Imagine hiking an ancient trail in search of enlightenment. All you have are the provisions on your back and the sandals on your feet. You pack light (you bring with you several pairs of sandals for when they wear out), because of the steep up and down trail and you will rely on help from locals for food along your journey. You are on this pilgrimage to pray and visit ancient shrines, statues and burial mounds that represent rituals and offer the traveler spiritual strength along the way. You may have to stay near the many shrines and drink from the fresh river streams. You find your faith strengthened at each shrine that has its own god and story to tell. At the end of your long journey you have traversed mountains, and you arrive at the small, spiritual town of Hongu and soak your weary bones in the cleansing and revitalizing water of the Yunomine hot spring.
This is essentially what Andy and I experienced while hiking the Kumano Kodo (Ancient Road). For over 1000 years men and women from all levels of society have made pilgrimage in the Kumano using a series of routes to 3 significant shrines of the Kumano religion which is based on the worship of nature and the acceptance of all believers. We hiked a 25 miles section of the Kodo in 3 days and camped along the way. This pilgrimage was full of many challenges and rewards. The sweet triumph of reaching the Hongu Taisha shrine at our journeys end, soaking in the natural river hot springs, and seeing the landscape and views of a winding trail brought us a bit closer to enlightenment. We definitely had time to think and reflect at each shrine along the way. Parts of this magnificent, and at times frustrating trail, are mountain roads, main streets through villages, cobblestone paths, climbing stone steps, or zig-zagging switch backs that are deep in the mountains safe from progress. One stretch we were met with groups of smiling Japanese saying “sugoi! (Awesome! Great!)” as we passed with our packs, most people we saw were day hikers. The next stretch we would see no one until the next shrine where we would collect a shrine stamp and head on. At one point the trail led us right to a vending machine! Another point it led us to a 4 km detour in the middle of a forest that had been leveled by a logging company. I never could predict what the Kumano Kodo was going to give me next, but there was always and maybe too often a sign pointing the way.
Of the many tribulations and unforgettable experiences was the second night we camped, when something quite odd happened. All day my feet hit the trail, my toes hit my boots and my new blisters reminded me with every step that my pack was a bit too heavy. Near the evening I told Andy that we should start looking for a place to camp. At the Jizo shrine (the god that takes care of travelers and children) I found a second wind and not thinking I could do it, made it to the top of Mikoshi pass. What a day. We had not seen any other hikers all day and felt pretty remote. At a small shelter with running water, bathrooms and a small pull off next to a couple mountain roads with no cars we decided to camp. We both fell asleep and woke up to the sound of 2 cars pulling into the dirt parking lot around 1am. 3 men were opening and closing car doors and eventually they fell asleep in the shelter. A bit scared we silently listened and wondered what the hell they were doing here at night… of course we thought the worst… drug exchange, Japanese mafia business. I kept telling myself, “you are in Japan, awful things don’t happen in Japan… but you are on top of a remote mountain pass… Japanese people are too nice to harm Kodo hikers.” We could hear their snoring and then one of them got up and was talking into a walkie talkie. Then we heard voices and soon saw a line of headlamps coming from the trail! 20 men were night hiking and this was their pit stop! The 3 men were handing out food to the night hikers who kept their voices down and occasionally flashed their lights in our direction. Relieved but still a bit rattled we watched and listened for a while and then we both fell asleep. When we woke up again in an hour they were all gone. At the visitors center the next day I asked about the night hikers and got some crazy looks and I think they thought they didn’t understand me even though both people spoke pretty good English. I explained it to them again and the only explanation they could give me was it could have been a training exercise for serious hikers. The woman also mentioned to me that camping is not allowed along the Kumano Kodo. Oops.
Completing our 3 day trek was a good feeling and we rewarded ourselves by soaking in the natural hot springs in the Kawayu River. It is a free hot spring where you dig your own bath in the bank and can take a cold plunge in the middle of the river. We soaked our weary muscles and relaxed. We camped next to many other Japanese families along the river and woke up in the early morning with rain pouring down and puddle forming around our tent. Literally it felt like a waterbed, but luckily no water was leaking in our tent. In the daylight we saw the river was much higher than the previous day and the rain was still coming down. Later we learned that a typhoon was hitting the coast near Kyoto and we were getting the rain and wind. We packed up and hit the road in the torrential rain. Not 5 minutes passed on the road and we were soaked, but trying to get to the bus stop to head into town. Then a young couple stopped and pulled over into oncoming traffic and told us to get in their car. The man rearranged all there camping gear and would not take no for an answer. We felt bad with our dripping wet humungous packs, but it was coming down, typhoon style. They spoke very little English, but pretty much asked us where we were going and took us there. About 15 minute drive and I think they were headed in the other direction. Japanese kindness at its best. We didn’t let the rain stop us, we made it to Yunomine hot springs which are said to be the oldest in Japan, the river was running straight through the spring so the main pool was closed but we soaked in a medicinal pool before catching a bus in the rain back to Tanabe. Eventually, due to delays caused by the typhoon we made it the following day to Kyoto where the sun was shining. Lessons learned were: be careful when picking a tent location, drainage is important and we need to keep an eye on the weather. I couldn’t imagine hiking and camping on the trial in such rainy conditions. Here’s to the Kumano Kodo! Thank you for such a wonderful, Japanese experience!