Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Kumano Kodo

As part of my Japan experience I wanted to do some sort of cool outdoor activity. My Rough Guide mentioned a series of trails called the Kumano Kudo which seemed like a perfect candidate. The Kumano Kodo is actually a set of ancient pilgrimage trails which recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They wander down from Kyoto to a network in the Wakayama peninsula where they link several important shrines. About a month ago I started researching what it would take to put a hike together and slowly came up with a plan.

Damage from landslides

Last Tuesday I took a 2 hour train down the coast to Tanabe and then hiked for two 7 hour days deep into the mountains of Wakayama. I didn’t even bother trying to get people to come with me. I was kind of excited about doing this alone. I figured I would see people along the route, but after 14 hours of hiking I actually never ran into anyone on the trail. There are a few small villages on the route and I saw a couple people there, but otherwise I was alone. I was prepared for cold weather and the possibility of rain, but the weather was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t have asked for better hiking days.

Endless Stairs

Along the trail there are several shrines and lots of little statues and monuments strewn about the woods. Sometimes there’s a placard telling you what they mean, but sometimes you’re just left to wonder. I was amazed that all these artifacts just lying around in the woods. The trails have a lot of fairy steep ups and downs. You pretty much go straight up the mountains and then straight down. I guess ancient Japanese pilgrims didn’t believe in switchbacks. There are a lot of seemingly endless staircases. The forest is dense in most places so I wasn’t always aware of my surroundings, but every now and then I’d hit a ridge or a clearing and I’d see just how lush and beautiful the surrounding mountains are. I passed a number of natural springs and some beautiful little streams. I didn’t see much wildlife, but I nearly stepped on a couple of snakes.

 Little Statue

 Shrine Ruins


Shrine to ???

The first night on the trail I stayed in a little Japanese Inn called Minshuku Tsugizakura that’s run by a former chef and his wife. I was really impressed at how friendly they were and the food was absolutely amazing (I’ll talk more about the food in a later post). I’ve stayed in a few of these traditional inns before(Ryokan and Minshuku) and it’s always an experience. They have straw tatami mats, sliding paper doors, Japanese style spas, and in the evening futons are rolled out for beds.

Minshuku Tsugizakura

 Room Decoration

 Actually 3 separate rooms separated by sliding doors

The next day I had to take a bus to bypass part of the trail that was damaged from Typhoon Talas. I saw several signs of damage mainly from massive landslides and a few washed out bridges. Toward the end of the second day I reached one of the major shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha. I’m not sure what I was expecting after hiking for so long, but it was actually a little underwhelming. The main hall was under construction, but even if it had been open I’m not sure that there was all that much to see. I guess it’s one of those things where the journey really is more important than the destination. There is a massive Torii gate near the river. It’s the largest Torii that I’ve ever seen and it towers above the trees. I was really surprised at how few people I saw. I was the only customer at both of my Inns. I can only guess that it was a down season although I can’t see why since the weather was so perfect.

Giant Torii from far away 

Giant Torii, closer

Kumano Hongu Taisha entrance

 Kumano Hongu Taisha

After visiting Kumano Hongu Taisha I had to do a killer hike over a mountain to get to my final Inn. It was a really hellish trail that went straight up and then straight down. It was getting dark and I was pretty exhausted. After a long day, going down is almost as bad as going up. I finally reached a small mountain town called Yunomine Onsen. It’s a one street town sandwiched between two mountains. It’s hard to call it a town since it’s just literally two rows of houses lining a natural spring river. The whole town smells a little like sulphur due to the hot springs. There is a little wooden shack that sits in the middle of the stream called Tsuyobu. It’s the only spa on the World Heritage list in the world and pilgrims have used it for centuries. I tried to be one of those pilgrims, but the water was too damn hot. I stayed at another Japanese inn called Minshuku Yunotaniso and had another wonderful meal. The next day the staff dropped me off at the bus stop and I started my journey home.
 Yunomine Onsen

 Tsuyobu Spa

Bus Stop Home

I get a real rush from hiking alone like this. I know I’m not actually doing that much, but it feels like I’m making some sort of huge accomplishment. I was happy to see a whole new side of Japan. It was basically the exact opposite of Osaka.


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