Note to self: do not buy new boots for a five-day hike. You will regret it.
My boyfriend and our best friend, Angela, found a famous pilgrimmage hike just a few hours south of us in Wakayama Prefecture. The Kumano Kodou is made up of several routes that cross the largest peninsula in Japan and visit hundreds of small, historic shrines. (Originally, we had wanted to go to Yakushima, a southern island famous partially because of the Ghibly movie Princess Mononoke, but decided travelling there would be a bit expensive. I was happier about the trail change later when our friends did this hike and explained how hikers were supposed to poop in bags and carry them with them until they came across a – rare – disposal site. Pooping in the wild? I’m game. Carrying it up a mountain? Helllll no.)
The Kumano Kodou crossed mountains, small towns, several rivers, and two incredibly famous and beautiful large shrines. (In all honesty, I’m not a big shrine person. In my opinion, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen most of them. But these two were still impressive: Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha.) The trail was often cut along the side of a mountain, with a sharp incline on one side and a steep decline on the other. If you’re afraid of heights, this trail is not for you. Several times, we worked on the quad muscles with some steep rocky stairs, but the trail occasionally took a leisurely flat break along the highway.
We started our journey by taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin-Osaka, then an express JR to Kii-Tanabe. From there, it was a short bus ride (alongside a couple other foreigner hikers) to Takijiri-oji, the “spiritual entrance” to the mountain trails. I took a short nap on the hour-long bus ride, dreaming I found my boyfriend in his hammock being constricted by a large boa – which don’t live in Japan – and I had to cut off its head with our tiny pocket knife – probably not the best plan – to save his life. Best girlfriend award, right here.
The information center just next to the bus stop offered us a last bath of air conditioning, a few pictures of traditional hikers, and my personal saving grace, a bamboo walking stick (which, naturally, we named “BamBoo Radley).
We took the Nakahechi trail, the easy route – don’t be fooled, it wasn’t easy – which was considerably safer than the trail for experts, on which you have to hammock because there’s almost never enough floor space to set up a tent. There also may or may not be a larger number of snakes and bears on that trail, but that just adds to the fun, right?
From Takijiri-oji, the trail begins with a hazing ritual of rock stairs that take you about 300 meters up – elevation-wise, not distance. I immediately regretted my “wearing a hoodie is a good idea” decision, but the excitement of the hike starting pushed us onward – and upward – at a good speed. Maybe fifteen minutes in, we passed a giant rock with a small cave underneath. A sign near the rock told a story about a couple who had a baby while on the trail and left it behind, inside the cave, to be protected until they finished their pilgrimage and came back for it. Fortunately, a wolf apparently took the child under it’s wing…or paw… and took care of it until the parents came back. Thus, any woman who enters the cave and climbs through the birth-canal-like hole at the back is guaranteed a safe delivery. Naturally, we all braved the dark cave and pulled our way out – “Hes’ crowning!” – through the tunnel. It seemed like a good omen. And on we continued, though a bit dirtier than we’d started. Later that evening, we passed through a small village. Maybe “village” is a generous word – there were a few houses with large gardens, a rocky carpark with a great view, and a couple of sign for the hikers. The people we passed by were very friendly and seemed excited to have travelers coming through. One of them, a woman who owned a souvenir shop, let us fill up our water bottles in her shop. She also offered us shelter from the three minutes of rain that appeared out of nowhere. A few minutes’ walk farther, we found a coffee shop where the owner brought us fresh oranges and pizza with our coffee, which we drank in a small clearing with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. She even offered to let us camp there, but we decided to use the next hour of sunlight to move a little further on the trail. Observation: people in small towns tend to be much more friendly and approachable to strangers than people in big cities. In my experience, Japan and the U.S. appear very similar in this way.
The first night, we hung our hammocks in trees just next to the path, which had recently been logged. The forest still seemed pretty dense, but about one third of the trees had been cut down to stumps. We ate dehydrated pasta boiled on the camping stove my boyfriend had brought, created our first “bathroom,” and went to bed around 7 pm, because it was too dark to do anything else.
