Regular readers will know that Dr Lesley Russell manages to combine some spectacular walks with a busy schedule writing on health policy – here she is at Inside Story on United States healthcare battles, and there she is at John Menadue’s blog on the poor value provided by private health insurance.
As you will discover below, Russell has recently returned from another walk – this time in Japan.
Below she describes some of the beautiful views, physical challenges and welcoming hospitality encountered during a six-day hike on the Kumano Kodo, a network of pilgrimage trails. And yes, there were some hot spring soaks, as well.
Lesley Russell writes:
Fearing my international walking habits have me in a Francophone rut, I decided to branch out and try a walk in Japan. It turned out to be a great idea, even more so because I persuaded my husband Bruce to come with me.
By sheer happenstance, our sister-in-law Deb and friends Liz and Jennifer from Denver were also on the same route and schedule, which added to our enjoyment (Deb, Liz and I are ski buddies and we had previously walked part of the Camino together).
This is our story: I hope it encourages readers to emulate us.
The Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage trails through the mountains of the Kii Peninsula which is recognised as a heritage site by UNESCO. From prehistoric times, this area has been the subject of nature worship.
It was believed to be the place where Izanami, the mythical goddess who gave birth to the Japanese archipelago, and her husband Izanagi were buried.
In the 7th century the peninsula emerged as a site of ascetic training for Shugendo (a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism) based on a form of mountain worship, where emphasis is put on physical endurance as the path to enlightenment.
We travelled the Nakahechi-do part of this network. This route, once part of Imperial pilgrimages, starts at Takijiri and weaves through forested mountains to the sea at Katsuura.
It took us to two of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano which have been pilgrimage destinations since the 10th century and past oji shrines where aristocratic pilgrims used to perform their purification rituals.
There was certainly a strong element of physical endurance involved in this 6-day, 60-kilometre hike (“walk” does not convey the effort involved).
It’s not clear that any enlightenment was achieved, but we found beautiful views, great companionship, wonderful places to stay and eat, expansive hospitality, cultural insights, lots of aching muscles and – from time to time – an inner peace and contentment.
I used the same wonderful travel organisation I have used previously for my walking trips in France. Their organisation was as impeccable as always and they did a wonderful job of providing us with lots of useful background information before we left.
Together this meant that, despite speaking no Japanese and travelling in areas where most people had only a few words of English, we felt very comfortable managing our self-guided tour.
We were booked to stay at small inns and ryokans along the way. These provided our dinners, breakfasts and a packed lunch.
We were required to carry more than just a day pack as luggage was not automatically delivered to our overnight stay each day, but this really meant just a change of clothes and socks and toiletries. At every destination, yukata (cotton robes) and slippers were provided and it is quite acceptable to eat dinner in these.
There are several excellent luggage courier services available (although these do not do same-day delivery); we used Takkyubin and decided to transfer our bag (just one – you pay by the bag) from Kyoto to the inn at our halfway point and then on from there to Osaka.
All this can be done by the front desk people at any hotel or inn. This arrangement meant I did not need to do any laundry along the way (although laundry and drying facilities were readily available).
We had chosen late August – early September for our walk because we thought that would avoid summer heat, but it turned out to be unseasonably hot (around 32°C most days) and humid. This was mitigated to some extent because most of the way was through forests.
However, it’s essential under such conditions to be able to carry enough water and/or know where you can replenish it. I use stainless steel thermos water bottles which are lightweight and keep liquids cold for a surprisingly long time. Most days there was potable water available along the trail and there were vending machines where we could buy cold drinks in some surprisingly isolated places.
The lunches provided are usually rice balls with seaweed, pickles, sometimes meat. On the trail, we all craved sweet things. Fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to find and expensive and if you can’t read Japanese you can be surprised by your purchases (the dried fruits I thought I was buying turned out to be candies), so bringing snack bars and trail mix from home is a good idea.
Finally, ATM machines are few and far between on the trail and many places in these rural areas don’t take credit cards, so it is recommended that you bring cash, including small denomination notes for buses. You will also need your passport each time you check in to accommodation.
Day 1: Takijiri to Takahara (4.5 km)
We left Kyoto by train to Tanabe and then by local bus to Takajiri. Here, the point at which “passage into the precincts of the sacred mountains begins” was marked by the Takajii-oji and we began the first of many steep climbs up through the forest.
