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.




Nikko II: Ghosts, Gods, and Good Food

So I arrived at Takino’o Shrine, not as far as I expected from the main shrines of Toshogu and Futarasan. It’s a smaller shrine, more encased in moss than its counterparts. I loved it, and its relative solitude. In the half an hour I sat under the trees, I don’t think ten people walked by.


I sat and thought about faith, and where we find solace. I think that there is something to Shintoism, though I am not a practitioner. There is a great American literary tradition of “taking to the woods” to find oneself, or to find peace. I think that, while the worshiping of certain stones and trees might fall outside my spiritual practices, I do find peace in the woods. It’s nice to feel small sometimes, to feel dwarfed. I felt something akin to what I felt when I climbed Emei Mountain, the sheer size of the world compared to myself. Going to the Grand Canyon does the same thing – it’s a comfort, in a way, to see how big everything else is. In Nikko, it’s not the size, but the age of the trees. Like staying with the nuns in Iowa, or being in the Sequoias in California. They’ve been around far longer that I have been or probably will be. And isn’t that nice? I don’t have to worry about them; they’ll be there. Assuming we don’t chop them down/burn them down/otherwise behave in a way that is unbecoming and yet distinctly human.

When I think about faith, especially “foreign” faiths,  I also think about that scene in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where Mr. Wednesday calls out the hippie for not actually worshipping Mother Earth, for essentially giving lip service to her religion. I am aware that it is one thing to be an actual worshipper, and another to feel a resonance or kinship with the idea of a faith. I don’t want to be that hippie, casually throwing around transcendence terminology without actually doing any of the work that faith asks of the faithful.  Then again, I also don’t want to blaspheme the Catholic faith with which I have had a tumultuous relationship. So, what is one to do, when one idea carries great resonance, and the other carries all the traditions, ceremonies, and obligations?

I rested my hand and forehead against one old tree that I thought had a great deal of character, halfway asking for advice. I felt a little cliché doing so, but because I need to stop self-censoring I decided to go with my instinct. Turns out the tree was less than impressed with the speed of my life. I felt distinctly like it was chuckling at me, this quick little thing that never seemed to hold still.


Turns out I’m not as weird as all that. When I started walking back I approached a gaggle of very giggly Japanese women walking up towards the shrine. They were still some distance off when four of them stopped, walked up to an old tree, and rested their foreheads and hands against it. They fell into a reverent silence, and stayed like that for a full minute. Then they all carried on walking and laughing. It’s nice to feel that you’re not alone in seeking wisdom from your elders.

I had mixed feelings as I walked back, partly because I didn’t want to, and also because it turns out that there was a flat path back, parallel to the service road. I had climbed the steep stairs unnecessarily. So, let it be known, tourists, that if you want a longer, but easier route to Takino’o Shrine, turn right from Toshogu and walk up from the parking lot. The path consists of large, uneven stones, so it has its own difficulties, but it’s not a climb up and down (for that, see my previous post and take the path along Futarasan).


See how lovely and flat it is? DO YOU SEE?! Whatevs – climbing is good for the calves.

Before I left, something glittery caught my eye along the path. Upon inspection, I found the most beautiful beetle I have ever seen. While I like beetles in general, this one was different. It sparkled, iridescent thorax twinkling on the fence, and two blue-green antennae tested the air around it. It moved with great deliberation. I am convinced that this was a Kami – a Shinto spirit. This was the incarnation of the spirit of all beetles. It was a giddy moment for me – I haven’t had a moment of spiritual grace in years. I did not bother him as he walked, but I did try to get a picture.


When I arrived in Nikko, it was raining and misty. I walked to the Narabi Jizo then, in the late afternoon rain, and saw the Kanman-ga-fuchi Abyss. In all the damp, my phone shorted out, though I did get a couple of good photos. The Abyss is not quite appropriate – the waterfall does not go down into nothingness. It is a steep drop, however, full of beautiful sound and aquatic fury. The Narabi Jizo line one side of the abyss like thoughtful sentries.

