On the Kumano Kodo, the Mountain Ascetics’ Pilgrimage Path

Going on a spiritual pilgrimage’s path in fastpacking fashion seemed a bit of an oddity even to me.

When you go somewhere far away, on some of your last money, with only a few days to spare for the whole trip, you do want to put as much experience as possible into every hour, though.

So, there I went.

It turned out more fitting, and still required changes, than planned.

What is the Kumano Kodo?

The network of the Kumano Kodo, the “old path(s) of Kumano”, is comprised of a multitude of pilgrimage paths.

Located in the Kii Peninsula’s Wakayama Province in the south of Japan’s main island of Honshu, just south of Kyoto and Osaka, they have all been used for more than a thousand years.

Originally coming from Kyoto, Japan’s long-time capital and spiritual center, there is still one route that links the important Buddhist spiritual complex on Koya-san (Mt. Koya) with the main shrines of the Kumano Sanzan (literally the “Three Mountains”, but meant are the three major shrines that are of the greatest importance here).

There would also be a route following the coast, and from the looks just from the train window, traveling into the area, that could be a very promising one.

The major route, however, is the “central/middle” Nakahechi, which links Takijiri Shrine with Hongu Taisha and goes on to Nachi Taisha (and/or Hayatama Taisha).

To understand the possibilities, it helps to know that this is indeed a network of routes. Some parts of the path(s) used to be done on boat/raft even in earlier times; not all of the shrines have to be visited.

For the modern purpose of becoming an official pilgrim along the Kumano Kodo, it is enough to have walked one or the other of the subsections, e.g. the one I ended up completing alone, the Nakahechi between Takijiri and Hongu Taisha.

Hiking Like a Mountain Monk

The paths are typically done as hikes going over several days, which made it seem particularly odd that I wanted to give myself just 1-2 days for the whole Nakahechi route.

Thinking about the importance of the Kumano Kodo since ancient times, it actually turned out to be rather fitting:

The Emperor and noblemen who went on a pilgrimage here are unlikely to have set records for time, but the Kumano Kodo has also been the proving ground for Yamabushi mountain ascetics who subscribe to Shugendo, a Japanese spiritual practice of seeking learning in the mountains.

They are the ones who are famous for practices such as the waterfall meditation in which practitioners stand under freezing-cold waterfalls to, well, gain powers. Spiritual, psychological, or even mystical, the practices of Shugendo are meant to be out of the ordinary and to deliver extraordinary benefits.

Well, then, around 40 km and 2000 (2500?) meters of ascent and descent are just like a marathon; I have done worse; and if the marathon monks (also related to these mountain practices) could do so much more, it would fit for me to go fast, over night.

The Kumano Kodo (Nakahechi, Takijiri to Hongu Taisha) in 30 Minutes: The Video

The Nakahechi (Takijiri to Hongu Taisha) in 10 Hours

Having left my room in Tokyo around 5 am, I saw another bit of early morning megalopolis, went to Shimagawa station to catch a Shinkansen to Osaka, changed into a Kuroshio local express onto the Kii Peninsula, changed to a bus in Tanabe City, and finally arrived in Takijiri around 1 pm.

At the Kumano Kodo Kan (Information Center) in Takijiri, I changed into my hiking gear and set out.

Trailhead and memorial to the World Heritage Pilgrimage Paths on the Kii Peninsula
Trailhead and memorial to the World Heritage Pilgrimage Paths on the Kii Peninsula

Balmy Mountain Afternoon

From right behind the Takijiri-oji shrine, where I stamped the first entry into the pilgrim passbook, the trail immediately started to go up, with stone steps, roots, rocks, autumn leaves. And I somewhat missed the trail at one point, right where it should have been easy to see it since the “Not Kumano Kodo”-path was clearly marked.

Up towards the line of the route on my GPS watch, it was easy enough to get back onto the right track, and it was usually easy enough to spot it.

That afternoon was sunny and balmy and nice; great for a hike.

On the Kumano Kodo
On the Kumano Kodo

Down followed up; oji shrines and remains followed fast, one after the other. There is a lot of history and spirituality hidden in this seemingly wild landscape…

Chikatsuyu, where many hikers stay for a night, was reached right around dusk, everything was still easily visible – which was good, as I had expected to come to Chikatsuyu-oji earlier than I actually did.

A temple bell rang just as I got down there; I did never see where it was, but it made for an interesting entry into this small town. All the more so when music started playing from a public announcement system soon after.

Over the bridge, and then I found myself at Chikatsuyu-oji.

Hadn’t missed it.

A Pilgrim’s Progress…

Not that it was impressive.

All the shrines are less than what one might expect from such a deeply spiritual landscape, many shrines and remains are even less than a torii and a shrine structure – and more than meets the eye.

