It stormed last night and I wake early to find the world awash with water. Everything is wet and soggy. Not inside my tent; just in the world outside. I must admit to feeling a little down about the prospect of cycling in the rain; as much as I put on a brave “she’ll be right mate” face to my Aussie camp mates. But by the time we’ve eaten breakfast the sun is starting to shine through the clouds and I have worked up the courage to check out the river-side onsen (I cannot explain my anxiety around onsen except that I can’t be naked in public so I think that is my concern. Anyway, I make it to the onsen and no one else is around. I am so excited so I change into my board shorts and slip into the hot water. The contrast with the cold morning air is divine. I realise why people love these hot water baths and, for the first time, feel genuinely upset at being excluded from this experience (though I will start to ask around whether there are any other outdoor or mixed gender onsen around because you can apparently wear clothes at this type).
Warm, dry and clean I set off to ride towards Kumano city. My first stop is Hongu where I spot a grocery store and buy some supplies. Then I decide it’s time to try the famous Japanese vending machines. First up, a hot can of tea with milk and sugar. Yep, the vending machines serve hot canned and bottled drinks as well as cold ones. It’s just way too good. Then, later in the day I spy an ice cream vending machine right when I need to get a JPY500 coin to use a coin locker so of course I have to insert a JPY1,000 note to get change and might as well buy an ice cream at the same time.
Kumano Hongu Taisha is marked by two rows of white flags that climb up a long steep staircase. I am called to stop there, not just by the flags but by something I can’t explain. I climb the stairs to the top and feel again this deep sense of spiritual energy that I felt back at the temple in Wakayama. Again I can’t bring myself to take any photos of the temple itself so settle for some of the flags and of the wash basin. When you enter a temple here you should go to these water scoops and wash your hands with the water. Kumano Hongu Taisha is one of the three sacred temples that pilgrims walked to and is the focal point of the Kumano Kodo walking paths. At the top of the stairs are three large dark brown shrines before which is a sign that asks visitors not to take photographs (but of course people still do). It’s a place where people still come to pray despite the many tourists who stampede through the place like it’s an amusement park. Somehow, the temple still feel sacred and I know that something big will happen as a result of my coming here.
Across the road from Kumano Hongu Taisha is the Hongu shrine. The entry is so large that it can be seen from the surrounding mountains and acted as a navigation beacon to the pilgrims of yesteryear.
I stop at the visitor centre. I have no plans just to look and see what local information they have that might point me in the direction of my travels. As I wander through I notice that there is a dual compastela for people who complete both the Kumano Kodo and the Way of St James in Spain. I ask for more information and before long I have stored my panniers in a coin locker (JPY500 $5.40 per entry regardless of duration) and my bicycle with the rental bikes at the visitor centre. I have my tent, sleeping bag, matt, thermal top, down jacket, toothbrush, camera, wallet and phone in my bag, am armed with some maps and bus timetables for the return journey and I am off on the first steps of my pilgrimage to Santiago right here in Japan. The way it works is that you need to complete one of four options for the Kumano Kodo on foot and also complete one of the three options for the Camino de Santiago de Compastela to be eligible for a limited edition dual Camino pin. Given that I am going to walk the French Route of the Way of St James from late May, I realised that everything is pointing for me to take a pilgrimage here in Japan too. The time seems to be right and I keep feeling spiritual energy at the temples. So I follow my instinct.
I don’t think you can go on a pilgrimage and expect to come back unchanged in some way. My first lesson is one of arrogance and rushing. I am given a map to show me a detour around a closed section of the Kumano Kodo where a landslide is impassable. I don’t fully listen to the ladies at the visitor centre thinking that I am quite capable of reading a map. Then I don’t listen properly when someone tells me how to get to the starting line and I walk more than a kilometre in the wrong direction. I mean, the river was even on the wrong side of me compared with the map but still I ploughed on forcing the land to fit with the map (impossible really given the side of the river I was on). Realising my mistake I head back to the bus stop where I started and walk about 500m in another wrong direction before I decide to ask for help. A lovely man who is whipper snipping his lawn tells me that he will drive me to the start. It’s already 2:30pm and I have to walk about 15km before dark or find a camp so I am glad he drove me. It was only about 1km but I would not have liked to be geographically embarrassed much longer. I think it’s a sign that I am meant to be on this pilgrimage and also that I need to keep my heart, mind and attitude open to whatever experiences come my way.
