Heavenly Hiking: Exploring Japan's abode of the gods via the Kumano Kodo 熊野古道
Knee deep in mud and hoe in hand, Yukimi Nakamine wades through her small paddy field, preparing to plant this season's rice crop. A native of the small town of Chikatsuyu on the main Japanese island of Honshu, the thirty year-old needs a bumper harvest to feed the growing number of guests passing through Cafe Bocu, her recently opened guesthouse located next to the Kumano Kodo trail.
History of Kumano Kodo
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004, the Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage routes, walked for centuries by Japanese people from all levels of society. They provide access to the Kumano region, a pristine land of river, waterfall, mountain and forest. Spreading over the lower half of the Kii Peninsula south of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto, Kumano has been sacred since prehistoric times, and is widely regarded as an origin of Japanese culture and spirituality.
It was along the Kumano Kodo's leafy pathways that Kyoto's ancient emperors once walked, traversing the same routes deep into the mountains every year to purify themselves. They prayed to deities dwelling in the trees and rocks, requesting forgiveness and heavenly beneficence.
Abode of the Gods
"The Kumano region is referred to as the 'abode of the gods' in Japanese," explains Canadian Brad Towle, Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau's International Tourism Promotion and Development Director. "The focus of worship is its three Grand Shrines - Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha. Each shrine has its origins in the worship of nature and natural sites, such as the awe-inspiring Nachi Waterfall."
After years of decline and relative obscurity, the award of World Heritage status to the Kumano Kodo, coupled with some pioneering promotional work by the local tourism bureau, has given the area a new lease of life. Supported by an ever-developing trail infrastructure, exploring the Kumano Kodo on foot is now one of the most rewarding activities in the whole of Japan.
Hiking Kumano Kodo
Today the Kumano Kodo is a network of well-signposted and well-maintained paths that wend their way through forest and field, village and town. Arriving at the trail's primary shrines and temples may be the ultimate goal, but stopping in at the various oji (subsidiary shrines) or strolling past towering cedar and cypress trees, water-logged rice paddies, and neat green tea plantations is a soul-satisfying experience all in itself.
"Kumano is blessed with rich cultural and natural heritage, and is well known for its friendly locals, soothing onsen (hot springs), delicious cuisine and authentic accommodation," says Brad Towle. "It's the perfect destination for visitors searching for an active, off-the-beaten path, totally immersive Japanese experience."
Hot Springs Along Kumano Kodo
The thousands of hot springs that percolate to the surface of Japan are a big part of the travel experience in this volcanic nation. There are numerous onsen scattered throughout the Kii mountains, many located along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes.
"Soaking in a steaming onsen bath is a great way to round off a bout of strenuous hiking," says Kumano Kodo guide Motoko Todo. "It rejuvenates aching muscles and is a great time for communal reflection on the highlights of the day gone by."
Along with shrines and temples, onsen provide the other thread that ties a Kumano Kodo trip together. It's most evident, perhaps, in Yunomine Onsen, a quaint little collection of inns and hot spring baths tucked into a small valley, deep in the Kumano region. Yunomine made it onto the map about 1,800 years ago and is reputed to be one of the oldest hot spring communities in Japan.
Yunomine is a popular pit stop on the Kumano Kodo because it's where the trail heads for two sections come together, and there is a wide range of comfortable, traditional style inns offering accommodation. The Adumaya Ryokan, the oldest accommodation in Yunomine, is particularly popular. Rooms are decorated in traditional Japanese style and the restaurant boasts intricate dishes made with locally sourced hot mineral water.
Those up early in the morning at Yunomine should follow the smell of sulphur to a small wooden shed that sits beside the rushing creek bisecting the main street. This houses the famous Tsuboyu bath, where a private, 30-minute dip costs individuals or couples about US$9 (750 Japanese yen). The small hole built into the stone is the only hot spring in the world registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
"People come here because of the healing powers of the hot water," says Brad Towle. "They bathe in it, they breathe in the vapors, they even cook in it."
Indeed, just down the creek from Tsuboyu is the Yuzutsu public cooking "basin", where locals and visitors regularly boil up vegetables such as spinach and bamboo shoots. But by far the most popular food cooked at Yuzutsu are eggs. After about 10 minutes of sulphurous steaming, the onsen tamago, or hot spring eggs, are ready to eat. You can get the raw eggs and vegetables at a small local store nearby - delicious and completely carbon neutral!
