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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.