Ise to Tahara (Honshu)

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So, you’d think that I’d start a blog post about my departure from Ise with pictures and stories about the famous Shinto temples and shrines. But no. I set off for the hardware shop to buy a nut and bolt to repair my broken pannier and discover an outdoor shop right next door. This is definitely a dangerous thing because I love outdoor shops, have money in my bank account and know that I will be paid in a day or two. So with some trepidation I enter. I realise as I park that I have lost my bicycle chain somewhere on the way to Ise, so I start by buying one of them. I am also getting some blisters from the duct tape that is holding the foam on my handlebar together, so I buy some gloves. I prefer to cook with gas than with the fire lights so I buy a canister of gas. I also buy a spare stove for when I need to use alternative fuels. And, of course, after my wet ride the other day I also buy a set of wet weather gear. The cost is slightly less than it would be for the same items in Australia. Actually, I have noticed that Japan is definitely cheaper to travel than Australia. Accommodation (camping, hostels and hotels) are about 10-30% cheaper, food is about 20% cheaper and even the camping equipment cost less than at home (for example, the gas canister was $4.50 here but at home it would run at about $6.50 – $8.00).
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Stocked up I go to the hardware shop to buy some nuts and bolts so that I can fix the pannier that broke. It works a treat.
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I follow the road to Ise Grand Shrine. This is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan. There are tourists everywhere (both domestic and international) with their big cameras, tour guides with flags and special traveling clothes. I get a sense that this is one of those places that you go to because you have to and it doesn’t feel at all spiritual to be here. I go through the main gate, decide that I don’t have to be here, turn around and join the departing crowds. It just doesn’t feel right. I want to be making my own way through the world, not following the crowd. There are more tranquil and sacred-feeling shrines dotted along the roadside in the rural areas I am traveling. So I leave without having seen the shrine. I also decide that I probably would hate the Camino de Santiago de Compastella because it probably has a similar well-trodden feel so I shelve those plans too in favour of something more me. It’s an important lesson, to realise I like the out of the way places that aren’t popular with tourists but also aren’t on the “off-the-beaten track map” either. They are the “nothing” places in between that never make a guide book and rarely find their way into blog posts.
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My decision is rewarded when I ride past my first proper wisteria plant and get to see some bumble bees going about their business.
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I follow a small road from Ise to Toba from where I will catch a ferry to Irago. The road takes me through some pretty agricultural scenery like this guy plowing his rice paddy. It looks like tough work, even with a machine because he has to fight his way through all that mud. The farm is relatively urban though; like in Korea, every available patch of land is being used to farm. Even here at the fringes of the urban areas.
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I reach Toba about half an hour before the ferry departs. It costs me JPY2,850 ($30) to get myself and the bike across the bay to Honshu on the car ferry. This saves me about 300km of cycling around the city of Nagoya. It’s not that I’m in a hurry but I would rather not have to navigate my way through or around such a large city. So I pay my money and let the Japanese men in their blue overalls and white hard hats tie my bike down securely for the 55 minute voyage.
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I confess I missed the first twenty or so minutes of the journey because I fell asleep. No sooner did I sit on a seat and let my head rock to the side than I was snoring. When I awoke this relatively small fishing vessel was outside the window. I always think fishermen in small boats are brave because the oceans are so big and can easily turn violent.
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We cross a major shipping channel. Now these ships are much more on par with the scale of the ocean. They even make the ferry, with it’s capacity for about 50 cars seem small. The containers seem almost precarious as they perch above the side rails of the container ships. I enjoy watching them come and go slowly like the trucks of the sea that they are.
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And then we are here on Honshu. The ferry ride was comfortable and smooth. And no sooner have we all disembarked than our chariot of the sea is loaded and ready to take cars and passengers back to Toba.
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I have two choices: I can head along the seaboard or I can travel bayside. The seaboard will have better scenery but I saw a sign at the ferry terminal that showed a camping ground on the bayside up near Tahara. So I decide to take this road. What I discover is heavy agricultural industry. Cabbages await harvest in neat rows or go to seed in neighbouring fields. The air stinks of fart just like it always does when there’s this much cabbage around.
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Windmills chug away, making a dull roaring noise as their turbines are driven around. It must be annoying to live under or near these machines that probably use more carbon to produce than the carbon they will save.
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But I’m not really worrying about the world’s energy resources right now. Rather, I am enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and trying to see the beauty in the heavy industry and intensive agriculture that I see around me.
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It’s also a good chance to do some people watching. I find the wearing of uniforms here quite intriguing. Sure, at home children wear uniforms to school but it’s nothing like the Japanese way of classifying people. These children wear what looks like blue overalls, which make them look like factory workers in training. What’s more bizarre are the helmets they are wearing on their heads. They are not for cycling because children walking also wear them.
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Fishermen and wharf builders also wear the same helmets. They also wear overalls of varying colours, probably to denote seniority or function.
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This young guy is wearing a typically Japanese suit with the buttons straight down the middle and no collar. I can’t imagine a guy at home wearing an outfit like this and still cycling. I guess he has at least changed into joggers instead of wearing the shoes that match the suit.
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There’s even a scuba diver out in the bay fishing for whatever scuba divers fish for here. I can’t speak to his uniform though.
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The camping ground I was cycling towards is closed because it is not yet the swimming season (this is what a groundskeeper at a big park tells me when I ask after it). There are no other camping grounds in the area so the groundskeeper grabs a map and points to a barbecue park about five kilometers away. He assures me that if I camp there it will be okay. I reach the park, which is totally deserted but quite lovely. It’s right next to a major road intersection so isn’t as peaceful as it could be. But I suspect that will also keep away the passers-by. The picnic hut looks pretty comfortable so I decide to just cook my tea, watch a movie, do some work and then bed down without a tent. It’s plenty warm, discreet and will give me a chance to get away easily in the morning without having to pack as much.

