OYOP: Walking the ancient pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo, Japan
There are only two World Heritage pilgrimage routes in the world. Both are ancient walking paths that have been traveled for over a thousand years by pilgrims making spiritual quests.
The more well-known path is the Camino de Santiago, also known as “The Way of St. James”, in Spain. The traditional path of the Camino de Santiago starts before the Pyrenees mountains in France and extends over 500 miles to the northwest corner of Spain, ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The other, lesser traveled path is the Kumano Kodo in Japan. The Kumano Kodo was originally a pilgrimage route to the sacred Kumano area in the south of Japan. Today, though much of the original route in no longer walkable, there are still a series of disconnected paths, and buses and boats can be taken to travel between them.
In June of 2013, James and I walked 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We walked from O’Cebreiro to Santiago de Compostela in 9 days, hiking through small farming villages, eucalyptus forests, and mountain ranges to reach the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where we had tearful, joyous reunions with others we’d met along the way, and where we attended the daily pilgrim mass at the historic cathedral and witnessed the tradition of the incense-filled botafumeiro swinging from the ceiling over the aisles. We each carried nearly 20 pounds on our backs and each day after walking 7-8 hours, we hand-washed our clothes, ate dinner with other pilgrims and stayed in shelters called albergues where we slept side-by-side other walkers or bikers on the trail. It was, for me, an unforgettable experience and one that reminded me that I should go after the life that I want to live and that if I kept walking toward it, so to speak, I would make it there and more importantly, have an incredible journey.Since we were in Japan, I could not resist the idea of walking the “sister-path” of the Kumano Kodo. We decided to walk the 38-kilometer Nakahechi route in 2 days from Takijiri to Hongu. To get to the start of the path, we traveled 4 1/2 hours from Nara by train. As the hours passed on the train, the mountains and countryside became more abundant. At the same time, the seats on the train became less filled until it was down to us, a couple of schoolgirls, and one man lying across the seats and airing out his smelly socks. It truly felt isolated, as if we were worlds away from the city life and the rest of Japan that we’d seen so far.
We got off the train in the town of Tanabe, where we bought food for lunch on the trail and spent the night at the Buddha Guesthouse, a 3-room inn for backpackers that looked more like a museum of hodgepodge ancient Japanese collectibles. It was run by one kind man who slept on the floor and his cat, who roamed the house and gave the guests company, whether wanted or unwanted. The rooms were separated as female and male dormitories, where we slept on futons on tatami mat floors. I slept inches from Molly from Austin, who’d come to Japan just to walk the 2 days on the Kumano Kodo after graduating from med school.
Day 1- Takijiri to Chikatsuyo (13 kilometers)
The day started with a 40-minute bus ride from Tanabe to the start of the walking path in Takijiri. It was on the bus that I learned just 20 others would start the route with us that day. On the Camino, we encountered dozens of different pilgrims each day on the path. I was surprised that all but one were foreign westerners, most of who were on holiday in Japan for a week or two.
In Takijiri, we picked up bamboo walking sticks and a passbook to collect stamps along the way. The stamps were a favorite collectible along the Camino de Santiago and also a requirement to show proof of walking the path to receive the official certificate at the end of the route. The same is true of the Kumano Kodo, where stamps are collected at shrines along the path. I was surprised to quickly learn that only a couple other walkers would also collect stamps. They too walked the Camino de Santiago and would soon become “Dual Pilgrims” at the end of this route. The Dual Pilgrim status is given to those who have walked both paths. You even get a cerficate and a pin!The path was ascents and descents all day through forests of bamboo, cedar and cypress trees. There was little to no change of scenery, which certainly made the first day’s 6 hours of walking seem a bit slow. Even so, every couple of kilometers is a shrine with a wooden sign telling of the tradition or story of the monument. It is easy to feel the history and significance on the Kumano Kodo, and the deep connection with nature because you spend all day engulfed in mountains and forest, as compared to small towns or roads.
We made it to Chikatsuyo and found our accommodation for the night, Ryokan Tsukinoya. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn. Ryokans have been around since the 1600s and were designed for weary travelers, with a focus on hospitality and service, of which there is certainly no shortage of in Japan. Although we were strangers staying for one night, the hospitality felt very special and welcoming as it did being hosted by Taeko in Tokyo. Upon arrival, we slipped off our shoes, as in all Japanese homes, before entering.
