Over a thousand years, Kumano Kodo has been the mythical holy ground where people believed the gods lived. Kumano literally means “the place where deities live”, “the ends of the earth”, and “where the spirit of the dead stay”, among other things.
So I knew I would come back to Japan and do the trail.
2 years later, in the first week of March, I arrived in Japan. The weather was just perfect, with nice crispy cold air and sunny fresh days. It was not too cold and not too hot, the perfect weather in Japan. Few trees were just giving the first signs of Spring. The branches of the plum trees, and cherry trees were dotted with pink and white spots.
The center works as support for all visitors interested in doing the walk. Inside the building I was introduced to Mr. Brad Towle, the International Tourism Promotion and Development Director.
Mr. Towle took me to see a large map of the region hanging from a wall in the lobby of the building. On the map he first pointed out where I would be hiking - the Nakahechi route, the most picturesque and recommended paths.
Shinto is not a religion: the craving of the Japanese for religion was satisfied in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D, by Buddhism which has remained their religion to the present day.
The director also mentioned that Tanabe City Tourism Bureau has a joint promotion project with the Turismo de Santiago de Compostela the other UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage route, there are only two of this kind in the world. Tanabe City and Santiago de Compostela have been working together in a partnership to promote world pilgrimage culture and share knowledge while respecting each other’s unique spiritual and cultural heritage. I thought this was so special, two different cultures and beliefs with a common goal.
The Tourism Bureau also has a Travel office located across from the train station. We walked to see it, and I learned that here, the visitors can get all kinds of support; products and services like luggage assistance, shuttle service, local guides, travel services and more. The Staff will provide you with plenty of maps and information for your journey, and they provide information about the weather.
We took Highway #311 about 45 minutes, driving into the mountain range and following the river, until we arrived at The Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route.
The guide, Mrs. Waka, wanted me to see the traditional entrance to the sacred mountains and the Shrine located at the trailhead. I stopped at my first shrine and I went through my first purification and cleansing ritual. Once we passed the Torrii (sacred gate) we proceed to the Temizura (the stone water basin). In my last visit to Japan I was introduced to the ritual of purifying my hands and mouth before I enter a shrine. In front of the Shrine I bowed twice, clapped twice, rang the bell, said a prayer, and backed up to bow one more time before we exited. I did several of these rituals as I visited several shrines on my hike.
The bath is fuming, and the smell of sulphur was strong, but tolerable enough to take a 30 minute bath in the healing waters. According to the locals, it changes color 7 times a day. The colors I saw were bluish gray and opal reddish. It holds only 2 or 3 people at a time. Turns are taken every 30 minutes so groups can bathe.
If you decide to use the bath, you will have to obtain a number to get your bathing time, which can be obtained at the public bathhouse desk.
After the bath experience, I went to explore the The Akagi-goe route which is on the main Nakahechi route. It is a mountain trail that climbs up and over a ridge. The Akagi-goe trail links to Yunomine Onsen, the trail that starts right behind the Tsuboyu hot spring bath.
This section is often used by walkers to make a loop with the Nakahechi section from Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha.
I went to explore the Akagi-oge trail. I was so ready to experience the path and feel the terrain. I realized soon after spending some time hiking that I was in a very special place. The forest is full of beautiful tall Japanese Red Pines, Japanese Cypress mixed with Camphor trees, and bamboo groves. I thought it was the most beautiful place I’ve seen. The sound of water running down in drainage gutters made out of stone, made all feel fresh and alive. I had my first encounter with a stone Jizo dressed with a small red bib around his neck. The old stone Jizos are statue protectors of children, women, and travelers. I stood there contemplating for a moment. I was finally in the Kumano Kodo, the Sacred site for redemption and devotion.
The Inn was founded by a shrine priest in the 18th century. I was told that the capacity is 22 rooms, but at first glance the buildings look small from outside the 2-story wooden structure. However, once you step inside the whole building magically expands.
While I was walking to see my room, the front desk woman informed me that in the rear of the building there is an additional area of another 2-story connecting building, and the hotel becomes a 4-story building. She took me to see the two large communal baths for men and women, located on the first floor.
I took my shoes off and entered. The first thing I noticed inside was the typical Japanese tea room with a calligraphy painting hanging from the wall and the small vase with flowers.
