For the modern tourist, it’s marketed as a 68-kilometre, six-day experience along two of the routes known as the Nakahechi or imperial route, from near Kii-Tanabe on the western side of the Kii Peninsula to Nachisan, in the east. With day one being no more than a few hours’ walking and none scheduled on day four, it’s not the most taxing trek.
For the most part you walk through forest of cedar or maple, with the occasional bamboo grove, along well-made trails, and (sorry Phoebe) you can’t get lost. Signs clearly point the way, and at junctions you find ones proclaiming, “Not Kumano Kodo”, to remove any doubt.
Often you’ll pass by an oji, a tiny subsidiary of the Grand Shrine where the deity’s presence has been imparted to protect and guide pilgrims. Often a touching presence is a jizo, a stone statue of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha and adorned with a red bonnet and perhaps a bib, signifying his status as a protector of children, particularly ones who have died.
The accommodation, with dinner and breakfast included, is in hotels or houses in tiny villages. After the obligatory bath, you’re provided with a yukata, the Japanese dressing gown, and it’s fine to wear it to dinner. As with the bathing rituals, it’s best to get your yukata right. It’s worn left-hand side folded over right, and while the obi or belt can be tied however is comfortable, this is a subtle culture, and my companion was stopped at the dining-room door one night while a server re-tied hers in a more respectful bow.
And so to eat
Meals comprise lots of little dishes, and you’re never sure what everything is. But the colour, flavour and texture are all wonderful, and it also takes little effort to acquire a taste for sake.
Just don’t expect a bed. Rooms are mainly tatami mat-style, and you’ll return from dinner to find shallow mattresses, sheets and doonas have been laid out on the floor for you.
The end to our trek was bitter-sweet. The day six rain gave way only to fog and we had trouble finding the path through a field and then a park above the village. Eventually we got down to a road, where a sign proclaimed the end of Kumano Kodo, and a group of Japanese walking by gave us a modest round of applause.
We’d have loved to share the moment with Bing and his pals, but this sturdy trio had left us a few days earlier via a “Not Kumano Kodo” path short of Hongu.
While we had met in the bath we farewelled each other beside a mountain stream in a maple grove, sharing a modern pilgrim’s snack: Bing made the coffee – no modern vending for these guys; they carried a small stove – and we handed around the Caramello koalas.