Hiking the Kumano Kodo in Japan
By: Miriam Murcutt
TRAILS AROUND THE WORLD presents
Hiking the Kumano Kodo –
Japan’s ancient pilgrimage walk
This Guest Post comes from Miriam Murcutt who, with Richard Starks has co-authored several travel books including Along the River that Flows Uphill, A Room with a Pew, and Greenland for $1.99. She also co-authored Lost in Tibet, the true story of five American airmen stranded in pre-Chinese Tibet. Here, she tells of her recent experiences on Japan’s Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.
There are literally hundreds of pilgrimage walks in various countries around the world, but only two are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage routes. One – as you might have guessed – is the wildly popular Camino de Santiago in Spain. The other is the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan, which you’ve probably never heard of. Few Westerners have, but that seems likely to change as the two walks have now been ‘twinned’. Mutual promotions will inevitably raise the Kumano Kodo’s profile, so it may soon become as heavily trafficked as the Way of St. James.
With that prospect in mind, I recently traveled to Japan to undertake this ancient walk, which was first trodden in the 9th century by Japanese emperors and their retinues, then by warriors, and finally by hoi polloi like me.
The first thing I discovered is that the Kumano Kodo is not a single pilgrimage route. Instead, it’s a network of paths that thread their way through the dense cedar and cypress forests of the Kii Peninsula, south of the once-capital city of Kyoto. The various paths have a single objective, however, and that is to lead pilgrims to three ancient and important Grand Shinto shrines – Hongu, Hayatama and Nachi – which are collectively referred to as the Kumano Sanzan.
The influence of the animist Shinto faith is everywhere on the Kumano Kodo – not just in the splendor of the Grand Shrines, but also along the route in the form of simpler wayside shrines called oji. These smaller, subsidiary places of worship allow pilgrims to cleanse themselves physically, and to sing, recite, pray and conduct ancient rituals that are designed to aid spiritual purification and to keep away evil spirits by attracting the favorable attention of the kami.
Kami, like a lot of the Japanese concepts I encountered, are hard to define, but they are what Shinto – Japan’s ancient and only indigenous faith – pays homage to. There are no gods in Shinto. Instead, kami are thought to be the spiritual essence of all life-giving things – humans (who become kami after they die and are venerated as such) and animals, but also trees, rivers, mountains, and flowers, and even fertility and the wind. When, in the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China, many of its philosophies were absorbed into Shinto, so that Shinto and Buddhism are now intermingled and form a complex backdrop not only to Japan’s spiritual life but also to many of its social customs.
On the Kumano Kodo, I was seeking a unique cultural experience, but many of the Japanese pilgrims I shared the trail with were looking for purification of both body and spirit, leading to a kind of rebirth. They conducted appropriate rituals at the various shrines, but they also believed that purification came from the physical challenge of completing the Kumano Kodo itself. I could well understand this. Although the distances I walked each day were relatively short, the route’s long and sharp ascents and awkward, slippery descents were demanding and should not be underestimated, especially in the Kii Peninsula’s often wet weather.
During its 1,200-year history, the Kumano Kodo has thrived and declined many times. In centuries past, scores of tea houses were set up along the routes to feed and accommodate pilgrims: “Here you can find tofu and baths,” one tea house owner advertised to prospective customers. Nowadays, the tea houses have been reduced to historical sites, and the pilgrims are more likely to stay, as I did, in a ryokan or a minshuku – the small inns and family-run lodgings in villages along the route.
My Kumano Kodo journey started with a train ride from Kyoto to Kii Tanabe, a sizeable town on the Peninsula’s western coast. I then took a local bus to a small shrine called Takijiri-oji, where my walk-proper began.
For the next eight days, I walked what’s known as the Nakahechi route, the most popular of the various Kumano Kodo’s trails. It has been in use since the 10th century, and is now so well sign-posted that it’s all-but-impossible ever to get lost. For most of the eight days, I walked under a canopy of ancient forests along serene damp and mossy paths that were dappled with sunlight most days but sogged with rain on others. I threaded my way over hillsides that were thick with ferns and lined by long-legged cedar trees – some as old as 800 years –which grew bolt upright to form a natural honor guard. I slipped down rock-strewn descents and climbed up seemingly endless, rugged stairways built of damp earth shored against erosion with wood and stone.
I paid homage at many of the oji by first placing a coin in their collection coffer, then tugging on a thick hank of rope to ring a bell to wake up the kami; only then would they be able to listen to my prayers. Once I’d caught their attention, I bowed twice, clapped twice, prayed, then bowed once more before I respectfully backed away and headed off again along the mystical Nakahechi path.
At night, I lodged with Japanese and foreign travelers (not many, since I was there in late March, which is early in the Nakahechi season). I stayed in small villages – Chikatsuyu, Yunomine Onsen, Koguchi – which are a comfortable day’s hike apart (sometimes aided by a local bus). There, I slept in tatami rooms on futons I rolled out on the floor. I drank green tea sitting cross-legged at low-rise tables; and I bathed naked in communal baths (sex-segregated and with a ritual all of their own), which were often served by naturally hot, mineral springs.
I wrapped myself in the floor-length cotton yukatas that were provided by my hosts; and I ate with chop sticks artistically presented dinners that were a feast of marinated fish, tuna sashimi, deep-fried tofu, unknown vegetables, boiled seaweed, sprouts, pickles, rice, and the ubiquitous miso soup. Many of their flavors were new to me, but often they were subtle and delicious. I tried also to rise to the challenge of the Japanese breakfast, although I am not at my most experimental at seven o’clock in the morning when confronted by a pungent fillet of fish, more rice, pickles, more miso, and strong green tea.
But breakfast or not, I made it to all three of the Grand Shrines, to walk through their torii gates, to experience the sight of their elegant rooftops emerging through the cedars, and to rub shoulders with the throngs of Shinto-Buddhists performing their centuries-old rituals. I can’t say I felt greatly purified at the end –only the kami can judge that – but I’d certainly found the unique cultural experience that I had been seeking.