Soon we reached a rock tunnel called Tainai Kuguri – literally “passing through the womb”. Superstition has it that women who can pass through will have easy births, but the gap is so small very few men could make it. Minus my backpack and a bit of skin, I just managed to get through. What that means I’m not sure!
Just as we entered the small mountain village of Takahara it poured with rain and so we arrived at the doorstep of our accommodation sopping wet. Our hosts greeted us with a warm welcome, towels and cold drinks, and marvelled as we danced a joyful jig on meeting up with Deb, Liz and Jennifer.
Soon it was off to the hot spring baths and then we enjoyed a wonderful multi-course dinner with locally-produced organic produce, washed down with beer, while we watched the sun set over the mountains (see feature image above).
Day 2: Takahara to Nonaka (10.5 km)
The mist was still clearing from the valley below as we set off, knowing that we faced 4 km of climbing before an equally steep descent to our destination. Much of the trail was quite narrow with a steep drop on one side.
This day and every day we passed many statues and shrines (often with offerings) and signs giving historical information. Our guidebook offered further descriptions, although I fear we missed much of cultural significance.
We passed through the village of Chikatsuyu, which once flourished as a stop where pilgrims purified themselves in the Hioki River (but it is now better known for plum icecream) and walked on to the minshuku (family-run inn) at Nonaka.
We were more than ready for hot baths and a beer. Dinner that night was beautifully served by our hosts and we were asleep on our futons very early.
Day 3: Doyugawabashi to Yunomine Onsen (15 km)
Today we were provided with strenuous, moderate and easy options. We were taking much longer than our guidebook indicated to hike the various stages, and with some insight into what “strenuous” might mean, we opted for the moderate option.
This started with a ride from our hosts to the isolated hamlet of Doyugawabashi. Here the mountain trail had been diverted due to a major landslide which had sheared off a mountain face – something that apparently happens quite often in this area. There is an enormous, ongoing amount of work done to maintain the trail and stop erosion on the steep mountainsides.
We emerged from the mountains to the Hosshinmon-oji, one of the five most important oji shrines where we stopped for lunch before continuing on to Hongu.
Here there were lots more steps to climb to explore the grand shrine complex of Kumano Hongu Taisha. This shrine has been the centre of the Shugendo faith and pilgrimage for over 1000 years and it was crowded with the faithful and sightseers.
Around the shrine there are many depictions of a black three-legged crow called Yatagarasu which is believed to bring luck in reaching your destination and realising your dreams.
We gratefully caught a bus to travel from Hongu to Yunomine Onsen where we stayed at a wonderful inn with indoor and outdoor baths, fed by steaming hot mineral waters.
There was yet another amazing meal (starting with icy plum wine) to celebrate a tough day hiking. We were beginning to understand why the guidebook advised to come hungry to the dinner table!
Day 4: Ukegawa to Koguchi (12.4 km)
The people at the inn were worried that we had not had a chance to explore the small village of Yunomine Onsen, and so insisted on taking us for a quick sightseeing tour before we caught the local bus to Ukegawa.
Our boots and lunches were neatly set out for us and the other guests in the hotel entrance way as we prepared to leave.
At Yunomine Onsen, the water emerges from the ground at a temperature of 90°C, smelling rather sulphurous. It is piped to a number of inns and onsens.
The climbing today was easier, often on stone paved paths, with a whole series of magnificent views.
The highpoint of Hyakken-gura looks out on to the “3,600 peaks of Kumano” – the ridges and peaks of Kumano’s sacred mountains. We didn’t count them but simply admired the stupendous view and left a tribute at the nearby shrine.
Walking on, we passed the Ishido-jaya teahouse which dates from the Edo period (1600-1868). There are a number of teahouses along the way in various stages of repair; some appear to still be used, at least for special occasions.
Our overnight lodgings were in a converted school. It looked exactly like that from the outside, and the dining room had echoes of a school canteen, but our rooms were lovely, the baths were relaxing, and dinner (served by women who might once have belonged to the local Parents and Friends Association) was exceptional.
The staff watched us anxiously to ensure we knew how to eat and enjoy everything and happily served up the beer which we shared with an Italian pianist who was walking to “clear his mind”.
Day 5: Koguchi to Nachi-San (15.1 km)
By now we had learned that if our guidebook said it was going to be a tough day – it was going to be a really tough day.
So we left early, at 7:00am, and braced ourselves for a climb of 800 metres over the first 4 kilometres. It took forever but eventually we reached Echizen-touge Pass, at 870 m the highest point on the Nakahechi Trail.
