Japan 2018 Travel

Pilgrims in Kumano

2 October 2018

We love to hike. More accurately, we are learning to love to hike, because we seem like the type of people who push ourselves that way, but somehow we only do it intermittently. And so, when friends told me that one of the best things they’d done in Japan earlier this year was hike the Kumano Kodo, we figured we’d hike the trail. Or, more accurately, the pilgrims route. Because as atheists, that’s a totally normal thing to do!

The day is one for an early start and one for travelling. We pack our bags and start our hike with a 2 km walk to the station. After barely ten minutes I can feel sweat starting to drip down my back, but it feels kind of good. Like I am really doing something. And my new backpack fits my body a lot better than my mom’s old one, so there is the added pleasure of an ease that I hadn’t known before.

We get breakfast and board a freezer. The air-conditioning in the train to Kii-Tannabe is making me reach for Eriks jumper and finally surrendering to hibernating in it while the train chucks on past what I can only assume are wonderful views of the coastline, carefully hugging my e-reader to my chest. My precious during most trips, since I got it.

In Kii-Tannabe we switch to a bus that is taking us through the area during a two-hour drive to the little town of Yunominen Onsen. It’s a town build around natural hot springs. The water is so hot people boil eggs straight in the river. It’s supposed to be a beautiful town, but at this point all I can notice is the smell of rotten eggs (the sulphur that is part of what makes the waters so hot) and my empty stomach.

But all shops are closed. We walk around a bit forlorn and finally decide to leave our bags at the Ryokan (Japanese inn) we’ll be staying at and start hike with nothing more than some cola and water. Not the smartest thing to do, but the hike today is said to be easy and we’ve been well fed in the last couple of days. With a fierce determination not to get hangry, I embark on the first 3,5 km of our trek.

The beautiful environment is helping me keep to my promise. The path winds up steeply through tall but slender trees. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen and strangely un-Japanese at first. I realize, that I associate Japanese nature with moody yet beautifully dripping rain. Thankfully this couldn’t be farther from the truth, though after twenty minutes or so I feel so warm a drop of rain would be a welcome bit of cold.

Within an hour we have made our way over the mountain pass and reach the end of the trail. We admire the huge shrine (the thing pilgrims actually come to see), visit a temple and treat ourselves to some ice-cream before we catch the (recommended) bus back to our Ryokan.

At the Ryokan we meet the proprietess. She is a small but very sturdy woman with the deep voice of a perpetual smoker and an infectious laugh ready for everything that is remotely funny.  I immediately love her vibe!

Dinner is an elaborate display of all kinds of food that should be eaten in a certain way, so naturally we do it wrong. The lady first makes Erik sit with his legs under the table (which is nearly impossible with his length and stiff legs) and then proceeds to show us just how to eat everything that is in front of us. Her deft fingers easily make the chopsticks roll a bit of sushi, but neither of us manages to do it. Whatever, the food is great and our fingers work where the chopsticks fail us.

But best of all is the hot onsen after dinner. The heat is so intense it’s nearly impossible to stand, but my aching muscles sigh with relief. I know I should’ve trained them harder, but it’s to late now. So I reward them by soaking in the water until my face nearly burst with heat. Thankful for this moment of peace. That I am able to do this, both physically, mentally and financially. And that I get to sleep in the bed that is patiently awaiting my arrival.

In the morning, I groggily get up. Panicky dreams about me new job and a headache that came on just as I was getting to bed haven’t set me up for greatness this morning. Spurred on only by the thought of a breakfast to fill me up. And what a breakfast it is. Soup (of course you need your savouries), fruit, yoghurt (and sweets), rice (we are in Asia after all), egg, seaweed (because, why not?) and coffee and tea. Again, the Ryokan owner tries to teach us how to eat (after having a hearty laugh about the T-shirt tan-lines the grace my arms) and again we fail to make our fingers do to the chopsticks what hers seem to do with ease that can only come from a lifetime of thoughtless practice.

We drop our bags and take our day-bag towards the bus and then to Ukegawa. From here it will be a 13 km walk over a predicted 4,5-6 hours. As soon as we enter the woods, the broken night is forgotten. I dream and sweat my way across the trail. Sometimes starting to struggle on our way up, but always reaching level ground or a decent in the path well before the point of leg exhaustion.

The day is cloudier and thus moodier than yesterday, but it doesn’t matter. It provides the mountains we glimpse through woods a mysterious air. As if goblins or Japanese mountain spirits could come to life for just a moment.

But mostly my eyes are trained on the path before us. Until after just three hours, we’ve reached our destination. We’ve made our way to the repurposed school building in record time which means we’ll have to wait two hours until we can check-in.

I try and read a bit of my book on the app on my phone, we eat the lunch that has been provided in a lunchbox and we chat with other people slowly arriving. And as time goes on, the sweat on my back is stealing away any heat I had stored while walking. We did not anticipate an early arrival, so I don’t have a coat or jumper with me. Lesson learned: always be prepared! Now please let me enjoy warming up in another onsen (this one more like a public bathhouse), before I spent the evening reading a new book, enjoying a not-quite-so-well-earned beer and eating another lovely hotchpotch of a meal!

Our final day on the Kumano Kodo is supposed to be the hardest. But we’ll be rewarded by a view of a majestic waterfall behind an ancient temple. If we make it to the end.

The past two days have given us the confidence that we’ll easily make it. So far, we’ve exceeded even the fasted time indications and our legs are a bit tired, but not sore. We’ll make it.

The first 5 km are indeed harder than any part we’ve walked so far. The path goes up and up and up over stairs and stairs and more stairs. There are two options: keep going slower than slow but steadily onwards, or to rush up a bunch of steps and then pant for a bit before we rush on again. Just a few years ago, I definitely would have rushed it. But now, having learned how to run long distances (I’d count a half marathon as a long distance even if there’s people doing iron man runs) I know it’s better to pace yourself and keep going steadily on.

So that’s what we do. Past little shrines, through lush and beautiful forests and up, up, up and finally over the mountain crest. We have lunch and continue on. It’s a longer day, but not a bad day. I like doing this and am begin to find a strange kind of comfort in pushing my legs everyday.

But by the time we reach, the temple, I am glad to be finishing the trail. I’m becoming weary of the sameness of most hours and the end is as good as a change.

We make our way to the village and leave our bags at the hotel that is not open to check-ins yet. The village is a strange mix of traditional places and somewhat touristy spots surrounding the temples and shrines that pilgrims come to visit. We see all kinds of people walking the steps to the big temple. Hikers like us, people who have trouble walking the many steps, geishas and everything in between. It’s clear we’ve come not only to the end of our pilgrimage, but back to a place where more people than just us silly walkers come.

And it’s ok. Our hike has ended so it’s time to get used to cities again. Although I doubt anything can truly prepare us for huge city that we’ll be visiting next. From the forests surrounding our hike we will be making our way, to Tokyo!

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