We were then led to our room, a large tatami mat room, empty except for a small tea table with hot tea and two cups and two seating cushions on the floor. The wall decoration was bare except for a large scroll hanging with a countryside painting and an inscription in Japanese. The owner asked what time we would each like to bathe. When my time came, she drew me a hot bath and had a towel laid out and a robe and pants for me to slip on after the bath. Later, we were served dinner in a communal room at low tables with seating cushions on the floor, where we ate with the other guests, one Japanese man who shared his beer with us, and a French couple also walking the Kumano Kodo. The dinner consisted of 10 small courses, and each one was a culinary delight. It felt like we were at home for the holidays, you know, if we were from Japan and had Japanese dishes like sushi and tempura for special occasions. When we came back to the room after dinner, big comfy futons and comforters were laid out, each with a leg warmer plugged in and ready to comfort our achy bodies from the day of walking. I had the best night’s sleep in as long as I could remember.
On the second day, 10 hours of walking was long, so long. This day, we saw mostly Japanese pilgrims, and I was confused what happened to the 20 other foreigners walking with us the day before until I later learned they’d almost all bused to another town in the morning to cut out several kilometers (and the most difficult mountain passes) of this day’s walk. Clearly, they were not interested in becoming dual pilgrims, but as they say on the Camino de Santiago, every person’s Camino is different and there is no right or wrong way to go about it.
Just as I was getting weary and really quite frustrated at hours the same scenery, enduring one 670 meter difficult uphill, and wondering why we do these walks at all, we came upon a small town high on a hill with a gorgeous view of the mountainous countryside. We were resting while overlooking a hillside garden, and we spotted dozens of the Japanese snow monkeys and some of our fellow hikers enjoying the view as well. It was refreshing. The Spring air was light and crisp, the sun was warm, and I was reminded that these walks are healthy, rewarding, and even rejuvenating for my body and mind.
When we finally arrived in Hongu, we headed straight for the Kumano Kodo office for our certificates. Though we had some frustration because we could not adequately prove that we’d walked the Camino de Santaigo (it was impossible to find the certificates we’d packed 6 months ago when we left on this year long trip), after an hour, we received our certificates and pin and were on the way to meet our host for our accommodation for the evening, Minshuku Yamamizuki.
A minshuku is a Japanese-style bed & breakfast. We met our host at his cafe, Bonheur Company, and he walked us down the street to the house, which we had entirely to ourselves for the evening. Dinner was served at his vegan cafe, with French music playing in the background and copies of Le Petit Prince (one of my all time favorite books) on display, and I daresay it was the best meal I’ve had in my life. This guy should be famous, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops up on some travel food show on television that showcases this surprise of gourmet food served to most fortunate walkers on the Kumano Kodo trail.
Day 3- Hongu to Yumomine Onsen
Day 2- Chikatsuyo to Hongu (24 kilometers)
We were woken up at 5:30am for breakfast, an early start in preparation for the 10 hours of walking ahead. Breakfast at the ryokan was another traditional Japanese feast with many dishes like miso soup and rice with egg and soy sauce. It was a bit difficult for me to eat fish and octopus in the morning, but despite being able to communicate very little, I’d grown quite fond of our hosts and was not going to let any of their beautifully cooked meal go to waste.
The walking was done! We were officially Dual Pilgrims! All we’d had left to do was take a 10-minute bus uphill to the town of Yunomine Onsen to soak in the hot springs, the only World Heritage hot springs bath in the world. The Tsuboyu bath has been an integral part of the pilgrim’s journey for over a thousand years, and it is the oldest hot springs bath in Japan. This experience was different than the other onsens we’d visited, public baths with separate male and female facilities.The Tsuboyu bath is in a small cabin over a stream where the hot springs water is constantly circulating in a small pool. It is a private bath that you can reserve for 30 minutes. The water is so hot that there is a faucet at the bath with cold water that, for me, was necessary to keep running much of the time. It was the perfect way to end the Kumano Kodo and take part in the same traditions that pilgrims have done for hundreds of years.