Izakaya in Ise (Kansai)

One thing I have learned in the past year is that I need to pace myself when I travel. This means taking time out from sightseeing to do my work and university study, rather than trying to mix the two. I need to work about 20 hours every week. In Korea I traveled almost every day and then worked 3-4 hours almost every night. Here in Japan I am trying a new approach. I am stopping to have two work days a week where I do not go sightseeing. Then I travel five days a week, only dealing with work if an urgent email requires my attention (my boss is really good at ensuring she communicates clearly what is and isn’t urgent and by keeping what is urgent to what is necessary). So, given that I am staying in a hostel where there is fast wifi, power and a comfortable bunk, I stay indoors and get productive (besides, it is my 20 hours a week of work that funds my travels because money doesn’t grow on trees for me either).
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But then, at the end of the day, I am ready to head out for dinner. My new Israeli friend and I have made an arrangement to go back to the izakaya at 7pm to try more of their food. And I have invited a Swiss couple living in Paris who arrived today to join us. The izakaya is full but a group of men are finished their meal so they leave, allowing us to go in. I eat some fresh peas dipped in Japanese mayonnaise followed by soba noodles washed down with a small glass of beer. We laugh our way through the meal and the bar tender / chef becomes even more animated, downloading an app on his phone so that we can speak with him through the translator (which sometimes translates weird things). It’s a rollicking good night with great company and leaves me ready to travel on to the next place in the morning.

Mikisato to Ise (Kansai)

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What a difference twelve hours makes. The rain has stopped and the sea is calm again. Last night the waves were pounding so heavily that the whole shower block I was sleeping in was shuddering. This morning the sea is as flat as a pancake. I cook up some breakfast behind the sea wall and then climb up the ladder to sit on top and enjoy the view.

