Sacred Kumano Kodo
Kumano Kodo, the road less taken
When we think about Japan, names as Tokyo, Kyoto or Hiroshima spontaneously pop into our minds, with their vertical neon lights, highly dense neighborhoods, sumo wrestlers and temples swallowed by skyscrapers. But Japan is a big country (actually, just to give you an idea, it’s a little bigger than Germany) and it has a lot more to offer than its famous urban hives… Definitely one of the less known treasures of Japan is Kumano Kodo.
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard about Kumano Kodo, the Kii Peninsula, Tanabe, Shingu or things like that. I have accidentally found this when asking Google about “the best hikes in Japan”. Google diligently gave me a looooooong list, but there was something that made me linger over Kumano Kodo, despite many other alluring places. Once more, the hazard did its job well: I was searching for a good hike and I found a paradise.
The sacred roads
Kumano Kodo (Kodo means “old road”) is neither a town nor a village. South of Nara and Osaka, Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pilgrimage roads, a spiritual infrastructure made of hundreds of kilometers of trails more or less paved that connect 3 major temples: Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha. They spread across the Kii pensinsula, from Mount Koyasan in North all the way to the Pacific Ocean surrounding the peninsula from East to South and West.
Kumano Kodo started to gain popularity in the 9th century, a time when Buddhism, recently brought to Japan, and the ancestral Shinto beliefs were in the middle of the fusion process, concocting something unique, greater than the sum of the parts. This region was considered by Buddhists to be a celestial paradise, and long before that, a place where Shinto deities (the kamis) descended on Earth, in primeval times. At first the emperors, later the samurais and by the 15th century, commoner pilgrims, they all went there with the same goal: walk the road of enlightenment and purification.
I think today Kumano Kodo is more about spiritual healing and renewal, or at least that’s how I see it. This place still retains its mystical aura and I totally understand why: despite being not far from one of the most industrialized areas of the Kyushu island, Kumano Kodo is a place where Time stopped centuries ago. The temples, the mountains, the forests and the rivers, they all look like they did in the very beginning. The only measure of time are the tides of pilgrims and the footprints of their evanescent steps.
Tanabe, the gate to Kumano Kodo
It would take several weeks to walk all the Kumano Kodo paths. I had only 3 nights there, so I needed a “base camp” from where I could reach as fast as possible the heart of the peninsula. That base camp was Tanabe, only 2 hours away by bus from Hongu Taisha, which is the geometrical center, the main hub of the entire network of roads.
I had no expectations about Tanabe. Maybe that's why it took me by surprise in a good way. Its houses of rusted corrugated iron boards, the fresh smell of rain and sea, the yuzu fruits hanging heavily above the gardens' walls, the flowers in the burnt clay pots, the small streets and the small houses, everything was charming in the light of the warm dusk. A surreal and decaying charm, one that I can relate with so deeply.
Tanabe is maybe the only place in the world where it is possible to walk down the street while the public loudspeakers are airing songs like Chris de Bourgh's Lady in Red or Rod Stewart's Brown Sugar (!!!), punctuated by Japanese pop. I was walking in the town's center, smiling, taking pictures of a Buddha surrounded by dog statues, dancing in my mind to this music from a different time and a different world.
One day, the hazard guided me to the Kōzan-ji temple, a little oasis of peace and silence North of Tanabe. After the traumatizing experience of the Golden Temple in Kyoto, where I had to stand in line and then fight for a photo place, Kōzan-ji was a oasis of peace and silence. The only tourist taking pictures was me. There was a monk meditating in the sun and a temple keeper removing bad herbs from between the cobblestones of the alley. Every now and then, sundry Japanese people came to pray, from old ladies to young men. The ritual was simple and carefully performed by all: first you burn a bouquet of incense, then you may ring the gong 3 times, reverently bowing in font of the altar, then you water the Buddha statues and murmur loud prayers. Those loud prayers were otherworldly and pure. For 2h I just couldn't go away, magnetized to a bench near an altar.
That evening at the guesthouse, I fond out that Kōzan-ji is some kind of Mecca for the martial arts’ world, as Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, is buried there. He was born in Tanabe and one of his last disciples still live and train at the Kozan-ji temple. Maybe he was the monk meditating in the sun…
From Totsukawa to Hongu, on the Kohechi Route
From all the paths and trails accessible from Tanabe, I decided to take the biggest challenge and do the Totsukawa-Yagio section. A 11 km trail climbing from 100m near the Totsukawa onsen up to 1100m at Hatenashi Toge Pass and descending back to 100m in the valley of the Totsukawa river.
All good, except one thing: taking into consideration the bus transfers and schedules, I had no more than 3h20 for the entire hike. The brochures time estimations were rather around 5.5h necessary for this walk.
It felt more like trail running than pilgrimage :), but despite the overheat muscles and reddening cheeks, my mind was serene and relaxed. My senses were vibrating in tune with the surrounding trees, mountains, lizards, and butterflies. Never in my entire life have I seen more lizards and butterflies crossing my path! The air smelled like bourgeoning and blossoming trees, and the 33 Kannon statues were carefully watching over my steps, to make sure I catch the bus. Which I did.
I didn't meet any people at all on this trail. I was hiking alone in paradise.