The Narabi Jizo are nicknamed the “Bake Jizo,” (pronounced Ba-keh) because if you count them front to back and back to front, you will wind up with a different number (“ghost Jizo”). I did not count. I trust that the number is not the same, and that there is a ghost guardian wandering the Kaman-ga-fuchi Abyss. It’s better to leave it unknown.

The Abyss and the river walk are down a ways from Toshogu, on the opposite side of the river, tucked back along the south mountain ridge. I highly recommend seeing them, both for the beauty and regal-ness of the statues, as well as the glorious sounds of the rapids.

As I did not want to trek back up the mountain to my cabin in the dark again, I started walking back. I stopped at the Zen café, a tiny eatery on the Nikko main road. It only has four tables, two menu options, and an industrial chic vibe that does not match the rest of the town. Their specialty is “Yuba rolls,” which upon researching I learned is bean curd sheets (and actually are Chinese in origin). I had their “set meal,” which was a series of small plates and one yuba roll. Though not a bacon cheeseburger, I did wind up satisfied. I recommend it!

And then (le sigh) I hiked home. I couldn’t tell which was more difficult, going it in the dark and the rain, or seeing the incline. Seeing it was definitely more irritating. Looking up every so often and seeing how far I needed to go made me wonder how I had done the climb with a suitcase. Perhaps it was for the best that the light faded quickly, and I had to turn on my solar light. I used music to get me up the last third of the climb.

Here I am again, cozy in my heated kitchen. Tomorrow I return to Tokyo, to work, and to the grind of teaching. I think, tired though I am, I am incredibly happy to have been in Nikko for this weekend. Do I regret not going out with my friends? Certainly. But I know that my soul needed trees and fresh air, which I found in abundance here. I’m a country girl at heart, and a little solitude is healthy.

Still, next time I will bring people with me. Maybe I won’t mention the climb…


Nikko? Oh, it’s all flat valley land and sacred bridges. Certainly no unnecessary hiking…


Kyoto: Nara and Inari

Oh, my feet are bleeding tonight. I have a blister on my heel that makes me want to weep a little.

It’s all Inari-sama’s fault, but I’ll get to that.

We left early in the morning to go to Nara. As I mentioned, I was in Japan because I wanted to help a friend complete a lifelong dream. I didn’t know very much about Japan, but after some research I determined there was one thing that I really wanted to see – the sacred deer at the Nara temple. I wanted to see Kyoto, as I am fascinated by religions and spirituality, but as someone who grew up visiting Deer Forest every year, I knew that I simply had to see these sacred creatures.

Getting to Nara required using the trains, which was fine by me, as with the Rail Pass they were free via the JR Nara line. It’s a fair distance to Nara from Kyoto, so it’s better to leave earlier in the morning. The cold crept around my edges, and I lamented how inaccurate all the weather prediction services were about Kyoto temperatures. It got down into the low forties, and took most the day to warm up.

At Nara, we are greeted by a giant screen of an animated dancing deer. In fact, the whole walk up to the temple (maybe half a mile) is full of dancing deer, animated deer, stuffed deer, bobble-headed deer. The holy deer apparently have cornered the market on tourist goods, as they are on everything from socks to sake sets. After a uphill sloping climb, we reached the first series of pagodas and temples, and the first set of deer.


The welcoming deer did not make a good impression – they were fat, and their antlers were sawed down (an annual ritual done in the fall as I understand). Their winter coats were coming off in patches, reminding me of my German shepherd when he needs brushing. They looked, sadly, rather ratty. In the harsh morning light, I wondered if perhaps I had been misled about the deer, about the site in general. The gravel roads and paths didn’t seem all that impressive, and I saw no markers to the largest wooden structure in the world, Daibutsu-den/ Todaiji Temple.

It turns out, that when entering from the JR Nara station, walking up Sanjodori St., the entrance is a little more modern. In order to get to the actual Nara site, one must walk past the five story pagodas and the Nara National Museum. Things livened up there – more people, more sites, more deer. So if you find yourself in Nara, don’t get discouraged by the ragtag welcoming committee. There’s simply a little more walking ahead of you.