It takes me a while to get going because all my gear is still soaking wet. Nothing dried in the damp shower room overnight despite my propping the door open to try to get some air circulating. I set off with my bike looking like a washing line because I have towels and wet clothes hanging on the outside of my gear to dry.
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Pretty soon I am riding through and past small fishing villages. Yesterday the ocean was angry and everything was bobbing on a strong swell. Today the water is like green glass.
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The road is definitely not flat along the coast here. I wonder whether there even are any flat roads here in the Land of the Rising Sun. High up in the hills I see more fishing nets and boats that have been stored. There are also cute little signs that I can only assume are warning passers-by of the presence of bears. I definitely won’t be camping up here in these woods. I know that sounds soft to those who live in Canada or North America where there are bears but I’m from Australia and the closest thing we have is a koala, which isn’t even actually a bear (though drop bears are kind of scary).
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The roads here are amazing for cycling. The surface everywhere I’ve been has been near to perfect. I think I’ve only encountered half a dozen pot holes since leaving Osaka and they were in an area with heavy roadworks so no doubt they will be fixed soon too. The cambers are perfect for descending without and there’s always plenty of colour on the roadside trees. I dare say my old friends from the Audax Queensland club would love to do a few brevets here. Come to think of it, I just did a Google search and there is an Audax club in Japan that seem to have many brevets (but the site is in Japanese so I can’t tell you more than that).
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The road heads inland a few times away from the coast. Each time I need to go over a high pass to get to the landscape behind the first mountain. In the picture above I was down in that little village about 2km before I took this photo. At the time of taking the photo I was about 500m from the entrance of a tunnel that I was grateful for because it saved me having to cross the very top of the pass.
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Navigation in Japan is so easy. There are big signs at every main intersection identifying the towns to which a road goes and also its road number. Along the road there are labels every 100-200m reminding you what road number you are on. And then at every minor intersection there are colour-coded road number signs. The colour remains the same for the entire road. So road 311 was always red and the road coming off it will always be orange (I didn’t go up it, I just turned into it to take a photo of the sign). So far the only roads I’ve seen that are not numbered are urban streets and mountainside goat tracks that no one is ever actually going to take as a through-road anyway.
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As I near Osawa I ride through this cute village with mountains as a backdrop and a huge waterfall drawing a thin white line down the mountain in the distance.
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And then I cross a bridge over water so clear that I can see the rocks despite it being more than about 1m deep.
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Actually, let’s just put it out there and say that the riding was stunning. There were islands and bays and mountain ranges. I didn’t even mind that I was climbing a lot because it just meant I had amazing views.
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And then about 80km into what would be a 115km day I noticed the shadow of my rear pannier flapping around like a bird with a broken wing. So much for Ortlieb’s being bomb proof. A screw has totally snapped and the pannier is now held on by only half the rail. Fortunately, I am Australian and we know a thing or two about holding things together with wire and duct tape. I was also fortunate that I had bought a large roll of duct tape in Owasa earlier in the day. So I used the tape to attach the roll top buckle of the pannier bag to my rear rack to take the pressure off the remaining clip. I think that if I find a hardware store that sells nits and bolts I might be able to jimmy up a repair to hold the mounting bar back in place. If not, some cable ties will probably be more effective than the tape because it will still allow me access to the pannier bag. I will also repack to make the weight in the rear panniers lighter so that there’s even less pressure on it. But, in the meantime, I have less than three hours of daylight to travel about 28km so I use the duct tape to hold everything in place and keep cycling.
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Besides, at the time of the breakage, this is the view back to where I came from.
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A long valley leads from the top of the mountain pass down to Ise. It’s probably 20km long and I now ride past and through rice farms. Unlike the fields in the mountains near Wakayama, here the fields have been flooded to allow cultivation and planting. A few tractors are digging up the fields and the little combine harvester / planter machines that I grew so fond of in Korea are sitting quietly waiting for the farmers to come back to plant more seedlings tomorrow.
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The last 10km of every long day seem to take forever. You clock down from 30km to 25km to 20km to 15km to 10km and then the speedometer feels like it must be broken because suddenly you don’t hit the milestones anymore. I reach Ise just as the sun sets and find some free wifi to look up a guesthouse. The Ise Guesthouse Kazime is close, has vacancy, is cheap (JPY2,600 for a bunk in a dorm) and has good reviews on Booking.com. After a few geographical errors and returns to where I had the wifi I find the hostel, check in, take my first proper hot shower since leaving Malaysia and link up with some other guests for dinner at a local izakaya (Japanese bar). I order unaju as my first proper Japanese meal (I cannot believe I made it nine days without dining out). The bar tender / chef is a jovial guy who feeds us bar snacks for free (some tempura battered vegetables and some small raw fish stuffed with rice that he’s just whipped up for us). My dinner mates are a French Canadian cycle tourer who is traveling in the opposite direction to me and who gives me some good tips on the next day’s ride north and an Israeli lady who is on holidays in Japan from whom I learn that Israel’s landscape is very yellow (something I would like to see). I am glad I pushed through and rode so far today.

