The landscape and sense of pilgrimage on this hike was spectacular, which is not surprising because it is deemed a Unesco world heritage hike like El Camino. If you hike both you can get a special certificate deeming you to be a dual pilgrim. It was definitely more challenging than the pastoral Nakasendo trail hike however we had put in a lot of miles in the past week and were up to the challenge.I was still nervous about the last day which promised nine miles of walking, a lot of it vertical.
People have been hiking the Kumano for a thousand years making the pilgrimage to the three grand shrines, collectively called the Sanzan. The shrines share the symbol of Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow. According to legend, Yataragatsu guided the first emperor of Japan through the impenetrable Kumano Mountains. The Kumano follows an organized religious tradition called Shugendo combining folk religion, northern shamanism, Taoism, Esoteric Buddhism and Shinto beliefs. Its devout followers are called Yamabushi.
Our tour company for this section of the trip was Inside Japan. I decided to go with two different companies because of the routes they offered. It was also nice to compare the two. They were both very good but I would give Inside Japan a slight edge. They were a little more prompt in responding and I felt like I had better communication with them. Our personalized trip was titled ” Kicking it on the Kumano” as titled by our agent Clint Kimzey. We could have contacted them in Kyoto anytime and they sent our tickets for onward travel to Hotel Mume. We also contracted with them to stay one night on an island off of the Kii Peninsula and one night in Osaka with a food tour. I had already booked a hotel in Osaka and they were fine with that.
We arrived at Kyoto station with plenty of time to spare. We got to our track and walked down to where we would enter our train car to wait, not following my own advice of keeping an eye on the arrival/ departure board. I was so excited to ride the Limited Express Kuroshio 3 and Inside Japan had reserved really nice seats in the green car for us. Being so early, I wasn’t really paying attention to the time but my husband realized it was past the anticipated arrival time, something which is not the norm in Japan. Somehow our train had come and gone without us noticing! A worker came by and pointed us up the stairs where we were able to locate a ticket office. The agent immediately rerouted us but we would have to switch trains in Shin Osaka with a 7 minute connection. I was able to call the Inside Japan contact and tell him what had happened so he could alert our orientation guide in Kii Tanabe. Sadly we would be too late to hike to the first Shrine, Hongu Taisha, but with any luck we could still take the bus there.
We had a nice ride on the way to Shin Osaka and the conductor even let us sit in a nicer car even though we’d lost our reservation. In Shin Osaka we scrambled off the train to find the nearest agent I asked a nice man if we could please cut him in line because of our tight connection which was very rude and American, I know, but it was lucky I did because we made our train by a hair. It was also pretty crowded but at least we had made it and were on our way to Kii Tanabe. We easily found the tourist information office in Kii Tanabe for our orientation arranged by Inside Japan. It seemed as though you could easily stop in there and they could help you if you went in on your own. We did have an agent who knew our plans and where our rooms were reserved and she was able to call Ryokan Adumaya ahead to let them know we would be heading right out to catch the bus to Hongu Taisha and would need a late dinner. She also checked the bus schedule for us to make sure it would be possible. She showed us the route we would be taking over the next 3 days and gave us a map and a wonderful book about the Kumano Kodo. We had a bit of time before the bus so we found a funny little restaurant where we ate sandwiches and pork in the funny little town.
Our bus ride took us up and up with many stops to the town of Yunomine Onsen. We checked in very quickly, declining the welcome tea to catch the 2:50 bus. We were altogether 2 hours behind our original plan. It was helpful that the agent from the tourist office was able to communicate our story to the ryokan. We were missing the Dainichi- Goe section of our hike. It looks lovely but at least we were able to see Hongu Taisha. Each shrine represents different deities and spirits and has its own attributes. Once we climbed the grand flag festooned staircase. we entered a very impressive complex of beautiful natural wood structures. The shrine office was closed but we could still tour the grounds. We headed back to the bus with plenty of time to explore the area around the gigantic Tori gate called the Otori, the largest in all of Japan. The surrounding field is the site of many festivals so if you go you might want to try to plan accordingly. Pleased with the recovery of our nearly lost shrine visit, we waited in the growing darkness for our bus which quickly brought us back to the ryokan for a very sashimi dinner.
After dinner we tried out the baths in the ryokan and then walked across the street to the public tub. It is an unusual set up where you buy your tickets from a machine and give them to the attendant who is sitting in the booth right next to the ticket machine. The hours are from 6 AM until midnight. We decided to get up early and try the historic Tsuboyu tub. There is a famous legend of healing about this tub called “Oguri Hangan and Princess Terute”. We got special stamped certificates certifying that we had bathed there. The water is unbearably hot but fortunately there is a cold water tap for mixing it to a reasonable temperature. We decided to stop at the small Tokoji temple by the hot spring stream and say a prayer together for a safe and successful hike. I figured we needed all the help we could get. It was a memorable moment. Dressed in our matching yukata, fresh out of the historic hot tub, we rang the bell and bowed and clapped and bowed again. There is a little area of the onsen stream where visitors and locals boil veggies and eggs, It’s really, really hot. We also had a rare treat of onsen coffee in the morning, the only coffee we had encountered while hiking.