I’m optimistic as I set off on the detour up the forestry road. It’s going to be an 8km walk into the unknown before I reach what I know is a well-signed path for Kumano Kodo proper. I stop to say a prayer at the shrine at the base of the hill asking for protection and guidance throughout this walk.
While walking on a road could be boring, this is Japan where the rural landscape is spectacular. I walk through a small farming village near the bottom of the mountain blissfully unaware that this slight incline is probably the flattest section of road that I will walk again until I arrive at Kumano Nachi Taisha tomorrow. It’s interesting to be here just before the rice is planted because I started my journeys in Asia last September when the rice was being harvested in Korea and I travelled through Indonesia in November when the rice was being planted. So now I am full circle seeing rice farms in the fallow.
Lost in my daydream I almost step on this snake. I don’t know how I didn’t get bitten. When I say almost I don’t mean that I was a meter away. I wasn’t even a foot away. I looked down and my shoe was right up against the side of the snake’s belly.
The forest road climbed and climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Every bend brought me further from civilisation and deeper into the woods. For 8km I climbed on a road with a gradient of at least 11% (there were some signs). Birds sang around me in the trees and water bubbled as it flowed past through rocky streams and waterfalls. I had no way of knowing how far the road climbed or how much further I had to walk. So I did the only thing I could: walk.
The higher I climbed the more amazing the views. Deep green mountains filled the horizon with their jutting out peaks of various shapes and sizes. Hawks soared on the thermals searching for prey. A friend of mine once told me that physical fatigue can send endorphins rushing to the brain and give you an opiate-like high. Well, I was certainly on one of those highs as my legs burned and I exclaimed at the beautiful scenery.
And then, just like that, the climb was over and I had reached the Kumono Kodo track proper. The track itself is well marked and easy to follow. The visitor centres will give you a free pilgrim’s map (much better than the line drawing they gave me for how to get to the start of the detour). The map tells you elevations, and distances between each point of interest and way point. Then along the path there are navigation signs in both Japanese and English. There are also markers every 500m that count their way towards the end of the trail. Where there are two possible paths, signs will say “Not Kumano Kodo” in both Japanese and English to make it clear you should not follow those paths.
That’s not to say this is an easy walk. The Kumano Kodo is achievable by a person of average fitness but it’s a rough track worn by over a thousand years of walkers. This is not a graded trail like the ones we have in Australia. The path winds its way through dense forest with many uneven rock stairs and rocky obstacles to pass. Sections were once paved with rock and the paving has worn down over time becoming uneven.
I walk the path, stopping at each shrine and historic site along the way. There are interpretive signs telling the story of the pilgrims who walked here in olden times. Stones mark the remains of tea houses and lodgings that were used in Medieval Japan, and small shrines still have piles of coins or small bowls of water on their alters as the faithful still pray for safe passage today.
The sun is just setting over the mountains as I reach the tiny town of Koguchi. I stamp my credential at the small booth near the bridge that enters the town and walk the final tough 1km down the road to the camping ground, which is situated in the grounds of the pilgrim’s guesthouse. It’s expensive to camp there, even with the discount (usual cost JPY3,200 / $35 but I got it for JPY2,000 / $22 because it is off season and no power was working). At first I feel a little ripped off but the guesthouse costs JPY8,000+ ($88+) and it’s not like I have many other options. Sure, I could walk back to the bridge and pretend to be ignorant of the presence of a camping ground and camp for free in the pilgrim’s rest hut. But I am sure the big red letters on the sign probably say “no camping” and it’s just not my style to do that. Some readers will be calling me stupid for paying JPY2,000 to camp but I do get to use the showers at the guesthouse onsen (fortunately all the guests were eating dinner), use a toilet with lovely warm seat, camp under cherry blossoms, and have access to a huge covered area with tables and chairs so I don’t have to eat on the floor. I’ve paid more in Australia for less at a caravan park. I think this is also something I am learning as I travel: I have to still be me. I can’t travel like anyone else or by their standards. To me, the guy running the camp ground is just trying to put food on his family’s table. To sneak a wild camp down the road instead of staying in his camp ground would be like someone taking the online training courses I write, making something that is not quite as good but might be okay and then using that instead of paying for something I (as a professional in my field) have developed. And when I put it like that, I no longer feel annoyed at paying so much for a camp ground. Because this campground is probably worth $32 when it is the season and all the facilities are cranking. Besides, someone has to pay for the water, the cleaning, mowing, for the rubbish to be taken away and for the government taxes on the land. And on that philosophical note I go to sleep at the end of a big day.