Kumano Kodo pt 1: Dawn in Osaka, Sunset in Takahara

We got the aforementioned overnight bus at Shinjuku Station.

It looked very much like a regular bus. I don’t know what I was expecting with the “dream liner” seats we purchased (not first class, but not economy), but I thought perhaps more than regular bus seats that flattened a bit more. Perks included: bus slippers (Liam immediately put his foot through the paper top), blankets and pillows.  We left the station at 10:30pm, which made sleeping easier (as did the bottle of Caol Ila Liam brought with him). Comfort or not, it was still a ten hour bus trip from Tokyo to Osaka. I woke up early with bus pains.

Sunrise in Osaka was an interesting experience. It’s a busy city, but like many big cities it was quiet at sunrise.  Groggy, we hopped off the train, grabbed our backpacks, and immediately searched for coffee.  Our train to Tanabe was not until 11am, which gave us roughly three hours to enjoy this incredibly popular Japanese city.

We chose Osaka castle and Dotonbori as our tourist spots.

I thought Osaka castle was lovely. We didn’t have time to go in, but the grounds were beautiful and not too crowded. Liam and I pondered how they moved the large stones for the walls. The stones were gifts from other warlords in the area – did they push the rocks on trees, perhaps? As always, early morning is the best way to beat the tourist crowds. As we were leaving, no less than four large tourist parties pushed forward, flags and mascot sticks held high.


This is the largest stone in the wall. It’s so big, it gets its own photo spot (no mosaic setup)!

Dotonbori as a big shopping street/district, and perhaps one of the most iconic sights in Osaka. I did not take advantage of the shopping; I was in a hiking mentality. The only thing I bought was sunblock. Still, I saw the giant crab statue! I bet seeing it at night would really be something. I love eccentric capitalism. I was still feeling fried from the bus trip, so it was also mildly overwhelming.

Osaka made a great first impression and I felt a little sad to leave it after only a few hours. Still, it was exciting to head south, watching the grey cityscape turn to beaches and the smaller towns of Wakayama. I slept on the train – about two hours from Tennoji to Kiitanabe. Once in Kiitanabe, I used the information in our Kumano Kodo travel pack that I prepaid for. We had to take a bus to the start of the trail. Luckily, the bus stop is literally next to the station.

(If you are interested, you can also visit the Kumano Tourist office, which is located on the first block across from the station. Walk through the small plaza and you’ll see it on the right. It’s a small, welcoming space that sells some branded items, as well as maps and camping/hiking gear) – on a Google Map near Kiitanabe station, it’s labeled クマノトラベル . Munching on cold sausage and spaghetti sandwiches, we caught the bus heading to Takijiri-oji (one of the last stops on the bus, so be advised that you’re going to ride for farther than you might think). We stamped our Kumano Kodo stamp books at the community center there, grabbed some iced umesh to refresh ourselves, and started the official hike.

Yes, be advised: If you aren’t staying in Tanabe or somewhere beforehand, getting from Osaka to the start of the Kumano Kodo is going to take a few hours. Plan your trip accordingly.


I’m always a little surprised by how little fanfare actually follows that first step. Much is made of starting a journey, or so I thought, yet every time I start a big trip I find that the start is a little less momentous than I thought it would seem. As I passed the giant boulder announcing the start of the pilgrimage, I did not feel a great presence. I searched for a connection to history, or a stirring in my soul, and I didn’t feel much. I felt a little apprehensive, a little travel-weary, and a little hot. You can’t force it, I admonished myself mentally. If you get a moment of grace, it won’t be because you’re demanding it.

Second note: the start of the Kumano Kodo is a steep uphill climb. It’s series of stone and root stairs, with not a lot of flat space or saddles to relax your muscles. Stretch. Stretch before you climb! I did not, and I started to struggle with the constant incline. From Takijiri-oji to our first stop at Takahara it was just over 4km. We paused to climb through the cave that was said to symbolize giving birth, and paused for our stamp books at the small designated shrine boxes.

The sun was setting as we reached Takahara. The rough path turned to a road, and suddenly we were up above the trees and looking down into a glorious valley of green. The beauty of late spring was everywhere, the hills stretching out into the distance. We paused, soaking in the sun and the view. I found a bench near the small community center, and sat under the giant carp flags flapping lazily overhead. A large chorus of frogs sang in the small ravines below me, and farmers worked in rice flats and vegetable patches.


We were so lucky, I thought, to get to stay in such an idyllic spot. Little did I know that our accommodations for the night would be some of the best I have ever used. We stayed in a small cabin called Suzushiro, rented by a lovely family in the small hamlet. Our host, Kashiwagi-san, walked us over and gave us a tour of the tiny home. He said he would return to bring us our boxed dinner we had ordered. As Liam and I oohed and aahed over how well everything fit together in the small space, I went out onto the patio and immediately decided I could live at Suzushiro forever.  The views, the fragrant tea fields, the singing frogs – everything was picture perfect.

