We did not walk the full Nakahechi route, which would have taken days. Instead, we took a short day walk from Hosshinmon-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha. This is the map of the route we took. You’ll find more maps and lots of information on the excellent website on Kumano Kodo. More on that later.
The plan was to take a bus from Yunomine Onsen to Hosshinmon-oji, walk to Kumano Hongu Taisha for the Spring matsuri and then walk back to Yunomine Onsen via the Dainichi-goe route. That would be about 7km for the first leg and another 3km or so for the last leg.
This little faded unassuming shrine is the Hosshinmon-oji. This is one of the most important route markers on the Kumano Kodo route as it denotes the outermost boundary of the sacred spaces of the Kumano Hongu shrine. The word Hosshin means a sort of spiritual awakening, like a way station between death and rebirth. ‘Mon’ means gate so this is really the gateway into a different spiritual world.
As the bus dropped us off at the top of the pass, forest all around, Hosshinmon-oji marked the entry to our hike and the entry into a different space. As with all the key sights and important stops on the route, this was well sign-posted and had clear explanations in English. On top of that, we also came prepared having downloaded English commentary of the various highlights on the route onto our MP3 players and iphone. And what a bonus it was to see that the route markers also had stamps – which I had been collecting throughout all my trips in Japan! So at every point, I kept an eye out for the little houses for the stamp and stamp pad.
The walk is easy and very pretty. We passed undulating farmland, bamboo groves, rows of tea bushes, through forests, sometimes emerging to see a range of blue hills beyond. There were plenty of signs in English to keep us on the right track. We hardly saw anyone along the way. Sometimes the route was on tar roads and others, on dirt paths and certain segments were stone-paved remnants of the old days. Some parts required effort going uphill, but it was mostly easy. If someone as unfit as I could do this walk, anyone could.
Wood-carving is obviously a cottage industry in these areas and some residents came up with small unmanned kiosks that sold rough carvings of animals and birds. If you liked one, just take it and leave the money in the box. No CCTVs! It’s an old fashioned system based on trust and honour that is seldom found anywhere in the world today. Other unmanned stalls sold vegetables and fruit and even drinks.
At Mizunomi-oji (below) I stopped for a drink from a spring that has been bubbling here for centuries. I guess it might have been used for purification purposes. I don’t know if I committed any boo-boos by taking a sip of the water though! The weathered stone monument has been here since 1723. Jizo, patron saint of travelers, stood here with his faded red bib.
Poor Jizo is cracked in half and many travelers stop to deposit a coin (5 yen preferably) into the crevice to ask for relief from backaches. I pre-empted any backache that might have resulted from this hike by depositing my coin first. The building beyond that is an abandoned school turned vacation home. It was eerie looking in to see the place with broken furniture, debris and dirt everywhere. A chandelier still hung forlornly like a princess who never made it to the ball.
Another key point is the Fushiogami-oji (see below). This lookout point offered spectacular views over the Kumano valleys. It was also the point when pilgrims got their first glimpse of their destination. After walking for weeks and days, that must have been a welcome sight such that most would drop to their knees in prayer and thanksgiving.
An interesting anecdote of Fushiogami-oji that typifies the Kumano spirit of acceptance is about the poet Izumi Shikibu. About 1000 years ago, while on a pilgrimage, she realised that her menses had come while they were here at Fushiogami-oji, therefore rendering her ritually ‘unclean’ which meant she could go no further into sacred ground. And after walking that far too? Man, I would be seriously upset! Plus she might have been PMS-ing away too! Izumi Shikibu wrote a poem about this and lamented her plight, tactfully calling it her ‘monthly obstruction’.
She was being nice.
Cross-culturally over the years, I’ve heard worse names being bitterly flung at this cycle and its poor sense of timing. As a woman, I understand and sympathise. How many of us have had to postpone activities or had holidays derailed thanks to the red?
But that night, the Kumano deity came to her and said ever so humbly: “How could the god who mingles with the dust suffer because of your monthly obstruction?”basically telling her that everyone is welcome. Considering that other sacred sites of other sects do ban women who are menstruating from entry, Kumano is open, all-embracing and welcoming.
Almost towards the end of the hike, we passed the Sangenjaya teahouse – or what was left of it. In the old days this place was pilgrimage central as two pilgrimage routes intersected here. Checkpoints were set up during the Tokugawa shogunate and the place also had three tea-houses here to cater to the many travelers passing through.
Up a steep incline next we panted as an old man skipped past us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He looked 80 but had a spring in his step of a man half his age. A cheerful “Konnichiwa!” and a grin as he pointed upwards to skies that looked a bit ominously grey. We gulped and hurried on, hoping to make it to Hongu before the storm hit.
I have to say it was a bit depressing for me at certain parts of the hike. I loved it most when the hike was in the open, across the farms and the small village communities. But in the sections when we entered the forests, the light lessened and the dark trees seemed to close in. It was chilly in the forest and we were headed uphill too. Sometimes the stone-laid steps were high and uneven so I had to keep watching where I trod, having twisted my ankle on a loose stone at one point. The forest was mostly silent. There were hardly any birds. I was thankful for my MP3.
So given the gloom of rain-clouds and the uphill climb, I was mostly silent and kept my head down, just focusing on one step at a time. And like all climbs, I was just wondering when this would end and how pointless it all seemed. But just when we got to the top, there was a clearing and this view awaited us:
Breath-taking. And I say this not because my lungs were about to burst from the exercise! In the distance, on the wide riverbanks of the Kumano river, is Oyunohara. This is Japan’s – indeed the world’s – largest torii gate. For hikers, travelers and pilgrims, this must have been such a welcome sight! The torii is built on the same site of the Hongu Taisha before it was relocated after being hit by a massive flood in 1889. The debris and remnants of the destroyed shrine was collected and used to rebuild the shrine in a safer location nearby.
This, we decided, would be a great spot for lunch!
We had ordered a packed lunch as part of the accommodation package we booked from the minshuku.
Honestly, the humble onigiri never tasted this good when you’ve walked the better part of 6km and the last 200m of it uphill! The fare may be humble but the views were 5-star!
From this point, it was (thankfully!) downhill all the way. Before we knew it, we had skirted a modern cemetery and then found ourselves on the outskirts of Hongu and almost at the back door of the Kumano Hongu Taisha!
We made it and not a moment too soon because the celebrations were about to begin. We arrived just in time for the Hongu spring matsuri!