The next day, we saw our first fellow hiker, our second snake, I started to sunburn, and the sweetest man gave us all little origami kimonos. Soon after, we had to take a sunny, up-hill detour because part of the trail had cracked open during an earthquake a few years before. An hour or two of sweat, sunlight, and a splinter under my nail later, we made it to the top and were close to our planned campground; a rest stop with a bathroom and small eating area. We set up our camp in the trees close by. A trio of French travelers camped out in the rest stop and we ended up sharing our dinners, our whiskey, some oranges, and a few travel stories. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
On day three, we discovered that going downhill might just be worse than going up. I like to think of myself as being in pretty good shape. Not as good of shape as I was in college, due to – in effect – being paid to work out (hello, college athletics), but I still run a couple of times a week and do HIIT Youtube videos when I don’t feel like going outside. But this hike killed me. Every day was a full day of “how far can we go” and “how fast can we do it.” Now, my knees aren’t what they used to be (hello, college athletics), and eventually it got to where going down the mountain hurt as badly as going up. My new boots had formed quarter-size blisters by the second day, and by the third I was walking like and 80-year-old. By the fourth day, my boyfriend was hobbling alongside me. Angela, on the other hand, looked like she was enjoying a breezy walk in the park.
But it was beautiful. That day, we made it through Hongu Taisha, where we stopped for some touristy things, udon, and Kumano Kodo beer with a view of Japan’s largest tori gate, before continuing on the trail and making it to one of Wakayama’s top 100 sunrise/sunset view points. That alone was worth the pain. Nothing but mountains, as fare as the eye can see, the sky every shade of gold as the sun moved towards the farthest peaks. Unfortunately, we had to camp another hundred meters down. Don’t tell my father I slept by a drop-off in a carpark in the middle of nowhere. We were close to running out of water, and though we knew we’d be passing a place to fill up the next day, that was a whole night and about 2 kilometers away. By some stroke of luck, the Japanese couple that we passed heading to the sunset point as we were leaving it drove past our campsite and offered us a two-liter bottle of tea. I thanked them about seven times the next morning when we ran out of water.
Before we left the campsite for our fourth day, I made the discovery that compost bathrooms are crazy. It took me about two minutes to realize that underneath the toilet was supposed to move and make noise and it wasn’t a killer coming to get me. My mom always said I had a great imagination.
We missed another stamp and took an unexpected detour through a graveyard on our way into the next town. Finding a place for water, we each gulped a stomach-full before filling our bottles. How good is water? At this point, my feet were hurting so badly I almost couldn’t walk. DO NOT HIKE IN NEW BOOTS. Newb. We were close to a bus stop that could take us the rest of the way, so as Rory went to check on bus times, Angela and I sat down to cook a late lunch. When he came back with news that the next bus was four hours away, we decided to just tough it out and continue for the last several kilometers. I was being a wimp, but I knew he really wanted to be able to say he’d walked to whole trail, so we agreed to finish on foot.
That was before we realized the next 800 meters were up. UP, up. You know how, when you run a race you’re supposed to pace yourself and then at the end, when the finish line is in sight, you switch to an all-out sprint, giving everything you have to those last hundred/thousand steps? That’s what we did. And damn, did it feel good at the top. There’s a sign there, at Echizen-toge Pass, with a quote from an old, famous poet (Fujiwara Teika) who hiked the Kumano Kodo in 1201 (yeah, that’s how old the pilgrimmage is), saying, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.” I imagine it was a little tougher in traditional Japanese wear, but bro, I feel you.
Not too long after that, just before it was too dark to continue, we found our last campsite. It was probably our best, with a table for our dinner, perfectly-spaced trees, and an amazing view of the end-of-the-trail valley right next to the ocean. We ended up paying the price for the view that night, when the wind came through and nearly froze us. (Or maybe just me; the other two said they slept fine, whereas I shivered and peeped my head out of my sleeping back every thirty minutes to see if it was light enough to wake them yet so we could get a move on.)
Having somehow lost the last of our granola bars, we ate a breakfast of nuts and Earl Grey tea before traveling the last kilometer down to Nachi Taisha. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, with a three-story orange pagoda right next to a tall waterfall offering the best backdrop for tourist photos. At that point, I was too hangry to fully enjoy the area – we’d thought there would be a cafe and a chance for a more filling breakfast, but no such luck. After getting our fair share of pictures, we were ready to move on to the final leg of our journey – although it took us a solid twenty minutes to figure out where the bus stop was. It was a short ride to the JR station that would take us home, but we all agreed on lunch being a top priority. We found a cafe – a beautiful, warm, home-cooked meals cafe – and we each ate two full meals, either totally impressing or completely disgusting the locals at the nearby tables.
Happy, full, and exhausted, we boarded the train an hour later and settled in for the four-hour ride along the coast back home.