The front desk person quickly pointed out that the suite has multiple rooms divided by fusuma doors and a lofty ceiling. She showed me around.
The tatami-mat that covers the floors of the rooms felt soft on my feet.
There was a twin washing area, an ensuite toilet, and a wooden bath onsen with rainfall shower aside.
The Ichii room was beautiful with its own hot spring, surrounded by a perfectly manicured Japanese garden and decorated with moss-covered praying stones and a lantern. I sat by the sitting area, contemplating the Japanese garden and breathing it all in.
The lady who brought the food to the room told us that the chef prepares the meals with foods harvested from the Kumano region, and he cooks with the hot spring water. Food was decorated and displayed so perfectly on top of fantastic porcelain dishes; many fresh vegetables, fish, tofu, miso soup, noodles, and a bottle of sake.
It was a great experience to have visited Azumaya Ryokan, an authentic "Onsen Ryokan”.
In all Ryokans, the Traditional "Kaiseki" supper and breakfast are included, and special hot spring coffee is served in the morning. Experiencing food in Ryokans is one of the main attractions, and breakfast did not disappoint at all. Ryokan Adumaya prides itself on using 100% hot spring water in all of the meals.
We arrived early at the trail which is on the left side of a small shrine building I had visited the day before. An old stone staircase took me into the mountains.
This path was already being used as a pilgrimage route from about a thousand years ago by pilgrims seeking rebirth.
The Director of Kumano Tourist Bureau told me this is one of the most popular routes to the Kumano grand shrines, and historically it was extensively traveled.
She said that the Takijiri-oji trail was the passage into the sacred mountains, the entry to the abode of the gods, and Buddhist paradises of rebirth.
Around 15 minutes into the climb, we found a set of large boulders. Some of them form a cave called Tainai-kuguri, where you can test your faith by climbing through the crack at the far end. Passing through the cave is like coming through a natural womb, “being reborn”, Waka told me.
I walked through beautiful and peaceful native forest in a kind of walking meditation until we reached a lookout point where you can see the majestic mountains and small deep valleys waiting to be explored.
Proper clothing and footwear are essential, especially when you are planning for a multiple-day trek. It was cold in the morning but it gets warmer, and it is useful to wear layers. We followed the stairs down to join up with the main route and kept walking in this amazing forest.
We passed by a small shrine with hari Jizo statues. The Jizo watches over pilgrims and is also believed to heal toothaches.
Following the gravel road, we arrived at a majestic giant Camphor tree grove, over a 1,000 years old, guarding the Takahara Kumano-jinja Shrine.
The Shrine is one of the oldest buildings along this section of this pilgrimage route, from the Muromachi period (1333-1576). There is a figure of the Buddha fitted onto a copper plaque. The building is beautiful with a staircase leading to the door.
I saw colorful paintings and the roof had perfect lines with bronze ornaments, characteristic of the shrine architecture.
After a quick visit and admiring the amazing camphor trees, we continued the route to Takahara, a small ridge-top community rich in history associated with the Kumano pilgrimage.
Takahara is known as "Kiri-no-Sato" (Village of the Mist) because the scenic mountain vistas are often blanketed with fog.
We passed by layered terraces of rice paddies and wonderful panoramic views of the Hatenashi mountain range. We finally arrived at our lunch spot, the Kiri-no-sato Takahara lodge, where we would eat at the new elevated patio with a breathtaking 360 degree view of the mountain range.
The owner of the lodge, Mr. Jian Shino, told me in his lodge all the products are organic and they use the water of the hot spring to cook the ingredients.
It was a nice stop to rest, contemplate, absorb the beauty, and also to reflect on the spiritual essence of the amazing walk. Lunch was perfect, typical Japanese food with great fresh taste.
Waka told me that as one enters through these passages, the level of sacredness increases.
One of the goals of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage is to rid one’s body and spirit of impurities from past and present lives and to be ritually reborn and rejuvenated by the virtuous powers of the Kumano deities.
We passed through small isolated villages, visited old shrines, and admired the old collections of statues along the hike.
This meaningful hike reminded me of the times I used to hike the Andean mountains in my childhood. I remember having a special connection with nature. They were, and continue to be sacred places for me. I call them cathedrals of Nature.
