Shinto pilgrim in traditional gear
Image: Gary Cotterell Shinto pilgrim in traditional gear

In 2013, I took a much-needed sabbatical to escape media overload. I’m not a man of huge means but I did manage to find sanity and rediscovered my inner metronome – I’ll even admit to a bit of spiritual reawakening – beginning with three-and-a-half weeks on the Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain. I was a slow learner, but now understand the immense value in taking time out particularly on a well-worn trail.

I more recently found peace of mind and renewed energy on the Kumano Kodo, in the cultural and historical heart of Japan.

Image: Gary Cotterell

This breathtaking network of pilgrimage trails takes you through the forested mountain passes, picturesque villages, over rivers and streams of the southern Kansai region, which includes the prefectures of Nara, Kyoto and Osaka. The Kodo, meaning ‘old ways’, are a key part of the region’s UNESCO World Heritage designation, and have been in use by emperors, devotees and nature lovers for over a thousand years.

Image: Gary Cotterell

According to the tourism bureau, Kumano is the ancient name for this southern part of the Kii Peninsula, the largest in Japan, and is a spiritual hot spot containing the Ise-jingu shrine, Yoshino and Omine, Koyasan and the sacred Kumano Sanzan Shrines. Kumano is associated not only with Yomi-no-Kuni, the mythical land of the dead, but also Buddhist celestial paradises.

As this was my first visit to Japan, and in retrospect was unnecessarily concerned about communication issues, I opted for one of the ‘model itineraries’ offered by the tourism bureau in Tanabe, the starting point on the hike. ‘The Nakahechi’ or ‘The Imperial Route to Kumano’ is promoted as a five-night, six-day trail but in reality you are only walking longer distances for four of these. The average distance is about 15km, with the longest day at 21km. There is ample time for quiet contemplation, to admire the natural splendour, bathe in a brook and rest at the modest, moss-covered Oji shrines.

Image: Gary Cotterell

The experience is totally low-key, ‘roughing it’ in some ways, yet fantastically luxurious in others. You can choose to slack pack (luggage is transported by road, between inns) or carry your own pack. Late spring, summer and early autumn are best as you require far less protective clothing. I preselected from a variety of recommended ryokan (traditional inns) en route, which range from guest rooms in converted private homes to more formal village inns, most featuring traditional sliding screens, tatami matts and futons. Here you’ll encounter Zen-like simplicity and beauty, generosity and bountiful friendship. This is also heaven for food lovers, who’ll agree with me that the excesses of fussy fine dining are a thing of the past.

Image: Gary Cotterell

A typical day starts at 6.30am with a mix of traditional and Western-style breakfast offerings — more than enough to fuel an entire day. However, when you set out, be sure to pack your small bento ‘takeaway’ box for a welcome recharge at midday. Most villages along the route have onsen, natural hot springs discharging mineral-rich ground water at around 42 degrees Celsius. Piped into public bath houses or in some cases to private baths in your lodgings, this is the ultimate treat to soothe tired legs and sore feet at the end of your day. Followed by a refreshing cold shower or dip in a icy pool, you’ll soon understand why the Japanese are in top form, no matter their age. Be warned, although men and women bathe separately, there is no time for modesty as locals both young and old scrub and splash their naked bodies — all with the utmost consideration and respect — before sinking into the communal hot waters for a relaxing soak.

Onsen
Image: Gary Cotterell Onsen

Don’t panic about language. Apart from the fact that most people can understand enough English to get by, a World Heritage site stipulation requires that all signs and information boards carry clear translations.

Due to commitments at home I travelled in June at the start of the summer rain season. The temperature was comfortable and ranged from the mid-to-late 20s, humidity was in its early 80s, but bearable higher up in the forests. Fortunately I only had one day of rain. The way was damp and often paved with ancient cobble stones so can be slippery at times — not unlike the Tsitsikamma I suppose. I managed very well in my quick-drying Vivo Barefoot trail running shoes but I’d recommend trekking shoes with a more substantial grip.

Elderly hikers on the Kumano Kodo
Image: Gary Cotterell Elderly hikers on the Kumano Kodo

The journey is totally serene and most days I felt entirely alone. In the five days I encountered a Shinto pilgrim in traditional gear, a few elderly Japanese hikers, one young Frenchman and a couple from Australia. Although this might not be Africa, rest assured you are being watched, albeit by less threatening creatures. My venison meal one evening definitely came from these woods and I did become more observant after I almost trod on a one-and-a-half meter long, flesh-toned serpent.

Irorian Minshuku inn
Image: Gary Cotterell Irorian Minshuku inn

Some sections are more challenging than others and despite recommendations, I do feel that this trail could be tackled by just about anyone with an average level of fitness, no matter their age. At a relaxed but steady pace, you’ll reach village destinations by mid-afternoon each day, whereupon you’ll check in, drop your bags and head straight to the onsen. Dinners are early, around 6.30pm and include the most mouthwatering selection of locally foraged mountain vegetables and nuts, served raw and pickled, as a side dish to fresh fish from nearby streams, presented tempura style or as sashimi, miso soup, sizzling teppanyaki, and rice. With up to 12 individually prepared servings, each dish is a delectable mouthful or two, no more, presented in an assortment of elegant ceramic bowls and platters. Followed, of course, by the best night’s rest.

Kumano Nachi Taisha
Image: Gary Cotterell Kumano Nachi Taisha

Your final day of walking takes you through cedar forests and culminates at the magnificent Kumano Nachi Taisha and nearby Seiganto-ji pagoda. This grand shrine complex is situated high up in the Kii mountains overlooking the Nachi falls, the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in Japan, and the town of Nachisan where you’ll overnight. Both shrine and falls are sacred sites attracting daily bus-loads of pilgrims.


GETTING THERE:

Tokyo was my port of entry so I jumped on the high-speed Shinkansen to Osaka via Nagoya and then a local train to Kii-Tanabe station where you will find the local tourism office with the Kumano Travel desk. Most of the train journey is along the scenic coastline.

The 4,5 to 5hr train journey from Tokyo via Osaka to Kii-Tanabe costs about 14000 yen (approximately R2000) one way, or you can fly with Japan Airlines into Wakayama’s Nanki-Shirahama Airport from Tokyo for about 20000 yen (approximately R2800) one way, then take a 15 minute bus ride to Tanabe City.

STAY:

The 5-night ‘Nakahechi’ itinerary option, which included accommodation, dinner, breakfast and bento, cost around 52500 yen (approximately R7250).

For more information visit the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau website for options.

Nachi falls
Image: Gary Cotterell Nachi falls
© Wanted 2016 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.