Kawayu Onsen to Mikisato (Kansai)

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I wake up to the rain bucketing down on my tent. I have two choices: (1) complain about the weather or (2) get out there and explore Japan. I opt for the latter because weather is weather and no amount of complaining will change it.
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I am headed towards Kumano and then in the general direction of Ise. I have marked my map up with the camping grounds along the way (these are clearly marked on Google Maps) thinking that they will all have some sort of shelter and bathrooms like the ones in which I have stayed. Let me warn you: they don’t. But we’ll get to that. For now, I enjoy riding along the river and watching the big old rusty bridges like the one in the picture go by. They feel like something out of a movie and I can’t even work out why. Perhaps its their shape.
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Even in the rain the riverside landscape is delightful. Clouds shroud the mountains, filling the valleys and re-entrants with white. The thing about Japan is that the trees on the mountains are not all just the same monotone green. Rather, there are different shades of green that are starkly contrasting each other. There’s deep dark green, iridescent lime green and every shade in between. Below the mountains villages perch on the river’s edge seemingly trying to take up as little space as possible to allow for the growing of rice and vegetables.
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I ride through an area where there is a lot of road construction occurring. New tunnels and bridges are being built to flatten out the twists, bends and climbs in the road. As I pass some I notice these crazy pink rabbits. They’re not a one-off. I noticed them the other day too but was flying down a hill so didn’t want to stop. This is one of those “only in Japan” moments.
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To say it is raining is probably an understatement. It’s absolutely bucketing down. There’s only one thing to do … keep riding.
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Eventually I reach a small town somewhere between Hongu and Kumano. I’ve ridden a fair way and decide it’s time for some shelter. Spying a small roadside hut I am excited to be out of the rain. And then I notice that it’s actually a small roadside onsen. Well, what a treat! It’s only deep enough for you to soak your feet and calves but it’s enough to totally transform the moment from seeking shelter to enjoying an onsen. I am sure I broke all manner of etiquette but I didn’t see anywhere to wash before soaking so I just soaked.
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Back on the road and out in the rain I continue on the way towards Kumano. I pass many small shrines where the statues are dressed in red. Today I feel sorry for them because they really need some rain jackets, not just bibs. At least the big one here has a beanie to keep it’s head a bit warm.
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Just before Kumano I reach a shrine where there is a sacred rock. By now my wet weather gear has failed and I am soaked to the bone so I am not really that interested in the shrine. This must be a very important place because two tour buses full of elderly Japanese tourists turn up during the ten minutes I am there. The tourists totter over to the shrine, pose for pictures and totter back to the tour bus all under the watchful eyes of their guide.

