A bell : Once you’re on the trail, don’t be surprised if you hear the tinkling of a bell in the distance. It’s sure to be coming from Japanese walkers who have tied bells to their backpacks, following to the letter the instructions they’ve been given about protecting themselves from bears.
On the Kumano Kodo trails
Two culinary experiences
With its indoor and outdoor hot spring baths (onsen and rotenburo), a visit to this ryokan (traditional inn) is all about reinvigoration. Hot water direct from the spring is also used in the kitchen to cook vegetables, meat, fish and tofu. The end result is an exquisite high-end menu. 122 Yunomine, Hongu cho.
Professional chef Mr. Yuba worked all over the country before returning to his hometown to convert his home close to the Tsugizakura-oji temple into a minshuku (guesthouse). The multi-course Kaiseki Ryôri (fine dining) dinner menu is nothing short of a feast. 403-1 Nonaka, Nakahechi-cho.
The view from here is breathtaking. From the terrace, and even from your own tatami, the Hatenashi mountain range is all yours to contemplate. When the valley fills with morning mist, the effect is pure magic. The hot water supply for the bath comes directly from the Wataze Onsen in Hongu. The food here is never less than excellent. 826 Takahara, Nakahechi-cho.
Lose yourself in the depths of nature
Who would imagine that nature could be so geometric? The forest here on the Kii peninsular is dense. But above all, it proves to be rectilinear, marked out by an army of tree trunks in strict alignment. These are cryptomeria japonica – Japanese cedars – a species native to the archipelago and known locally as sugi. But their foliage is extraordinary, because these magnificent giants of trees are tens of metres high and up to 700 or even 1,000 years old. Some are sacred, and are marked as such by a white folded paper belt around their trunks. Between the trees wind multiple trails, and it is easy to imagine them as they were in the Middle Ages, paved in stone.
The Kumano Kodo has many rest areas in which to get your breath back. You’ll come across many springs and other fountains of youth, altars and small-scale temples built beneath a tree or on rocks, statues with or without animals, wayside markers and memorial stones and buddhas, sometimes totally covered in moss. At Oyunohara, close to the Hongu Taisha shrine and surrounded by rice paddies, rises an enormous and majestic torii traditional Japanese gateway, almost 40 metres high. Not far from the temple of Fushiogami-oji, there are wonderful thick green plantations of tea bushes against an orange patchwork backdrop of yuzu trees.
For a first visit to Japan, you couldn’t dream of a better location. Watching the bus disappear into the distance having been dropped off at a mountain road junction in the hamlet of Takiriji is a deeply moving experience. In this remote place, there are no familiar reference points and the language is extremely challenging. The feeling, therefore, is one apprehension. Just a couple of steps away – your very first two steps really – is the Takiriji‑oji shrine; the starting point of the Kumano pilgrimage trails and the gateway to the sacred mountains. The questions come thick and fast: where does this trail lead? What will you find there? It’s high time to start the ascent. This happy acceptance of letting go seems an odd feeling...
Before you emerge from the valley to arrive at the large-scale shrine of Nachi Taisha, the final stage of the Kumano Kodo, you still have to climb a spectacular stone staircase. Its name – Daimon-zaka – means ‘ascent to the gateway’. Its 267 steps are flanked by centuries-old trees and thickets of bamboo. The strenuous climb is rewarded by a breath-taking panoramic view over the gorges, with the horizon provided by the Pacific Ocean. It’s a must to visit the many temples here, but particularly the three-level Vermillion pagoda of Seiganto-ji. However, the real showstopper is just behind it though: Nachi-no-Otaki, at 133 metres high and 13 metres wide it is Japan’s highest waterfall.
Relax in a thousand-year-old hot spring
Deep in a wooded valley, Yunomine is the ultimate spa village. The natural volcanic spring discovered here around 1,800 years ago is the oldest in Japan. It seems to change colour seven times a day, and bursts out of the rock at an initial temperature of 92.5°C, later settling down to around 42°C. Hence the number of onsen (hot spring) indoor baths, and rotenburo outdoor baths. The river that flows through the centre of the village also originates from the spring, and is so hot that villagers cook eggs and bamboo shoots in it. The real gem of Yunomine is Tsuboyu, a 12th-century cabin that houses the only onsen on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Visitors can rent it for private bathing, subject to a limit of just two people for a maximum of half an hour.
Five essentials before you leave
A pair of binoculars : To revel in the mountain landscape and view the Pacific Ocean from afar, but also to scan the sky for the Yatagarasu, the famous sacred crow and messenger of God.
A sketchbook : Not only to exercise your artistic talent, but also to collect the many and often splendid souvenir stamps that mark your progress along the Kumano Kodo.
A pocket Wi-Fi hub : There certainly aren’t many Internet cafés in the mountains, so if you’re afraid of getting lost, this tiny gadget weighing just 120-150 grams could be a useful way of getting online.
A book or two : Un monde flottant by Nicolas de Crécy (pub. Soleil, 2016) on the Japanese monsters, divinities and spirits known as Yokai. You should also read A Modern Pilgrimage: Along the Kumano Kodo by American photographer Harold Davies and published in a limited edition of 12 copies + 4 artist’s proofs.
IN TREKKING MODE
Plan for at least a five-day stay to trek along these still little-known, but utterly breathtaking pilgrimage trails.
The best time of the year to walk here is Spring. To organise a bespoke trek with accommodation, food and (efficient!) baggage transfer service, the best way is to contact the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau.
This tourist office is dedicated specifically to the Kumano Kudo and its Website of the tourist office for the Kumano Kudo: www.tb-kumano.jp/en