All the places where there are shrines or there are remains and used to be shrines, all the places where kami (gods) are clearly being remembered and cared for, made for an impression of a spirituality that is, at the same time, less important (certainly less eye-catching) than one might have expected, but all the more lived.

Nonaka, Schrein
Shrine by the roadside in Nonaka

Many of the oji shrines, however, were a bit off the main trail, some to the side, some up a short trail or detour, some just weren’t full shrines anymore. So, however they were, I was always happy to find them, collect another stamp if there was one, and know that I was progressing.

… Through the Night

Progress of this kind became all the more interesting a point, and all the more essential a measure, as I entered the forest at the edge of Chikatsuyu again and had to notice just how dark it had become.

Lookout point at Nonaka
Lookout point at Nonaka

The rest of the pilgrimage would be in the dark, with just the little light that was there naturally or the shine of a headlamp or my keychain flashlight, as needed.

More of this part of the path was on roads, through villages, wondering what inhabitants would make of shadowy me passing by, should they notice.
(Actually, I can only tell of one man who noticed me because he was in front of his house. And that being at a somewhat odd intersection, he just pointed out to me which direction I needed to go ;) )

Passing shrines and remains, the ruins of a settlement, past a cemetery, on paths along rivers and passages across them in the dark made for a very different feel to it all.

Trail markers at Nakanogawa-oji
Trail markers at Nakanogawa-oji
Down from Waraji-toge Pass
Down from Waraji-toge Pass
Yukawa-oji
Yukawa-oji

The dark envelops you, hides the path, makes such places appear much more suddenly – and it can comfort, hide, let nothing but the trail be visible, make every step a clear progress on nothing but the path.

The Shugendo approach to experiencing mountains and mystery – through discomfort – became all the more fitting as a drizzle set in just as I got to the detour path (where the Nakahechi does not go past Iwogami-oji, as there is a crack in the mountain slope there, but detours in the south).

Light rain accompanied the rest of the way until I found a spot at small waterfalls where I decided to turn in (to my bivouac) for the night. It was a strange, wet, typical forest ground I slept on, the rush of the water nearby, dark and with the drizzle.

Through the Rain

The next morning – or what I would call morning as it was when I woke up and decided to walk on – the drizzle that had been there the night before, the condensation I thought I had felt on the bivy… it turned out to be outright rain that had moved in during the night.

Sleeping stuff went into the outside pocket of my backpack, away from the rest of my gear, I went into my rain jacket again and back on the path.

Inohana-oji in the rain
Inohana-oji in the rain

Dark, rain, fog…

Interesting conditions to walk. You would really like to see where the path goes on. Use little light, there is just darkness (and raindrops or fog – or both) around. Turn on a stronger light, you can see rather less from all the glare that gets reflected back at you.

The track also got a bit strange there, as there were parts where the path was wide, but nearly flooded. As I was not so sure I was on the right side of the river, judging by the GPS track, but definitely was, going by the path and its markers.

Hosshinmon-oji
Hosshinmon-oji

Hosshinmon-oji came rather soon, after only some 50 minutes on the trail. Then Mizunomi-oji.

Getting to Mizunomi-oji in heavy rain
Getting to Mizunomi-oji in heavy rain

Dawn

Around Fushiogami (and Fushiogami-oji), day started to break in the middle of the fog and rain. Hard to tell, actually, where fog began and rain ended, I was just in rain clouds, or much of it was condensation dripping off the trees.

All not very comfortable. And it was quite okay with the gear I had.

Dawn view at Fushiogami
Dawn view at Fushiogami

With dawn, low as the light was in this – as it turned out to be – next typhoon having moved in, the path presented itself differently again. Clearer to see, but mystical in the fog. If that’s how you want to see it.

In that light, I went on.

Kumano Kodo forest trail in morning fog
Kumano Kodo forest trail in morning fog
One of the last oji before Hongu Taisha
One of the last oji before Hongu Taisha
Torii at the entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha
Torii at the entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha

And there was Kumano Hongu Taisha, the end of that bit.

I got there just as they opened for the day, paid my respects at the shrines, put the stamp that represented the successful completion of a Kumano Kodo pilgrimage into the passbook.

Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hongu Taisha

Then I wondered. Should I go on?

I planned to, had a little online conversation with my wife back in Austria about it all – and then, just as I wanted to set out for the other part of the Nakahechi, on to Nachi Taisha, the typhoon unleashed such a downpour that I sheltered at a bus stop, checked out the timetable and found that the next bus back to Tanabe would leave in just 10 minutes.

This is a sign, I thought, and headed to Osaka already.

If I couldn’t go on with the spiritual pilgrimage, at least I could continue my quest to “seek spice“. The pilgrims’ path had already provided me with enough interesting impressions to last, even on that part of it.

Practical details (GPS, trail description) can be found on my new blog, Time and Tours, here.

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