I wake early ready to walk. After packing my gear I follow the map to the start of the next section of trail. It’s on the other side of the village and unsigned on the road: you need the map just to connect the sections between villages because they are each treated as a discrete hike with its own trailhead. But the map is free.
At the trailhead I notice that there is a bucket with staves in it ready for hikers. I noticed this the other day too when I was cycling past the Kumano Kodo. It’s such a lovely idea. I don’t need a staff so set off without it but at least the option was there. Perhaps the people who leave the staves there know what I do not yet … this is the most challenging section of any of the Kumano Kodo trails with steep climbs and descents over mossy rocks.
The climbing starts immediately but the landscape is so beautiful I barely notice. All around me are multiple layers of green, brown and grey. Moss grows on the rocks and tree trunks. All varieties can be seen from soft fluffy carpets to leafy plant-like mosses. The steps I walk up are covered in delicate but strong moss that gets trampled by the many pilgrims who walk this way.
I come to a clearing with a large rock. It is said to be the place where three of the most important deities meet to drink tea and talk. They say that if you are quiet you can hear the deities talking. I am quiet but perhaps it is too early for tea and philosophy. It’s a shame but it’s time for me to press on.
About 2.5km into the walk I come to a rest area where some considerate person has set up a water station complete with drinking mugs. I think it’s moments of trail kindness like this that makes this kind of walk so special and memorable. I take a short rest and drink some water before continuing again.
Again today statues dot the trail to denote the many deities along the way. Some are so deep in the woods that they are being overtaken by moss while others are nearer the more well-trod sections of trail so are cleaner. If anyone knows why some of the statues here in Japan are dressed in red cloth and hats I would love to know. My Japanese is too limited to ask anyone to explain it to me.
Waterfalls are everywhere here on this trail. These mountains must get lots of rain and the mountainsides are all steep, leaving the water with no choice but to freefall downwards. The water in the creeks is so clear that sometimes you can’t tell whether the creeks are dry and it’s only the sound of the water moving that gives the truth away.
For the first half of the walk I climb up the endless hill to Echizen-toge (Echizen pass). Even the famous poet to whom poem monuments have been erected all along the path was at a loss for words to describe the seemingly endless struggle to reach this pass. In one section, the trail gains more than 550m in less than 2.4km. But there’s no complaints here. I too cannot describe the experience of this walk sufficiently in words, particularly not this great climb. But I do encourage everyone to come check it out for yourselves because you won’t be disappointed.
Once over Echizen-toge the path drops steeply onto the other side (so walking from Kumano Nachi Taisha does not eradicate this climb). The trail continues to undulate through the woods passing historic sites, shrines, waterfalls and mossy rocks. From here the interpretive signs are of lesser quality and only in Japanese so I can no longer follow the story of the ancients but I am learning to accept this disappointment and enjoy being here.
Occasionally I see these red diamond shaped signs with some words in Japanese on them. They are placed near the start of some of the Kumano Kodo sections. I can’t read them but they look ominous. Does anyone out there know what they say?
After all this time in the mountains it is almost strange to see the ocean from the Funami-jaya (Funami teahouse) remains. It’s funny how it doesn’t take long for a reality to set in and for your mind to just accept that reality. Four days ago I left the coast and set off into the mountains. It has not even been four days since I saw the sea. But because I have been so physically involved in getting from there to here, I feel amazed at seeing the ocean again as though I have been toiling through the mountains for a year.
An hour later my pilgrimage concludes at Kumano Nachi Taisha (Nachi Grand Temple). This place is sacred because it is here that Japan’s largest waterfall thunders away endlessly. And I mean thunders because I could hear it an hour away in the woods and thought there were large mining trucks nearby. The waterfall is 133m high. I am so caught up in the moment that I don’t really take any descent photos of the Grand Temple and can really only share this image of the waterfall and three-story pagoda. Perhaps that’s the way it’s meant to be. I have followed a pilgrim’s path first cycling to the Kumano Hongu Taisha (Hongu Grand Temple) then walking here to Kumano Nachi Taisha. It has been an intensely spiritual journey, particularly as the pilgrimage just snuck up on me. Unfortunately, I will miss the third Grand Temple in Shingu but that leaves me a reason to come back.
Three bus rides and four hours later I am back in Hongu collecting my bicycle and gear. It’s after 5pm and despite the best efforts of the visitor centre in Shingu (I went there while waiting 45 minutes for the bus to Hongu) I have been unable to secure a hotel or guesthouse for the night. So I ride back to the camping ground at Kawayu Onsen and pitch my tent. But not until after I take another dip in that deliciously hot riverside onsen and try out my new camping stove set up. I bought a packet of two small alloy pots with plastic lids for JPY200 ($2.20) and some of the fuel cells that the Aussies showed me (JPY338 / $3.50 for a packet of 10). I place a fuel cell in one of the pots, create a pot holder for my billy using some rocks and away I go. It takes less than 5 minutes to boil up a packet of delicious vegetable and meatball soup that I bought. And I use a second fuel cell to cook up a dinner of slivered pork, boiled rice, capsicum and carrots. Sure, I can’t control the heat but the glow of the flame is so pretty in the darkness of night.