Day 3: We had an awesome home cooked breakfast, packed our gear, grabbed our lunchbox and said goodbye to Kenji and Shizuka and our accommodation at ‘Irorian Minshuku’. Today’s weather was crisp and with the clean mountain air, perfect for walking. Today’s walk would begin quite easy on the road for roughly 3km then return to the bush with three very distinctive climbs, the highest point being around 700m and then a return to around 100m by the end of the day. It wasn’t too long until we were at the first shrine at ‘Tsugizakura-oji’ which boasted some old world cedar forest that apparently date back some 800 years. This was one of the rare sections that actually still had its original forest and, believe it or not, was scheduled to be demolished along with shrine in 1906 as part of a government shrine consolidation project. It was saved by ‘Minakata Kumagusu’ an environmentalist of the time who we can now thank for this precious area still being here today.
The walk continued on very comfortably before returning to the bush and up a rather steep section to Waraji-toge pass. Waraji is a traditional woven Japanese sandal and apparently on this part of the pilgrimage many people would change their footwear, hence the name. We returned back into the valley and at this point there was a detour in the track (I’m fairly sure this detour is permanent). The original track was damaged by a typhoon back in 2011 and the mountain developed a large crack in it, the scale of things in Japan is just huge, its amazing anything is still standing. This was a very steep walk both up and down, it continued for around two kilometers before rejoining the original track. We walked up our last large hill for the day and decided to stop at Mikoshi-toge pass were we found a nice shelter to enjoy our lunch and talk to other hikers. After lunch we started our decent into another valley. Jason had some knee troubles at this point that I suspected might finish his days walking but with a few pain relief drugs from one of the other hikers, we continued on albeit at a much slower pace.
As we descended back into the valley we came across an area with many ruined houses, like a ghost town. It was the small settlement of Michinogawa. There were 17 households farming in this area from the late 1800’s until a recession in the 1940’s saw the gradual decline of the settlement. In 1972 the last of the families were relocated to Kumano Hongu Taisha and the farmland planted over with cedar and cypress. Former residents still visit the area to this day. It was fascinating to see the forest reclaim its land.
We continued on past what appeared to be a landslide and then a very pleasant walk along the Otonashi-gawa river. It was along this section that we came to a alternative track. This track was shorter and went directly to our accommodation that evening. With Jase’s knee playing up we were tempted to take it but decided to stick to the main track especially as it was closer to the bus route if needed. In the end we were glad we went in that direction as it was the original pilgrimage trail and took us through Haraido-oji (harai means purification or exorcism in Japanese) the final cleansing point before worshipping at Kumano Hongu Taisha. Even though we weren’t worshippers it was interesting to see the town, the massive Torii and the beautiful Kumano-gawa River that runs through the area. We caught a bus with many other hikers from the Hongu Taisha-mae bus stop that took us to our accommodation at Yunomine-oji. It was getting dark by the time we arrived. We were shown to our room, took a dip in a very nice onsen before having a Japanese style dinner. Tomorrow would be a free day.
Today was a total rest day in which we were able to do as we pleased (well within respectable limits). We had a very traditional Japanese breakfast (I really miss some of these breakfasts, they were so satisfying even though I only knew what half the stuff was on my plate). Many of the other visitors used this day to take a look around the Hongu area and to revisit the Hongu Townsite. We took bit of a look around Yunomine Onsen in the morning which was quite small consisting off mostly accommodation and a few small shops. Yunomine Onsen is located in a small valley and is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan. It is connected to the Kumano Kodo trail as pilgrims used the hot mineral waters for purification rites. After this, Jase had to go into town to find a pharmacy so he could buy strapping to strap up his knee for the rest of the walk, it appeared to have recovered somewhat from yesterday but strapping was definitely going to be a bonus. While he was gone I had the whole place to myself and enjoyed a bit of light reading, watching the townsfolk go about their business and even visited the Onsen to relax and purify. Our room overlooked the river and being in the mountains and having a beautiful little river flowing past the doorstep was mesmerizing, almost putting you into a relaxed trance. Jase came back in the early afternoon, we went to one of the small shops and had a delicious Japanese curry and (in one word, although not a real word) chillaxed for the rest of the day.