Before our bus to the trailhead came I purchased some small amulets from the monk at the stand by the temple. A wooden boar/pig for me and a monkey for my husband, our birth year animals. A kindly monk was the salesperson. There was quite a variety of hikers on the bus to Ukegawa. We occasionally met up with a young German couple from , an older couple from Connecticut and a young Australian woman along the trail, all aboard the bus. The Kogumotori- Goe section is a 13 KM five and a half hour hike with a mix of gentle ups and downs and ridge walking. Halfway through the hike there is an amazing view of the 3600 peaks of the Kumano that may well be the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in my entire life.
We saw lots of ferns with double heads called warabi, (Pteridium aquilinum) along the way. Our lunch stop was the Sakura- Jaya teahouse remains where we enjoyed our gorgeous boxed onigiri rice ball lunches with the Aussie woman (AW) and the Connecticut couple(CC).
From there we headed down into a valley where we came upon a group of Australian travelers and had a walking discussion about our dismay at the state of our country.
We were all headed toward Koguchi to Shizen No Le an old junior high school that is converted to a minshuku. It was a hearty walk and we were happy that we could buy a cold beer and enjoy the onsen at the schoolhouse .
At dinner the tour leader for the Aussies talked about the difficulty of the final walk along the Ogomotori-goe section to Nachi-San and the infamous Dogiri-Zaka which translates to “body breaking slope”. The group was all in our age bracket or older so we felt we were in good company. If their leader had faith in them then we felt we were similarly fit, which we were.
We started out shortly after seven to make sure to reach Nachi before the grounds closed. We had a little trouble finding the trailhead so we lost a half hour but it all worked out just fine. The hike was 14.5 KM with a hefty amount of uphill walking. It’s definitely challenging but if you are generally fit and don’t mind a good dose of uphill walking you will be fine though tired. You will also have a great accomplishment under your belt. I would say this hike is magical. The waroda-ishi rock is said to be the place where the three deities of the Shanzan would meet to have tea. It’s a huge moss-covered boulder with their symbols carved on it. There is a running river and a place where there are big egg-shaped rocks like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And then there is a view to the Pacific from the mountains. You could sit and gaze all day if you didn’t have to make it to Nachi Taisha before closing time.
We reached Nachi Kogen park in good time thinking we could congratulate ourselves but there was still many downward stone steps before reaching Nachi Taisha. We treated ourselves with ice cream which we ate with our AW friend. We had plenty of time to explore Nachi Taisha. I was drawn to the statue of Kannon the goddess of mercy. I had quite a visit with her. I also walked through the amazing Camphor tree and was “reborn”. You are supposed to walk through the tree carrying a prayer stick to make your prayer come true but I only learned that afterwards. In any case the hollow tree is 850 years old and it is pretty magical to be able to go inside of it.
The falls itself is an object of worship. It is the highest waterfall in Japan and its spray is said to prolong one’s life.
It’s hard to believe we did so much in one day but we still had a walk to Mitaki Sanso in the small town near the temple complex and we saw some sights along the way.
The hotel is cozy and they have cold beer, hot food and an onsen, also a view of the falls. By accident I opened the wrong room door and there was the couple from Connecticut! We ate with them and the German couple and we also saw our Australian friend. Soon I was in my futon listening to the sound of Nachi Falls in the distance.
In the morning we made our way to the bus stop and rode into Kii Katsura, a nice little fishing village.Our luggage was ours to carry once again so we braved the luggage lockers which worked splendidly. We would be taking a train to the final shrine, Hayatama Taisha in Shingu. We found our way to the temple, but I had set my sights on some shopping stops on the way back to the station. The shops aren’t flashy but they have a good local feel.We also enjoyed seeing displays of citrus and veggies and fish along our walking route to the final shrine.
Cute soda can from the bus stop vending machine.
The shrines each have a different feeling. I would venture to say Hongu felt ancient and mystical, Nachi was impressive and whimsical and Hayatama was urban and businesslike. We passed under the vermillion tori gate with a sense of completing our pilgrimage. I’m so glad we got to go to all three shrines. My favorites list include the dragon at the purification fountain, and the outfits of the shrine maidens. They had a nice selection of amulets for sale as they did at Nachi Taisha.
I was also obsessed with this mini shrine behind the dragon fountain that had a huge bell and tiny foxes which appeared to be having a tea party. Foxes, I was told, are good for business so I said some business prayers. We were able to see a shinto religious ceremony courtesy of the tour group from Australia whose leader had booked it especially for them. We didn’t go up the hill to the shrine under the rock
but you probably should I wish we had. It’s called Kamikura Shrine, which is said to be the first shrine the god of Kumano descended to. It’s butted up a huge rock called Gotobiki rock. Once again I am finding out a whole lot writing this post trip.We also befriended a cat. We did see several shiba dogs and a couple of other small dogs but other than that we saw so few animals in general on our trip. The only farm animal we saw was one penned duck and we never saw any animals in the wild though we heard some great bird and frog sounds. In any case our Kumano pilgrimage was complete and it was wonderful. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.