Pilgrims’ progress: Walking Japan's Kumano Kodo

Travelling Well | Jeremy Bourke | Posted on 20 March 2018

For 900 years, pilgrims have been taking on the physical challenges and reaping the spiritual rewards of Japan's Kumano Kodo trail.

You meet the nicest people in the bath. For instance, Bing. Not his real name, but we never really introduced ourselves. It was his hat, the sort favoured by crooner Bing Crosby, that I used to identify him. But that was later, to my trekking buddy. He wasn’t wearing it, or anything else, when we first met.

That was in a sunken bath with a surreal view, across a deep valley, as we revived our muscles after a day on the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrims’ walking trail on the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka, on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Bing was already soaking himself when I arrived to perform the cleansing ritual mandatory in any small Japanese hostelry. You shower, soap and rinse – absolutely everything; no skerrick of soap or thread of clothing must be on you – before entering the communal tub.

Ogumo Torigoe of Kumano Kodo, Tanabe, Wakayama, Japan

Ogumo Torigoe of Kumano Kodo, Tanabe, Wakayama, Japan.

He asked my country of origin and we just started chatting, in the excellent English he’d learned during 10 years working in Hong Kong. He was a veteran hiker, telling me he once walked solo 500 kilometres from Tokyo to Osaka. This week he was doing a section of the Kumano Kodo with two friends.

My trekking mate, meanwhile, was chatting to Phoebe. You could hear them through the thin wall separating the male and female baths at the exquisite mountaintop lodge Kiri-no-Sato in the village of Takahara.

We’d seen Phoebe a few times, and travelling alone she seemed a little unsure. Where the trail met a road, we found her sitting, her map giving her no satisfaction, and she asked if we knew where the track resumed. As gently as possible we pointed out the sign behind her displaying “Kumano Kodo” and an arrow.

The creeks ran high and in one section water was cascading down the stone steps we were walking up. It was like ascending a waterfall.

I met the Dutchman in the bath on night five, recognising him as the tall one of the couple we’d followed all day without catching up to; those long legs made mincemeat of the hills. Our discussion centred on how to pursue an interest in rock-climbing in a country where, he told me, the highest hill was only 322 metres. (Until then, I thought he was the highest thing in Holland.) So he went to the Alps a lot.

There actually was a couple from the Alps, from Chamonix in France. We met them not in a bath or even a shower but a torrent. The rain we’d awoken to on day six in Koguchi had diverted many trekkers to the bus stop. But ancient pilgrims did this trail in wooden sandals and bamboo hats, and we had an investment in hi-tech rainwear and over-engineered hiking boots to protect. By lunchtime we’d hauled ourselves over the 840-metre Echizen-toge Pass – that is not a hill I wish to see again – before slip-slopping into a large shelter, which hosted a vending machine.

Timber signs guide the way through the kumano kodo

Timber signs guide the way. 

close up Gentiana in foggy forest

Gentiana in foggy forest.

It’s no surprise to find vending machines in the middle of nowhere in Japan, but the young French couple there gave me looks of total disbelief when I told them this one dispensed HOT coffee. Then they felt the small can I’d just acquired for my 170 yen. A brandy-bearing St Bernard wouldn’t have been more welcome.

The rain actually brought the forest to life. The creeks ran high and in one section water was cascading down the stone steps we were walking up. It was like ascending a waterfall.

We were clothed and dry when we met the couple from Gippsland. They walked into a clearing on day five as we sat on a log sharing a snack, and he opened with: “Now, you look like you haven’t a care in the world.” How could he tell?

For the most part you walk through forest of cedar or maple, with the occasional bamboo grove.

More spooky was at dinner that night in the hostel in Koguchi, where he told me he could pick our postcode in Melbourne. He was only out by two. Turns out such intuition was part of his job; he was a policeman.

These, then, are the types of encounters that add a layer to multi-day trekking. The Kumano Kodo is not one but five routes that converge from different directions into the village of Hongu and its Kumano Hongu Taisha, a grand shrine to what is regarded as a ‘syncretisation’ of imported Buddhism and the indigenous Shinto faith. Pilgrims have been making the journey through these mountains for 900 years, and it’s one of only two hiking trails on the World Heritage List, the other being the 780-kilometre Camino de Santiago in Spain.

athers at the Sennin-buro, a giant open-air bath created each winter at Kawaya Onsen near the Kumano Kodo trails. Photo: Tanable City Kumano Tourism Bureau

Bathers at the Sennin-buro, a giant open-air bath created each winter at Kawaya Onsen near the Kumano Kodo trails. 

Forest views along the trail.

Forest views along the trail. 

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.

A group of Japanese walking by gave us a modest round of applause

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.

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.

More information

  • Go to tb-kumano.jp/en/ to see accommodation and transport options, and arrange for your luggage to be transferred between overnight stops.
  • Raw Travel is a Victorian travel agent based in Mornington specialising in the walk – visit kumanokodo.com.au.

Photos: Getty Images, Imagefolk, Tanable City Kumano Tourism Bureau