One of the most frequented parts of the Kumano Kodo is a five-mile trek on the main Nakahechi route. It begins at Hosshinmon-oji, the entrance to the precinct of Kumano Hongu Taisha in Hongu, where poetry parties, gagaku dancing, and other religious ceremonies to entertain deities were once carried out.
From here visitors stroll through silent cedar and cypress forest, passing low mountain peaks, stone-house villages, serried terraces of tea bushes, overladen orange trees, and oji shrines where pilgrims rested and prayed.
Moving onward hikers eventually arrive at Fushiogami-oji, a viewpoint overlooking a valley far below - it was here that pilgrims once dropped to their knees at the first sighting of the spiritual heart of Japan. The Kumano-gawa River, wide, green, and flat, creates a strata of colour in the pale rocks like layers in a marble cake - look out for the graceful, dark-hued structure that on closer inspection shapes into a torii (a traditional Japanese shrine gate) that sits close to the entrance of the Kumano Hongu Taisha.
"The Kumano faith is rooted in the worship of awe-inspiring natural environment, believed to be endowed as spirits," says Motoko Toda as she walks around the shrine's grounds, taking in stone lion statues, burbling fountains and clouds of incense. "When Buddhism came from China in the sixth century, it melded with the indigenous religion to create a unique form of Buddhism. Practitioners set up their headquarters deep in the mountains, and that was the beginning of the Kumano Kodo's ancient routes."
From Kumano Hongu, pilgrims continued to the next shrine on the Kumano Kodo by boat along the Kumano-gawa River, but today many choose to follow the route by car. Kumano Hayatama Taisha, by the mouth of the Kumano-gawa River, is bright orange and red, signalling Buddhism's influence. From here it's a short hike over lichen-covered stones to the finest of the Grand Shrines - the Kumano Nachi Taisha. With a mountaintop perch overlooking the Pacific, this shrine's raison d'être is the stunning Nachi Waterfall, the highest cascade in Japan that is also worshipped as a deity.
Kumano Kodo Tourism
A growth in interest and the development of the local tourism industry is now encouraging young Japanese to both visit and settle in the Kumano area. This is a much-needed and timely boost, as many of Japan's more remote areas are now suffering severe population ageing and social decline.
"If it wasn't for the growing popularity of the Kumano Kodo with tourists I would never have opened Café Bocu," says Yukimi Nakamine. "I guess I would have gone to live in Osaka or Kyoto. Today I would never dream of going to the big city. The Kumano Kodo trail has changed my life path, and for this I'm very grateful."
Another Kumano Kodo local encouraged into business by the trail's success is 38-year-old Naoya Yamamoto, who recently opened the Blue Sky Guesthouse about 10 minutes from Kumano Hongu Taisha.
"Without the Kumano Kodo I wouldn't have settled here," he says. "Most of my guests are young Japanese but I'm getting more and more foreigners too. My guesthouse has featured in several Kumano Kodo guide books now, so this has really helped. Now all I need to do is find a local wife!"
Shiba Yasuo, a 91-year-old hat maker, is also feeling the benefits of the Kumano Kodo. Yasuo makes minachi-gasa, traditional conical hats made with cypress shavings, that were once worn by pilgrims, and are now proving a big hit with hikers.
"I like to think of these hats as nature's Gore-Tex," he says. "When they're dry the air flows through, keeping the head cool. When it's raining, the cypress fibres expand to block the holes and keep out the wet. It's not surprising the design hasn't changed for 1000 years."
Shiba Yasuo's low-tech, sustainable technology epitomizes the Kumano Kodo, a place where closeness to mother nature has long nourished religious beliefs. Thanks to the enduring beauty of that nature, and an enlightened approach to handling tourism, the sights and scenes of ancient Japan are still alive in this beautiful abode of the gods.
Access - Getting to Kumano Kodo
The Kumano Kodo is located south of Osaka and Kyoto, in a rural area easily accessible by train and bus from those two cities as well as Kobe and Nagoya. There are regular flights to Osaka from both Beijing and Shanghai.
Tanabe City is a good place to base yourself on arrival in the Kumano Kodo region - contact the visitor center for more information. This website includes MP3 downloads for audio guides and hiking maps, plus suggested walks, and can help with arranging guides and accommodation.
Cafe Bocu (website in English)
Kumano Kodo Video
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