The Kumano Kodo trail is similar too, but also quite different to any trails I have walked in Australia. It is similar, in the sense you are walking through countryside and forests with magnificent views everywhere you look, but then when you really look, you start to notice how different the forests and wildlife really are here and then you remember this is a pilgrimage walk that has been done for 1000’s of years by all levels of society including retired emperors and aristocrats. These pilgrims used a network of routes through this very spiritual countryside to Kumano. The history here is immense and everywhere you look there are signs of the present, the not so distant past and the ancient. The trails fell into decline during the late 19th century when Japan was forcibly opened up to the outside world. At that time Shintoism and Buddhism were strictly controlled by the government and so began the great decline of the area with railway, roads, artifacts being stolen (often sent overseas) and great areas (after the second world war) turned into cedar forests for timber. The 1990’s saw a re-insurgence of people making the pilgrimage and in 2004 the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountain were registered as UNESCO World Heritage. Our trip was arranged through Raw Travel after our fantastic experience with the Great Ocean Walk . Our accommodation, food and transferring of luggage was all done behind the scenes making for a no hassle experience.
Today was to be our trip to Tanabe on the Kii peninsula and the beginning point of our walk, we began our day from a hotel in Osaka. It was an incredibly rainy day with Typhoon Lan approaching the Japanese mainland and us heading by train south directly into the storm. (50 minutes left) The next train from Osaka station to our designated meeting point is at roughly 10.30am but we are in no hurry as there is another train an hour later and we really doubt we will make this train anyway. (45 minutes left) We walk to our local station and catch a train to Osaka station. (30 minutes left) We arrive at Osaka station (note: Japanese train stations are generally bigger than major city airports in Australia) where we have to figure out where our train south is, this seems doable with so much time, we might actual make this train, but doesn’t matter if we don’t. (5 minutes left) 25 minutes of trying to figure it out (with our dubious communication skills) and we finally find where to buy our train tickets but there is only 5 minutes left until it leaves so guess we will be taking the 11.30am train. (4 minutes left) The lady at the counter advises us that this is the last train south due to approaching typhoon (3minutes left), yes we will take it (1 minute left, running down the platform with suitcases and packs (30 seconds left), no time to make our carriage so jump in at the back of train. Doors snap shut and train takes off, we walk through to our seats. Close one. We found out later that many of the other walking groups were faced with a similar scenario’s but didn’t make the train. They had to spend a fortune on taxi’s, etc to get there, we were very lucky although the train had to go super slow in some places due to the wind and rain. The rest of the day was uneventful, we meet our, very lovely, orienteering guide who took us through the plan for the days ahead. We then went to the prearranged ‘City Plaza Hotel’ (this hotel was sturdy as a bank vault), had some dinner and got a sound night sleep while the Typhoon raged out our window.
This day was remarkably different to the day before with Typhoon Lam having moved north quite quickly over night leaving it cool, calm and slightly overcast. We left our suitcases at reception, had breakfast and headed into town where we were to pick up our lunchbox for the day and then catch a bus the short distance to the beginning of our walk at Takijiri-oji. We were dropped off with a number of other hikers at the junction of two rivers. All the creeks and rivers in the area were brimming with water due to the rainfall received, this was both an advantage as far as scenery but proved to be a disadvantage to us on the last day due to landslides that prevented us from doing the last days walk. We visited the information centre, took some photos at the first shrine of many and set off. There are numerous shrines on the walk and interesting tales in both Japanese and English advising on their significant’s in history (some fact, some maybe a stretch on the truth but interesting all the same). The previous day we were given a stamp book to fill in, many of the more significant shrines have a special stamp that you mark this book with, proving you have made the pilgrimage not just taken a bus or something.
Today’s walk would take us from an elevation of around 100m to 700m and was 18.2km. In typical Japanese fashion there is a vending machine at the start of the walk so I thought I better grabbed myself a Boss (iced coffee) for fear of there not being another vending machine for a number of kilometers, unfortunately they didn’t have any Boss’s so would have to wait. The start of the walk was very steep and a little bit tough, but in a way, got you strong for the rest of the trip. A short while in and we came upon some large boulders that form a cave called Tainai-Kuguri. Here you test your faith by climbing through the crack in the rock (apparently if pregnant women do this it makes for a smooth delivery). I went into the cave but didn’t realize until after that I was supposed to go all the way through, it was fairly tight though especially for pregnant woman. There is also (close by) Chichi-Iwa were apparently a couple had a baby during their pilgrimage and left it here, fortunately a kindly wolf looked after the baby until the couple returned and they continued home (and I thought leaving your kid in the car was bad).
We made it up to lookout point. When you look out over the hills you can clearly see how heavily the forests here are used for timber then replanted. We continued on and the forest gradually gave way to a quaint little village called Takahara, this also had spectacular views. I found it interesting that although I knew there were people here I didn’t really see anyone out and about, everyone was doing their thing I guess. This village did have a vending machine though and Boss, quick shot of coffee and off we go. The track takes you up interesting little paths between houses and fields before returning to the forest. We almost felt like we were intruding on peoples homes but we were definitely on the track. I think the locals may be getting tired of walkers stealing their food as one villager had even taken the time to erect an electric fence to keep them out, well either that or its for wild animals but wild animals generally don’t need a sign in two languages. After re-entering the forest we went up past a small dam and on along a ridge. It was about this point that we started to get hungry and decided to start looking for the next good spot for lunch. There was a howling cold wind along this section and I found it amusing that when you suddenly want to find a place to eat, there is nothing for miles, not even a comfy log to sit on. We were just about to give up when suddenly a shelter with tables appeared, we enjoyed our bento box and continued.
We walked past the Uwadawa-jaya Teahouse remains, one of many originally along the trail. Here people would rest, exchange (material & information) and I’m guessing have a cuppa. This site was still being used as a residence until 1926 but was very overgrown now to the point where you would not notice it without the sign. This also marked the peak of today’s walk as we descended back into the valley. Within a short time we were walking close to a magnificent little creek that continued to increase in size the further we went down. You will notice from some of the pictures how many of these creeks have been brick lined which just fascinated me because it meant that at one stage these areas were all in the processes of construction but appear so natural now.
We travelled back up into the forest again and along a road for a while before returning to the track. We were on the road for some time and didn’t see one car. I thought the road maybe abandoned because it appeared to have a lot of foliage on it but then remembered there was a typhoon the day before. Further up we came across a man with his broom (not even a good broom) sweeping the road which I thought was interesting, no blower or half million dollar street sweeper in site. The track lead us back down into Chikatsuyu Village and only a short distance away was our accommodation for the night ‘Irorian Minshuku’ which is like a B & B where they make your dinner and pack a lunch the next day. Kenji and Shizuka Mae were the caretakers here and were most hospitable and the food was just awesome. Kenji San had very good English. We changed into our Yukata and Shizuka took us on a short drive down to the Onsen (hot bath). This is quite traditional and was typical at every stop during our stay. When we returned we had a beautiful Japanese dinner and retired for the evening ready for our next days adventure.
Sources of information:
- Photography by Simon and Jason Schubert.
- Raw Travel Kumano Kodo guide book.
- Information signs along path.