“Deer biscuits” (flat cookies) cost 150 yen – roughly $1.50, and you will want to buy more than one package, as the deer are tenacious. Some are gentle, but true to the warnings there were small herds that figured out that mobbing a person would force them to drop their biscuits faster. There are even signs that warn about these rogue deer. Watching all the people trying to pet the deer, feed the deer, and generally get pestered by the deer, it got me to wondering again about symbolism. Like the samurai teachers last night, I wondered if these sacred deer still held any significance to the people? Were they just touristy gimmicks now, relics to be photographed and fed? Or did they retain some of their spiritual weight?

Then a deer decided my plastic bag might have food in it, and we got into a tug-of-war. I’m rural, so I didn’t panic, though I did get some laughs. Later, I found a nice one that just wanted a chin scratch. We walked to Daibutsu-den together.


Daibutsu-den is massive – the world’s largest wooden structure, housing an immense bronze Buddha. I couldn’t do it justice in my pictures – the vast scope of the interior proved impossible to fit into my screen. I’ve burned enough incense across the width of China to no longer find Eastern architecture as new as I did before, but there was something graceful and yet sturdy in Daibutsu-den. B. commented as we left that if I had told him that structure was there, he wouldn’t have been so reluctant to come and see the Nara deer (which he fed all the same).


I got a yam to eat. I know that sounds utterly simple of me, but I actually missed being able to buy street potatoes.

On the train heading back, I suggested we stop at the Inari shrine, which is supposedly the single best thing to see when in Kyoto. It was along the line, and would save us having to back track on our last day. Brendan agreed.

This is where things took a turn for the competitive. Inari Mountain has a series of red prayer gates, built to bless families and individuals. There was a short walk and a long walk. We opted, after the short walk, to climb. There were fewer people that way, and more options for photos. Then there was an overlook, and wouldn’t it be nice to see the city from the overlook? And of course, there was another landing after some more gates, and then we were so close to the top…you see where this is going. I had not worn my hiking shoes, and a mountain is a mountain, even if it’s decorated with beautiful red gates all the way to the top.

We inadvertently climbed Inari mountain. I don’t like giving up, and even though I’d been walking all day, I wasn’t going to say I almost climbed to the top. No guts, no glory. So up another landing, make an offering at another fox shrine, walk under gates, pause at next landing, pray at a fox shrine. Take a picture. Reflect on tourism and spirituality.

Towards the top, I started talking to the fox statues, started blaming them for teasing me up the mountain. “This is all your fault, Inari-sama!” “Curse you, Inari-sama!”

Inari = fox
Inari-sama = Sir Fox (I made this up, I think. I was very tired, but I liked it)


Tee-hee!  Climb higher!

Sama is a term of respect, though by the time we reached the summit of the mountain my foot was blistering fiercely and I’d worn a hole in a sock. The view was beautiful, but it is not a climb for the timid. And standing at the top of Inari Mountain, watching the setting sun, I realized that I was only halfway done. I still had to descend. Thank goodness the Japanese put vending machines everywhere. Seriously, everywhere. And while there isn’t always water, there is usually a tea or juice. That saved my spirit.

The saddest part of the day was again at the close. The path down deposited us not at the main gate, but in a residential area strangely detached from everything. I worked out how to generally get back to the main site (and the train), and there were still food stalls out. Famished, I went to buy a custard fish (which is a cake shaped like a fish filled with custard). The man wouldn’t sell me the last one – he was closed. My face did nothing to persuade him.

So now I sit on my tatami mat, fishless. My foot is bleeding, and my legs hurt. According to my phone, I walked tens of thousands of steps, and climbed almost seventy flights of stairs. I might have overdone it on day three.

I am a completionist. It’s why I’ll never finish Skyrim.

Between the two, Inari was more beautiful, but those Nara deer were far easier to handle.