Telling people you want to walk the Kumano Kodo receives a variety of responses. Veterans look at you in sympathy, enthusiasts begin to plan coming with you on your hike, and a large percentage ask, “Kuma-whatwherenow?”
The Kumano Kodo （熊野古道）are ancient pilgrimage routes, dotted with shrines and ruins, that wind through Wakayama prefecture. In 2004, they became the first trails to become UNESCO World Heritage listed, for the “monuments and sites that… are a unique fusion between Shintoism and Buddhism. ”
Though people have been walking the Kumano Kodo since the 10th century, many of the trails had become disused and lost in the mountainous terrain. With the publicity from UNESCO renewing interest however, a lot of work was put into restoring the routes, adding signage (including the helpful “THIS IS NOT KUMANO KODO” signs), and providing a lot of information for potential hikers.
For a country with such a large, aging population, it’s hard to imagine Japan having areas of rugged wilderness large enough for multi-day hikes, or that hordes of people each year would be willing to walk it. Hiking is a serious hobby here however, and those wanting to book into trail-side ryokan (Japanese inns) should book well in advance.
A friend and I decided on walking the Nakahechi (yellow) route, from Takajiri-oji to Hongu-Taisha in late November, so to catch the best of the season’s autumn colours. After walking 40 odd kilometres over 2 days, we also factored in time at Yunomine Onsen (hotspring) to soothe our abused muscles.
When my friend became the unwilling host to a flu virus, the plan scaled down to a half-day, walk-up-and-back, between Takajiri-oji and Kumano Takahara jinja with my husband. As the route rises 200 metres in elevation over the first kilometre of walking, we still got to experience the exertion and lack of breath of a longer Kumano Kodo hike.
We stopped at a cave called Tainai-kuguri, also called the Test of Faith as pilgrims are invited to squeeze through a tiny hole in the rocks for good luck, and to ensure an ‘easy birth’. Always willing to sign up to something that purports less agony in labour, I pulled myself through the gap. For added luck, my husband, despite his slight claustrophobia and broad shoulders, managed to squeeze through too.
A nearby spot, Chichi-iwa rock, also has an associated baby myth, and a little further along the trail we passed a ‘Couple Buddha’ statues (夫婦お地蔵), in cute, heart patterned aprons. I like the emphasis on practical matters, even while on pilgrimage.
The latter part of the walk was a lot smoother than the first steep climb, and we hit a good walking rhythm, much warmer for the exertion. We had come too late for the peak autumn colours, and most of the leaves were already on the ground. A few people joined us on the trail, though far less than the crowds of summer. It wasn’t too long until we left the forest for the road approaching Takahara village and shirine.
The size of the trees around and behind the shrine were astounding, the product of two thousand or so years of unstopped growth. One of the trees had branches fallen away from it, dropped by their own giant weight.
Had we continued after Takahara for another 8 kms and 300 metre rise and fall of elevation over the mountain, we would have eventually made it to see the Gyuba-doji statue. Instead, we took the highway, and walked a much shorter distance to visit it. Carved in the Meiji era, the statue represents an abdicated emperor called Kazan, doing the pilgrimage seated on a horse and cow. Unfortunately, some idiot stole the original head a few years ago, though with age, it’s hard to notice the replacement now.
Though disappointed to walk only a short amount of the original plan, I enjoyed both the exertion and the atmosphere of Kumano Kodo. While I have seen many of the key places along the route, I have, like UNESCO recognised the value of the the route itself. To travel along a millenia old road, surrounded by dense, heavy forest, passing the ruins of recently rediscovered shrines and, by climbing through a rock, potentially ensure a smooth delivery.
I can’t wait to get the hiking shoes out again.