I stop at Mos Burger in Kumano and it helps to replenish my energy. When I leave I decide to leave my rain pants off because it’s not like they are keeping me dry or anything. I’m instantly warmer with my legs exposed to the rain in in my shorts. It’s like the rain is insulating my skin from the wind while the plastic of the pants was just making me feel worse.
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I have now reached the coast and start to pass some cute little beaches tucked away in bays. I imagine this area would be stunning if it were sunny. I look down at one of the beaches and notice two hardy surfers: one sitting on the shore and the other out in the waves. The one in the waves looks like a tiny blip in a huge ocean. He’s a long way out to see and just sits there patiently waiting for something to ride. I definitely couldn’t be a surfer because that level of exposure would scare me a little bit.
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I notice at the first beach that the camp grounds here will just be patches of sand and grass on exposed beaches. There are no huts and the toilets are kind of gross and run down. Now, I’ve camped in some wild places but today it is raining so I am feeling fussy. I do find a fantastic hut at the top of a mountain road where there are clean bathrooms and I am sure that no one will mind me sleeping given that it is bucketing down and there are also no hotels in this area. But then I see the sign warning about bears and decide the better of it. I am sure they would stay away but I am not going to risk them being hungry for the food in my panniers.
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Besides I’m still having fun enjoying the ride. It really is stunningly beautiful here, even in the wet.
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I am also very much starting to enjoy the tunnels because they get me out of the rain. I can’t believe that I was trying to avoid them at first. They really are quite pleasant when the going is wet and steep because they are dry and relatively flat.
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As I travel further around the coast road between Kumano and Owasa I come to many cute fishing villages. They perch precariously between the mountains and the sea. Many fishermen have stored their nets and spare boats high up on the side of the roads in the mountains; presumably to protect them in case their is a tsunami (there are tsunami escape signs everywhere in this area and apparently around the time I took this photo the south west coast of Japan was put on tsunami alert so they are a very real danger here). I do see one village where there is a drawing of a fishing boat chasing a whale. I am sure that this must be a whale fishing village. It makes me ponder the responsibilities of a traveler not to pass judgement when a guest in another country. While I do not support whale fishing, a part of me can recognise that to the fishermen, hunting whale is no different from hunting deer or kangaroos. So I suspend judgement and ponder the run down state of the fishing villages and the fact that I’ve not seen anyone under the age of about fifty or sixty years old since leaving Kumano (and I will not see any young people again until I reach Ise late tomorrow evening).
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I think these are fish farms. I’ve seen them before in Tasmania and there they were for farming salmon. So I can only assume these are also for farming fish.
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I enter another tiny village and there is a huge shrine that looks like it is celebrating some ancient trees. It’s a gorgeous, peaceful and mossy place of prayer. Everything feels like it has been carefully placed and diligently maintained. Even the randomly blown leaves from a nearby tree look decorative near the hand washing station. I’m glad I decided to get up and ride this morning instead of feeling sorry for myself about the rain.
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I stop at another village when I spy a small shop between the shuttered down buildings. I am starting to get desperate for food, not having passed many shops today. I am looking like a drowned rat and dripping water everywhere. Inside the shop there are three elderly ladies and an elderly gentleman. They wave me in and I buy some cakes and pre-cooked chicken or pork dish that I will heat for dinner. No one speaks English and my Japanese is still terrible. But they insist I sit down on a chair, give me a towel to dry myself off with and pour me a glass of green tea from a thermos one lady has obviously brought to work with her. I try to answer their questions by telling them that I am from Australia, showing them on a map where I have cycled and where I am going, and confirming that I will be camping in a tent in the next town’s camping-ju. They seem absolutely delighted to have a visitor and give me the towel as a gift. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d not gone out riding today.
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And so we get to the less fantastic part of the day that will make a good story later. I reach Mikisato and again the camping ground is just a bit of flat space directly on the beach. It would be stunning on a good day but today is not that. The wind is gusting so strongly that when it came from behind when I was on the road it was actually pushing me along without my needing to pedal. If I try to set up in the official camping ground area I will just get blown away. So I try to find an alternative. The grass on the landward side of the tsunami protection wall is sodden and more like a pond than a park so that’s out of the question. I see a small hut with a table in it and decide this will be my best bet (I have already gone to the only hotel in the town to discover that it is permanently closed). I start to set up my tent and fill it with gear when a strong gust of wind takes hold of the tent and whips it (with my gear inside) out of the picnic hut but not before it catches on the table and I hear the unmistakable sound of a pole snapping.
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I have only one choice and that is to seek shelter in the shower rooms (they are cleaner than the toilet block). It’s so damp in there but at least it’s out of the rain. I hang everything up to dry but the next morning I wake to discover everything is just as wet as it was when I arrived and the floor has a thin layer of watery damp across it. But I’ve survived the storm and will have a good story to tell. As for the broken pole, hopefully the two chopsticks and tape (I bought some duct tape later for more strength) will hold it together strongly enough for the rest of this trip. I will need to buy a replacement when I get home.

Rest day at Kawayu Onsen (Kansai)

Today I rested at camp. I have visited the riverside onsen, caught up on my blog, completed some projects for work, and cycled the 4.5km to Hongu to use the free wifi at the visitor centre to upload blog posts and email documents to work. Tomorrow I will continue cycling. The next stage of my trip will take me to Ise, home of the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan, and then hopefully I will be able to take a ferry from Toba to Honshu. Until my next post 🙂

Kumano Kodo Koguchi to Nachi Taisha and then back to Kawayu Onsen (Kansai)

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.

Kumano Kodo Hongu Taisha to Koguchi (Kansai)

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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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.