On the way we passed a large, moss-covered rock called the Waroda Ishi. Written on the rock are three Sanskrit characters that represent the Buddhas worshipped at the three grand shrines of Kumano.
A few kilometres further on we reached Funami-touge Pass, with views down to the sea.
Whew! It was all uphill and then it was steeply downhill, all via large stone and/or wooden steps. We were glad our knees were in good shape, really appreciated our walking poles and thanked the mountain gods it wasn’t raining.
It took us more than eight hours, with stops, to reach the imposing Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine.
We treated ourselves to plum ice cream before heading off to find our accommodations in the small surrounding village of Nachi-San.
Our host spoke very little English, but he wanted to make sure we appreciated the mountain beauty on show from the windows of our room.
To be honest, for the moment, we were more interested in whether the baths were open to ease our aching muscles. But after a soak and a beer, we were ready to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings.
Dinner, shared with a hiker from Toronto we had encountered regularly along the trail, was a celebration of all we had done.
Day 6: To Katsuura and on to Osaka
Nachi-San is very popular with tourists so we were happy to explore the small village and then walk down to the Nachi-Taki waterfall before the buses rolled in.
Of course, there were more steps to be negotiated, but by now we could (almost) skip like mountain goats!
The waterfall (which drops 133m) is worshipped as a symbol of life and as an axis connecting sky and earth.
This was effectively the end of our walk and soon it was time to catch the bus to the seaside town of Katsuura and then the train to Osaka.
To enjoy this hike you must be fit, up for a physical challenge, well-equipped, eager for new experiences, and tolerant of things that are not like home.
Although our guidebook rated this as a “moderate” hike, our group of five seasoned walkers (and everyone else we met) agreed it was more than that.
Still, it was both enjoyable and spectacular. In wet weather some of the steep, stony and moss-covered paths would be treacherous. Good walking boots, with soles that grip, and walking pole/s are essential. We were really lucky that we (almost) escaped the rain, but lightweight rain gear is essential. We had rain jackets, ponchos and pack covers.
Our accommodations were simple with tatami mats and futons. Baths were communal but segregated, sometimes the rooms had their own toilets and washbasins, sometimes these were shared. Everything was very clean and toiletries and hairdryers were always provided.
It really is essential (and polite) that you know the etiquette for baths, onsens and toilets. Many of the inns and ryokans have strict rules about check-in and check-out times and whether baths and showers are allowed in the morning. We discovered that by asking, these can sometimes be bent.
If you like Japanese food, then you are in for some wonderful experiences. Every meal we had was exceptional, with lots of local produce and great variety, all beautifully served. If you don’t like Japanese food, this trip is not for you.
Some people struggle with Japanese breakfasts, but really the combination of carbohydrates (rice) and protein (fish and eggs) is perfect for starting the day. We had not expected morning coffee but it was sometimes available. There are some places where food and snacks can be bought along the way, but these are few and far between (and usually don’t open until 10:00am).
Dinner is often served early, at 6:00pm, although sometimes you are given a choice of times. That, combined with sunsets around 7:00pm and physical exhaustion, makes for some early bedtimes. If that is not for you, then load your e-reader with a good book. Wifi was available at all our accommodations, although sometimes this was just in the lobby.
For a nation that is both fanatically clean and packages everything, rubbish bins are hard to find in Japan. It is therefore necessary to carry rubbish until you find somewhere appropriate to dispose of it. Toilets and vending machines, on the other hand, are ubiquitous. Be prepared to encounter squat toilets on the trail and in some public places.
Like Japanese trains, the buses, even local buses in rural areas, run perfectly on time. They are easy to use; get a ticket as you enter via the back door, the board up front above the driver tells you the fare, and there are always announcements in English about the upcoming stops. The drivers are very helpful.
The people were met were delighted to talk with us and help us, even when we barely understood each other.
The Japanese are (rightly) very proud of the Kumano Kodo and enchanted with the idea that people come from Australia to hike it. It is possible to hire local guides who know the trail and its history well and that would certainly heighten the cultural experience.
Our lasting memories of the Kumano Kodo are of beautiful landscapes, wonderful food, amazing hospitality and friendly smiles, and some tough physical challenges.
We will certainly return for more: will it be to the Nakasendo Way or the Shikoku 88 Temples walk or a ski trip?