Kumano Kodo Kohechi Pilgrimage Part 1
Without any inclination, one of the older ladies came behind both of us and started giving massages. As my face winced with both pain and relief, someone else shouted, in a friendly manner, “You’re hurting him!” “Geez, you’re back is tense!” the lady said to me as she dug deeper into my shoulder blades. When she was finished, she gave me a hardy slap on the back. “Be careful out there, sonny!”
I walked and completed another pilgrimage recently. Luckily, it was a lot shorter than my previous stints in Shikoku. For four days I walked along the Kumano Kodo Kohechi, a trail with over 1,000 years of history. Monks and aristocrats alike would use the path to travel between Koya-san, the Shingon Buddhism headquarters, and Hongu-Taisha, the grand Shinto shrine in the southern part of Wakayama.
While it is far more normal to walk the trail from Koya-san to Hongu-Taisha, my friend and I decided we wanted to save the best for last and started the trail from the grand shrine in the south. While many people found this unusual, having a nice temple stay and a whole day at Koya-san was quite worth it in the end.
Because I don’t want this trip to span over months of writing, I am going to condense it down into a photo essay style and show the highlights of the trail. Anyone looking for a nice, enjoyable, but somewhat challenging hike with an exuberant amount of history should really check it out.
Hiking time: ~6 hours
Mileage: ~15 km
We started Day 1 with an early morning two-hour bus ride from Tanabe city in Wakayama. Although the sun was barely up, the driver was more than happy to point out the various sights along the road. However, I got a secondhand account from my travel partner as I snuck in a quick nap before our long hike.
The trail begins (or ends, for those coming from Koya-san) from the back entrance of Hongu-Taisha. It was interesting to see the shrine in preparation for the New Year season, as holiday plaques donned with monkeys sat in the back of the worshiping halls. We didn’t stay long as we had a solid six hours of hiking ahead of us.
Day 1 was quite unusual for late-November, with the sun remarkably beaming and hot. As we climbed one of the steepest mountains of the trail, we quickly pulled out sweat-towels and took frequent water breaks. Although we were gaining altitude, we couldn’t escape the heat. Luckily enough, Kannon statues (30 in all) along the path kept us motivated.
After completing the intense mountain number one, we were greeted with one of the more impressive “World Heritage Site” markers along the trail. There is no shortage of letting travelers know that the Kohechi itself (or specific things on the trail) is a “National Treasure” or “World Heritage Site”.
We made our first stop at Tabana-Kan (田花館) in the Totsukawa-Onsen area. The 100-year-plus hotel proudly proclaimed that visitors could drink their Onsen water, which had a slight taste of sulfur. When I asked as to why this was, I was simply told, “Because it’s a good Onsen.”
For dinner we stopped at one of the only restaurants in the area: a log cabin that doubled as an Izakaya and Okonomiyaki grill. Although we were in the mountains, the sashimi we ordered simply melted in our mouths. After giving our complements, the chef, who made little Totoros out of acorns, gave each of us one as a gift. While I tried to give him a “thank you slip” like I had done so much on the Shikoku pilgrimage trail, he told me not to bother. “We’re Shinto around here,” he assured me. I guess we were closer to a grand shrine than any grand temple.
Hiking time: ~6 hours
Mileage: ~19 km
While preparing for the trip, my hiking partner informed me most of the trail was very rustic. At the beginning it was a bit hard to believe, as we had cell reception for the majority of Day 1. Day 2 is where that completely changed. Even looking at the map, we noticed the only two places to get water was at the beginning and the end of this day’s trail. With another intense climb ahead of us, we made sure to pack for breakfast, lunch, and any extra supplies we would need.
One of the major reasons for going on this hike in the first place was to catch the Autumn leaves while they were in season. While we did see our fair share, November proved to be quite an odd month with the average temperature being around 20 degrees Celsius. There was still plenty of green on the trees, with other mixes of dark yellows and browns. But that only made the Autumn leaves stand out even more.
Our stay for the night would be at a local guesthouse called Minshuku Mandokoro, situated more as someone’s house that had extra rooms and futons for travelers. As we got settled, we were told the bath was open at anytime, and dinner would be served shortly after. They practically read our minds.
The dinner was a feast in every sense, with homemade Oden, Konyaku, freshly picked vegetables, fresh river fish, and locally grown rice. That dinner was probably the closest to homemade perfection as I can imagine, and I still think about the sweet bean covered rice.
We were also joined by a group of three older Japanese women, and, as they usually do, asked us where we were from and what exactly we were doing in the quiet little mountain village. Anyone living in Japan (or any other country) for a significant amount of time probably has the phrases burned into their brains at this point; The simple biographical information that is stated over and over again.
Everything was quiet for a while. Then everyone broke out the booze.
No, we did not get trashed with a bunch of older Japanese ladies in the mountains. Rather, it was more my friend and I drinking beer and sake while chatting with everyone else. But as the night rolled on, and everyone became more comfortable with our Japanese abilities, we talked about a range of topics from the Osaka elections, Sumo, the hiking trail, and what the local dialect sounded like.
One of the ladies than began to sing a local festival song, encouraging the others to join in.
There are rare instances living here in Japan where you feel more connected than ever before. Going on day-to-day, it’s easy to feel like I am in a portable box. Sure, people can see and acknowledge me, but sometimes it is as if there is some sort of invisible barrier between myself and the other person: In the office, in class, at the grocery store. This box can feel more tangible at some times more than others. It is easy to feel a sense of despair at times the box feels more real.
It is in these moments though, filled with singing and laughing, that this feeling of the box is simply moot. I feel the strong bonds, even though we just met: No presumptions, no apprehensiveness, no borders. It’s the ultimate feeling of being in the present, which is probably an important lesson I should take away from my trip. It is a Buddhist pilgrimage after all.
Read Part 2 here.