Crabs, stags and the sweet monk: Walking the Kumano trail

It started with an onsen and finished with a waterfall.  The two-day hike in the hills, from Yunomine Onsen to the waterfall at Nachi, frequently took my breath away.  Fortunately, there was an abundance of fresh air around to revive me.

I spent around six hours on the trail each day.  I didn`t need climbing skills, which is fortunate, as I don`t have any.  A half-decent pair of walking shoes and a half-decent pair of lungs were enough to get me up and down the hills.

View looking out to Koguchi village where I stayed on the 2nd night

Rare sign of human life in the morning mist at Koguchi.

The path took me along the Nakahechi trail, part of the old Imperial Route traversed by Emperors making a pilgrimage south from Kyoto.  Two days trekking led me up and down the high hills of the Ogumotori-goe and Kogumotori-goe sections – the route is illustrated on this excellent Kumano website.

I had plenty of company, but little of it was human.  I stepped over tiny red forest-crabs, met 3 perky pensioners picking wild mushrooms, chatted with the birds and insects – I had trouble with their accents,  startled a stag or two and passed a couple of speed-marching foreign tourists.

I can`t really describe the variety of trees, I literally can`t, except to say the colour tones, shapes and sizes were distinct on each section.  I soon filled a memory card anyway.  Perhaps I will spend the Christmas break learning the difference between a cedar, a cheddar and a cider.  Should be fun.

The series of typhoons in September left loose branches scattered across the trail, otherwise the ancient route survived the freak weather virtually unscathed.  Japanese tourists have been temporarily put off, so I had the birds, trees and old tea houses all to myself.  At one point, I must have been the only human being for miles in any direction.

Signs posted in Japanese and English drip-fed me stories of the old Kumano.  Approching Nachi, I came across this entry hinting at the pilgrims` diet:

“An 18th century pilgrim`s diary stated that the Hatago [inn] where he stayed was very hospitable, but unfortunately, because monkeys and deers had raided their garden, there were only dried ferns to eat. Another Hatago attracted business from weary pilgrims with this simple but effective sales pitch: `We have Tofu. Bath is ready`. ”

Thankfully, Kumano cuisine has more bite to it these days.  The locally caught tuna, raw and cooked, was a particular highlight.

Twigs and leaves carpeted the trail in places

Bento lunch with view out to Nachi and the Pacific Ocean

Kind Nachi minshuku owner who gave me a reason to flee my futon at 4am

Each night, the friendly welcomes, hot baths and cooked dinners made for memorable experiences.  At Mitaki Sanso, the minshuku by Nachi waterfall, the kind owner even organised for me to participate in the morning Buddhist service at Seigantoji temple.  At the time, I did not think the owner was kind – the service began at 4:30am – but I have had two weeks to recover since then.

On reflection, the intimate service was well-worth the early rise.  I particularly fondly recall the moment when I got up from the tatami ready to leave the temple.  The Head Monk came towards me through wafts of incense smoke, smiled and handed me a packet of, “Japanese Sweets”.  Faith has its rewards.

This hike on the Kumano trail forms part of the new for 2012, Emperors` Footsteps small group tour.

7 Responses

  1. Lovely blog post! I can’t wait to go to the Kumano Kodo myself sometime soon. Let us know when you’re back in the English Westcountry and we’ll remind you what good cider and Cheddar is!


  2. I enjoyed your post, including your closing remark about faith…

    Alas, I am a miscreant, and I do hate to get out of bed any time before 7:30…

    You scared me with the thought of 6 hours of hiking every day, until I realized it was only for 2 days…I may have it in me to do that, the landscape seems worth it.


    • Thank you Nicole, the hiking is not as scary as it may sound.

      That 6 hours included breaks/photo stops, and you are travelling lightly – the main luggage gets forwarded between destinations.

      The landscape is unlike anywhere I have seen in Japan. Nothing but trees and hills as far as I could see – yet the Kumano is only 3 hours south of Osaka, Japan`s second city – where the tour starts.

      Please let me know if you have any questions about the tour


  3. Well done for getting a pic of the minshuku owner. Ryokan and minshuku owners can be a bit camera shy. I have tried several times to get pics of kindly hosts at various rural stays, but they always duck out of sight or insist on taking a pic of ME in front of the ryokan – not quite the same! Kumano Kodo looks amazing – must go. Sign me up for the Heart of Japan tour!


  4. Thanks Harry, the minshuku owner was great, a gentle giant. He couldn`t do enough for the guests, unfalingly polite, he started and finished every sentence with an apology and a thank you.

    Congratulations. You are now signed up to the tour. That`s four IJT staff on board already – we might have to draw a line somewhere soon or we will run out of space for customers.


  5. Heh Tomo! Great little post and also love the comment on faith. Perhaps every church/synagogue/mosque/temple should consider handing out sweets. I might be a man of many faiths. Great pics and tails from the Kumano kodo – thanks!


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