I had assumed when I bought the additional meal option with our tour that we would be eating simple bento boxes – rice balls, dried fish, mushrooms, etc. I did not anticipate a luxury bento filled with tempura, udon, and our our individual sukiyaki pots! It was more than I could have hoped for. Liam and I ate like monarchs and reveled in our food, which tasted like ambrosia after bus sandwiches, black 7-11 coffee, and steep hiking.


As I fell asleep, I was aware of my own contentment. It’s a rare feeling, contentment. I knew that the real hiking would begin at dawn the next day, but as I drifted off to the sounds of frogs and the sensation of being held in the night I paused and allowed myself to be fully present and happy in the moment. Small victories.



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.



Haven’t Forgotten

I’m working in Purgatory.

Purgatory, in case you were wondering, is beige. It’s beige and there is no art on the walls. There is, however, a camera that watches how often you get up from your desk, measures the time of your stretches, and calculates how long it takes for you to use the restroom.

For all that China drained me and made me sad, at least there I could hop on my scooter in the afternoon and go driving on my own. Not at this place. I’ve found a job that requires me to do the exact same thing every day. I mean that literally – the exact same task everyday. I’m working on a white collar assembly line, and nothing is expected of me except to fall in line and never deviate.

I thought this is what I wanted. I know now that is not the case.

So, readers, this gal is taking her moxie and going to shake things loose. I feel a wind in the air that’s calling me out from this soulless, oppressing box that has not even a motivation poster to cheer me. I think it’s time to smell the wind, chart the stars, and move on.

Wish me luck!

Xi’an: Chain Whips and Warriors

The night we arrive I have too much energy to go to bed early, so I take a walk. While we drove into town I made mental markers of where I wanted to go, and so it’s a fun game in the twilight hours. This ties back to my post on getting lost.  Can I flip the map and backtrack to the neon lights and statues I saw earlier? T

I can. The city, which seemed sort of dead during the heat of the day, comes alive at night. People spill into the parks and streets, and I walk the considerable length of a park, which starts at the Wild Goose Pagoda and ends at a mall and a giant collection of statues celebrating the Tang Dynasty (I believe it’s the Tangs) in a plaza lit by giant LED columns. To be clear: this was one of many such statue collections. The half-mile or so of walking has multiple monuments. There are scholars being inspired by a fountain, generals on horseback, lots of musicians and on-lookers. It’s like seeing a parade, frozen in metal.

IMG_1990 IMG_1999

Outside the Wild Goose Pagoda, there are dancers and street merchants selling mini terra cotta warriors, fans, statues – just about every knick-knack you could want to buy, and buy incredible cheap. I pick up a giant fan (it’s still quite warm) for less than two dollars, and keep walking. There are men, sweating and shirtless, cracking whips in one of the side plazas. Upon observation, I realize they’re not bullwhips, but chain whips – a length of wood, a length of chain, and then the actual woven whip at the end of the chain. In order to get the proper speed and form, the men have to gain momentum through three point spins, getting the chain swinging around with enough force to move the leather. It’s quite a sight. It’s late when I return to my hotel room, feeling much more ready for sleep.

The next day we have a late start. I get the distinct impression that there is not really as much to do in Xi’an, since the schedule is so loose. We’ll see the wild goose pagoda, the terra cotta warriors, and in the evening the Tang Dynasty Dumpling show. Tomorrow it’s the Muslim Quarter, the city walls, and that’s it.

We walk to the Wild Goose Pagoda. Our guide – who took the English name Tom – tells us of the Buddha and of the monks who lived in the temple. They were hungry, and in desperation prayed for deliverance. At that moment, a flock of geese flew overhead. So the pagoda was named – a very tall, yet squat, brick structure surrounded by temples and jade carvings.


Tom is young. He makes me smile because he delivers his information like Siri, and actually chastises Dad for stepping over the threshold of the temple on the wrong foot (the left foot). Realizing that he probably made a mistake in correcting the paying customer, he tries to turn his rebuke into a joke, and fails miserably. Dad is having too much fun to get upset, and like I said I was amused. Tom is clearly afraid of us – especially me. When he found out I’ve been living in China, he acts as though I’m going to reveal all the secrets of their tourism economy. There is some truth in this – I know when we’re being fleeced, and I know where we’ll be forced to go for said fleecing.

The fleecing arrives at the terra cotta “workshop,” where we watch artisans “make” all the warriors which are sold in their store. I’m sure this empty workshop also hums along at some point or another…no I don’t. I bet those statues never move, because when would I come back to check? Those ovens are probably never heated, and have been packed with the same thousand tiny torsos for months. And even if I believed that you made all your terra cotta warriors by hand, I know you didn’t have a part in the furniture, rugs, porcelain, jade, nor any other thing also featured in your store.


