Building a Pilgrimage

Much has happened. 

I’m going to rewind to the spring of this year – which I know is not current, but my experience may still be relevant even in this age of instant updates. I’m going to write about hiking the Kumano Kodo, the ancient Japanese pilgrimage trail. This first entry is about my decision and the initial planning for the trip. I’ll try to keep it from running too dry, since it won’t have photos.

Once I realized that I was going to get a whole week off during the Spring/Summer semester for Golden Week, my whole outlook on life took on a brighter hue. I had yet to receive more than two weekdays off together in the “good” seasons! I had never actually been allowed (for want of a better term) to travel around Japan while I was working in Japan. I think it was the nature of my company to want us to be focused on the teaching, not on the fact that we were in an interesting foreign country.

As I learned the news over tea with David, the whole of Japan stretched out before me, beckoning with rose-colored tourist glasses. I could fly to Naha and finally see the beaches of Okinawa! I could take the overnight ferry to Hakodate, and tool around the plains of Hokkaido! Osaka, Kobe, Nagano, Aomori – all viable options. I had spent two years listening to students give dry presentations on the same major Japanese cities. Now I was finally given space to see them (while employed, which makes a really big difference).

I opened my Lonely Planet Guide and reread all the summary chapters. I narrowed it down to Hokkaido and Wakayama.  I was sorely tempted by the allure of the far northern island and the indigenous culture of the Ainu. I liked the idea of seeing a cold ocean coast. Then there was Wakayama, the “Spiritual Heart” of Japan. The picture captured my heart immediately – two towering ancient cedar trees set like sentinels along a moss-covered stone staircase (the Daimon-zaka). In my heart, I knew that I had to see those trees. They were on the Kumano Kodo – the ancient pilgrimage trail that runs along the mountains of Wakayama. A pilgrimage – a sort of test of faith. I’ve always wanted to walk a pilgrimage route – there is something appealing to me about reflection, faith, and action. I recalled in my very first semester in Japan talking about going on a pilgrimage with Katherine, who had completed the St.James pilgrimage in Spain. She had said she wanted to hike the Kumano Kodo, but that there was no time to do it during the school season. I had assumed that would be it for me as well. I couldn’t afford to stay in Japan outside of contract.

Wanting to be fair, I presented both options to my boyfriend. I even threw in Naha, to make it clear that I would listen to his opinion. He agreed that Hokkaido or Wakayama would be nice, but we had months to decide. This was not true – I had told my MBA students about my plans, and they politely but pointedly told me to book anything set for Golden Week immediately (it was March at this point – Golden Week was in May).

In a bit of a frenzy, I did a cost construct.  Going to Hokkaido proved to be too expensive in terms of transportation. Air, ferry, train – all were going to be several hundred dollars, which isn’t a lot until you make believe you are a poor English teacher with student loans trying to save money. ** Then a few hundred dollars becomes serious. Wakayama was not much better – Golden Week prices made Shinkansen tickets richer than usual. Luckily, we found a nice alternative – the JR Bus lines.  An overnight bus to Osaka would make a viable option.

But what to do in Wakayama? Did you just hike the trail and hope for the best? Knock on ryokan doors as the sun set behind you? Again, I asked my students. No, they said emphatically (I like my spring semester teaching MBA adults – they’re plainspoken) – reserve everything ahead of time! I looked on AirBnB, but the prices were again going up for Golden Week, plus I didn’t like the idea of having to navigate sporadic buses to find out of the way locations.

Then I found Kumano Travel – a community based tour planning group sponsored by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board. The website had an old feel to it and was not intuitive (and it might not be the most secure), but it offered customizable tours of varying lengths, and guaranteed room and meals if one paid ahead of time. It was going to cost, of course, but we could choose our level of comfort. I liked that the website was built by and for the community – I wasn’t feeding some cold third party system.  I did feel a little perturbed that they charged per person, effectively doubling the price for everything on top of Golden Week inflation. However, with all costs calculated out I was getting a five day hiking vacation with room and board for about five hundred dollars.

Liam was sold when I told him the tour ended at Nachi falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan. He likes waterfalls. I like old trees. All we had to do, then, was hike from location to location.

This is where I hit my first stumbling block. I’m an active person, but I’m not very fit. My knees sound like they’re filled with secret granola. My feet pronate and act up. I looked at the elevation gains and the length of the hike – roughly 40km through the mountains?! I got nervous as I finalized the initial reservations. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I hurt myself?  Then I remembered why I had really wanted to go on this particular trip, even more than Hokkaido. It was to make it to the cedar trees at the end. I wanted to complete a pilgrimage – my relationship with God was not fit either, yet I was open to discussing it out in the mountains.

I realize that I am simplifying the initial stages of this particular adventure. I’m going to skip the agonizing shopping trip for a raincoat and the unnecessary panic over realizing how little hiking equipment I own. Suffice to say – Liam brought me a nice blue raincoat from the UK, I bought a baseball hat, fanny pack, and a good pair of thick socks from the Montbell store. 

The set up is important, I know, but the adventure is why you’re reading this. Of course, if you have any questions you may ask them. I linked some of the websites I used up in the text.

 

** There is a cheaper option for the ferry – a public sleeping area that runs about $90 a ticket (one way). I will readily admit to vanity here. I’m over thirty and I was *not* going to rough it on a 17 hour ferry trip sleeping in a communal futon room.

 

 

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