’s something I can’t feel easily at home/at work etc. It’s one of the reasons I seem to look for these experiences – so that the flow happens and that oneness feeling returns. I felt six months of problems vy for my attention today and instead of reacting, I simply worked through options, tossed ideas around like a salad bowl and allowed new thinking in. I really loved that about today. I really love how walking journeys allow this process.
So with the detour behind us, we returned to the marked trail with a shrine to protect travellers. We left an oval chestnut in place of an oval shaped rock (that we couldn’t find nearby) as this would protect us from the snake known as being a bit of an evil spirit hoping it would provide a good decoy. Apparently this evil snake spirit has an appetite for eggs!
Then we realised with the third and final pass of the day ahead, we should eat our lunch. Talk about a gourmet lunchbox! It even had an origami crane inside the wrapping!
We feasted on sashimi, seafood, vegetables and noodles. They were also filled rice balls which I saved for later as I didn’t want to overload before an uphill climb. We headed up the pass through mossy green forest and back down through ruins of an old settlement where the families had been rehomed and moved on in the last generation. There were some very slippery sections and rocky bridges bright green, gorgeous.
It was not long after that we headed downhill further to our turn off to Yunomine that we found a closed trail sign. The detour was on road and so when we realised the bus stop might be our only option to get to our accommodation (but not knowing the timetable and thinking that the winter bus timetable might mean no buses late in the day) we legged it. Sure enough the last bus of the day was departing in 10 minutes. Phew! So enjoyed a ride to Yunomine instead just as it started to rain.
Disappointed to miss a section of Trail but more annoyed really not knowing it was going to happen, we were so lucky to have stayed dry and not wandered into Yunomine in the middle of the night because it would have been a very long walk with no taxis. Arriving late to your accommodation too means you can end up missing the evening meal. Still we clocked 15km and it was an awesome walk.
Our accommodation was a bit more basic than our previous nights, but it was still very homely and right on the natural hot springs so the sulphur smell was the first thing I noticed when we got off the bus. I tried the onsen but risked 2nd degree burns and jumped out after 30 seconds as I felt like a lobster and I might have looked like one too.
I was getting dressed when we had a small earth tremor. Not ideal when half naked and planning an escape from an upstairs building. I thought about this after how funny it might have been to see a lobster escaping down the drain pipe. Thankfully it was a small one and business as usual afterwards. Dinner was early at 5:30pm and included a lot of seafood, veggies and a mandarin. We relaxed in our room falling asleep to steady rain on the tin roof outside.
So our fourth day was a little different to what we had planned. We traded a 12km section for 7km instead, and a chance to look around Hongu. There are huge torii gates here and shrines that I didn’t want to miss. There is also an Information Centre where you can gain dual pilgrimage status if you have completed both the Camino de Santiago and Kumano Kodo.
So instead this meant we would do a 5km section from Yunomine to Hongu on the trail and then we decided to walk another couple of kilometres to the next town so we could catch a bus to our accommodation at Kanmaru. There is hardly any accommodation at Koguchi so the nearest option meant catching buses.
Today was a relaxed one but I felt frustrated with less trail time (which was stupid because I wanted to see Hongu so much!) and I would have loved having a guide to bring it to life for us. The Toriis were so impressive and the gardens, just beautiful.
The history of Hongu is just mind-boggling. For 1000 years the shrines and temples lived on the banks of the river before a massive flood in the 1800s wiped them out. Today’s walk between Yunomine and Hongu was my favourite so far. The mist and forest trails after last nights rain were simply breathtaking and again I felt an inner joy and peace collectively about where I was and what I was doing – a synchronicity perhaps. I stopped and closed my eyes a couple of times to truly take in the silence and peace around me and connect with the moment and the environment.
Once again our lunch was amazing – a cute little bento box of flavoured rice balls and goodies. Our hosts at Yunomine were hilarious – not young but not old either at 71 they were engaging, helpful and hospitable. We got the usual wave until out of view, as we departed. So our day ended with mixed feelings – sad to miss a section but also massive gratitude for the short but beautiful walk that we had.
Our accommodation at Kanmaru that night was a bit different to the others again. They have a restaurant/cafe and home which we stayed in but no shower onsite. There was a public onsen about 10 mins walk away. So despite the walking back to the house in the rain, it was a pretty relaxed day and the onsen was lovely.
Our final day on the Kumano Kodo was actually a little easier than we thought. We had mentally prepared ourselves for a hellish looking profile and warnings to start this walk by 8am to ensure you have enough daylight to get to Nachisan.
We got through the first pass in the first two hours or so. It was all uphill but not as steep as I imagined. We caught the bus to the start point at Koguchi with a few other intrepid hikers, one who had also stayed at Kanmaru as well. On our way down we came across a detour due to a landslide last year. It was a fairly flat piece of road that skipped the two of the other more difficult passes that would offer more testing slopes. We made good ground here on the flat detour and then a good rest area appeared on the banks of a flowing creek junction. There were toilets, a shelter, vending machines and even a large teahouse that was unlocked and contained what looked to be a small shrine and open fire.
The Kumano Kodo trail continued on road for a bit with a gorgeous flowing creek on the side of the road. Then the trail headed up again and for the first and only time on this trip I felt close to tears. We came across the shrine called the Abode of the Dead and by the main shrine there was a mini kennel containing a tiny toy dog. That was enough for me. I let a few silent tears out. I thought of the dogs who had perhaps been companions to pilgrims in years gone by. And I thought of my own fur baby no longer with us.
We continued through the forest and my deep thinking returned. I did a brainstorm session to get clarity on work/life changes I needed to make, only it was in silence. In just a few hours I had some real clarity about what I needed to do next. I stopped to write before it left me. I’m grateful that the process of next steps has begun.
The climbs as we say are always worth it and with a lookout all the way to the ocean to keep spirits hight, our gradual then steep steps downhill began. Slowly, eventually, with knees that were complaining, I felt a deep sense of thanks and gratitude when we arrived at the temples, shrines and waterfalls of Nachisan.
Just for laughs though, we walked to Daimonzaka – another 267 steps downhill some 600m instead of taking the bus. As slippery mossie stones featured heavily on this journey this seemed a fitting way to finish the final section like this.
Our homestay was once again absolutely gorgeous at Daimon-zaka. Setsuko our host drove us to the onsen while she raced to the seafood shop to buy raw salmon and tuna and she cooked us the most amazing traditional Japanese hotpot. Such homely cooking and hospitality plus her English was awesome. We laughed as we practised Japanese and English words together.
A gorgeous way to finish our 5 days of walking on the Kumano Kodo, many layers lighter.
We can’t wait to return!
Big Heart Adventures is a commercial tour operator (CTO). Registered to lead walking adventures along the Kumano Kodo and throughout Australia and overseas. We offer fully guided walking tours and self guided walking adventures.