You are fooling no one!

You are fooling no one!

But kudos to your persistence – you almost got Dad to pay $1000 for a terra cotta head. Not a full warrior – no, you charged just as much for the detachable head, which Dad thought might look cool on over our fireplace. I might be crippling your economy with my “insider” knowledge, but then you should have gotten that from Ted, who gets a kickback from your sales.

Sorry, but I get really irritated when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of because I’m a westerner and therefore must be rich. Nope.

Ted is a bit disappointed that we bought nothing, but we press on to the tomb of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Our driver reminds me of Chengdu drivers – he is less civilized in his turning radius than a Beijing taxi driver. He breaks at the last minute, cuts out semi trucks, and generally goes as fast as he can. It’s blazingly hot outside now, and even after a small repast at the site, we’re starting to flag. They’ve redesigned the museum so that it is not accessible by walking (or it’s not easily accessible). Instead you must pay to take a small golf cart. We stand in line, sweating, pressed up in the now familiar mob of bodies. They all brought umbrellas to combat the sun – they almost create their own giant awning.

I ask Ted (who meets us at the end of the ride), why we could not walk, and why we can’t walk back.

“It seems that you would want to ride back, after walking through the museum.”

“There is a cultural village. Very traditional. Good for shopping. Everyone wants to see that!” Ted says. I sigh inwardly. “Cultural Village” is code in China for “Strip Mall.” They’ve designed the park in such a way that they drive you far away from the entry point on purpose, so that you have to walk back through their stores. In essence, they’re trying to force shopping.

I did not really know what to expect when I saw the rows of warriors. My Uncle told me that they were not to be missed, that they were a true marvel. The terra cotta warriors were one of the top attractions in all of China, I read, and one of the greatest archeological finds of, if not the second half, then the whole of the twentieth century.

There were a lot of them, to be sure.


It’s the details which I think actually impressed me. The idea of a different face model for each figure. That the emperor laced the ground with mercury because he thought it would protect him in the afterlife. There is so much mercury in the ground around Xi’an that they don’t know how to excavate the tombs safely. And then, much like the Great Wall there’s just the sheer scope of it all. Thousands of statues, with ranks and roles – it’s like a child laying out a plastic army, except everything is life-sized.

But you can’t go near the statues. You walk around and above them. There aren’t as many unearthed as I thought there would be – the photos made it seem like there are rows upon rows of pristine figures to admire. This is not the case. There are lots of figures, yes, but most are in pieces and in piles, waiting to be sorted and rebuilt by the archeological teams. The next building, which houses the horses and generals, is actually a series of empty trenches. Everything is underneath the dirt, revealed by sonar and such. There are perhaps two full chariot teams.

IMG_2243 IMG_2215

It would be incorrect to say I felt let down by the warriors. I liked seeing them, and they are impressive. But given the sheer hype of the place, I thought I’d see more figures and fewer theoretical ones. It seemed there were whole buildings dedicated to implication. Underneath those mounds there are countless more figures, but….

It’s still a great story. A farmer in the 1960s is digging a well and finds this great forgotten tomb. He decides to say nothing because he doesn’t want the government to arrest him for digging a well wrong. His neighbors report it for him (or report him – hard to say). That man now lives in an air-conditioned hut at the museum site. For the past thirty years or so all he has to do is autograph a book with his face in it. He’s met presidents and dignitaries and has never had to plant a thing, other than his butt in a chair.

That night we go to the Tang Dumpling show – the most famous show in all of Xi’an! After several failed attempts (I scared the waitress by asking too many questions, poor thing), we get twenty different kinds of dumplings! Dumplings shaped like koi! Dumplings with shrimp! Dumplings with mushrooms! Dumplings for everyone! They were decent dumplings, made better by my knowledge of how to make a delectable dipping sauce.

The show… ok, I always get embarrassed at cultural shows. I went to one in Morocco that wound up being belly dancing to techno music at a glorified strip club, and ever since then I’ve felt guilt for what we make other cultures go through to entertain us. This one was not nearly so rough as that – this was a song and dance show, heavy on the dance. It was a serviceable lacquer-job show of what I’m sure are venerable traditions – like a show at Dollywood. I do theater – I’d take the steady paycheck too.


I’ve waxed long about our first and only full day in Xi’an – there was a lot to take in. I really felt a connection to the city, more than I have in other places in China. There was a vivacity, an energy which seemed youthful, that was great to find in one of the oldest cities in all of China. Tomorrow we go to the Muslim Quarter and then back to Beijing. The trip is ending.