The Kumano Kodo has moved my spirit again in a way that only nature can do.
From this view, ancient people got a first distant view of the Shinto shrine Kumano Hongu Taisha. Here at this spot, the pilgrims knelt down in prayer, and many got moved to tears without knowing. The name “Fushiogami”, literally kneeling down in prayer, came from this episode. The Panoramic viewpoint is just so out of this world.
Here I caught the first glimpse of the colossal torii gate that marks the outermost entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha's sacred precincts.
Waka said I was looking at the gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment. It signifies the division of the secular and the spiritual worlds”.
The sunset was just perfect, almost dreamy, but very real. I fell into the spell of the moment, and my reflective mood took me to a meditative stage. What a sight to behold!
We arrived in the dark. Light coming from the lamps of the shrine allowed me to see the long stone staircase that leads to the sacred grounds of the shrine. The 158 stone steps led us to the shrine, built on a ridge surrounded by giant cedar and cypress trees.
The shrine has a magnificent roof made of Cypress shingles, ornate with X-shaped cross pieces of bronze. It is a beautiful majestic temple in the middle of the majestic mountains.
The building is one of the Kumano Sanzan, three grand shrines of Kumano, and the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan.
The austere pavilions made entirely of dark Japanese cypress bark blend beautifully with the forest. Flocks of fluttering, screaming crows made noises around us. They did not leave us alone until we left the shrine in the dark, like guardians of the shrine.
The Roykan features a natural open-air bath with plenty of hot water, and I was ready to jump in the bathtub outside on the balcony of my room. The therapeutic water is the best you can do for your tired body after a long hike.
The gate is the largest in the world, at 34 meters high, standing in the middle of a rice field. It is made of steel and weighs 172 tons. It was erected in 2000. This Torii is called Otorii, O means “big”.
The open view of the rice fields, the ancient trees lined with the tall gate, and the sound of the river nearby were so sublime, like I was just transported to a new dimension.
Our next stop was Kamikura Shrine, home to an event of extreme spiritual significance.
The Oto Matsuri fire festival is held there every February, but also there is a hulking boulder, the Gotobiki-iwa Rock, that sits adjacent to the shrine, where the Kumano deities were said to have descended to earth.
While not an easy climb, the views from the top are so worth it, with a great view of the city of Shingu. The Shrine is a beautiful gem and a must see if you can do the steps.
For the rest of the day we continued the Kumano trail until we reached Nachi Taisha Shrine via the Daimond-zaka trail via a mountain path. My last shrine prospering as a sacred ground along with Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, this temple is the oldest structure in Kumano. Many precious important cultural properties can be found here.
The precincts are renowned for their magnificent views of Nachi Falls, Nachi Primeval Forest, and the Pacific Ocean.
Kumano Nachi Taisha is a spiritual compound built on the mountainside facing the Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall, the highest waterfall in Japan. Once you pass the gate, you succumb to the unbelievably beautiful valley, with ancient holly trees.
Very close to the Shinto shrine complex lays a Buddhist temple. The Seiganto-ji temple is older than the Shinto shrines and can be traced back to the Buddhist monk from India who came here as early as the 4th century and built a hermitage.
The Buddhist temple complex contains several buildings besides the picturesque pagoda. The main building is also the starting point for another - Buddhist - pilgrimage.
The combination of Shinto and Buddhist places of worship, called Jingu-ji, is very rare today. Many such complexes were destroyed in the 19th century in an effort to separate the two beliefs.
I was so mesmerized by the setting for the Nachi Taisha Shrine - the beauty of the architecture and how balanced it all was. Nature and the gentle unobstructed architecture of the temples harmony achieved with a gentle vision of a Buddhist monk looking for solitude. He created a Nirvana for visitors like me, in awe, admiring his fantastic vision.
The gods of Kumano Kodo accept all people. Everyone can find salvation including men, women, children, the young and old, the sick and the healthy. I did not come to Kumano Kodo to do a pilgrimage, I came to hike and enjoy nature. But something happened along the way - my hike became a meaningful pilgrimage. A source of faith, like an open book, introduced me to history, stone statues, temples, and shrines and most important allowed me to feel the Divine hiding within the nature. There were so many moments during this walk in which the beauty of the hike was a moment that took my breath away. I was left astounded and in awe.