Our Kumano Kodo hike didn’t start that well.
The Kumano Kodo are a network of very old pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai, a couple of hours south east of Osaka. Kumano is the pre-historic name for this region, which apparently evokes deep mystery for the Japanese — the area is associated with the Buddhist paradise, and the ancient Japanese land of the dead… Spooky. Kodo means something like ‘old ways’. Pilgrims from Kyoto followed the route in Imperial Japan, as far back as the 10th century. There are three ‘great shrines’ on the way, and countless small ones, where various stages of purification ritual were undertaken (and still are).
The Kumano is a world heritage site, the only trail that’s been designated one in the world, except for the camino de Santiago de Compostela, which it’s sort of twinned with.
After eating ourselves silly in Osaka, the plan was to catch a bus a bit of the way along the trail and camp for the night, then start hiking first thing. Instead, we got off the train in Tanabe to find we’d just missed the last bus of the day, so a night in a nondescript guesthouse it was.
Next morning we were on the bus at first light, clutching pastries and cans of hot coffee from the station vending machine. We even managed to stow some of our stuff in the station luggage lockers, so our packs were light and our spirits were up.
Getting hot coffee in a can never ceased to amaze me in all of our time in Japan. It’s one of the things that makes it feel like Japan is there to indulge you. Travelling here is absurdly easy. Thirsty? There’ll be a vending machine within 30 metres or so, and it’ll have coffee. Hungry? There’s a convenience store either behind you or in front of you at all times. (Except in Tanabe, where there will be a butchers or patisserie, but no convenience stores to be found…) Tired? Even hostels have oversized, soft, fluffy duveted, fine linened beds. They also have coffee. Free coffee. What we would’ve given for free coffee once we’d been in China for a few weeks.
Getting the early morning bus meant we had lovely soft light as the scenery got lusher and more mountainous. At first it was just us and a couple of other hikers on the bus. A river ran by us on the right, and the road was flanked by steep tree covered hills. We passed tiny three-house places (which had roadside vending machines), and a 12 foot high fiberglass rabbit.
After a toilet stop next to misty early morning fields, the bus climbed higher into the hills, and got busier and busier. Hikers got on at every stop. The trail runs fairly close to the road for much of its length, so it’s easy to pick it up at various points. Clearly we were’t the only ones cheating and using the bus to cut down the mileage.
We only had one day on the trail, so we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere, roughly as far from that evening’s camp spot as we reckoned we could walk before nightfall.
At first the route went along a small road, but soon it veered off into the woods, and became the rocky, winding path that we followed for most of the day.
We met few people — a young Japanese couple, two older Australian ladies, a pair of middle aged Japanese men, and a large group of Japanese hikers in conspicuously new, top of the range kit, suitable for an Alpine expedition.
The path wound up hill and down dale, mostly through thick woodland, with the occasional small shrine or charming bridge to divert your attention. And everywhere vivid, stunning, autumn leaves.
As we plodded rhythmically through the quiet forest we composed haiku.
I put down one foot,
then the other foot, on the
The path was very well marked, to the point that paths other than the Kumano Kodo were signposted thus.
Everything was pleasingly damp and mysterious, and there was a lot of moss, so I was having a lovely time.
After a picnic lunch we descended into a river valley, and were met by some of the overenthusiastic concrete application that’s evident all over Japan. Often, roads snake along both sides of a river valley, and bridges unite them with bewildering frequency. Now and again a bridge will boldly jut out to nowhere at all, ending abruptly at the valley wall. Apparently, this sort of bizarrely pre-emptive construction is partly a result of the way the Japanese political system works. Representation is still loosely based on the population distribution of the 1940s, despite a huge shift towards urban living since then. So sparsely populated rural districts have disproportionate sway at a national level, which results in rural areas winning plenty of job-creating investment.
There was one particularly painful incursion on nature where a huge swathe of trees had been replaced by a carpark, which was completely empty, being down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.
I think in this instance these were probably landslide prevention measures, which is fair enough I suppose, but it’s certainly not pretty.
Further along we found an abandoned village, slowly returning to forest. Families began to move away during a recession in the 1940s, and 17 households became 8. A sign by the trail told us that the government deemed this settlement, which was called Michinogawa, ‘unfeasible’, and the remaining families were resettled to a nearby town. It didn’t say if they went quietly. The houses still had kitchens, with tiled sinks.
After this the trail joined a road again, and passed through small villages. There was almost nobody around, but small well tended rice paddies and neat lines of tea plants flanked the road. We stopped to buy some satsumas (or ‘mikan’, as they call them here), from a roadside honesty stall. The only things on sale were bags of satsumas, and tubs of pickled garlic.
While we were stopped a rather perturbed looking American caught us up, and asked us if we’d seen his friends, who he’d lost some time before. We hadn’t, but we gave him an orange. This turned out to spark a very long run of Karma, in which almost everyone we met in Japan gave us an orange.
Shortly afterwards we got to a cafe, which served coffee made with hot water from their hot spring.
Obviously we had to try this. It was very nice, though nothing like any coffee I’d had before. A rich, almost pungent taste, with sharp coffee flavours, but something muskier going on too. The ladies behind the counter seemed very amused to serve us. I suspect they don’t get many foreigners in.
From the cafe it was mostly a descent to Hongu, a town that houses one of the ‘big three’ shrines on the trail, and our sort-of final destination.
The shrine was very busy with tourists, but also monks chanting away in the main building. It felt strange to emerge into the hubbub after being cocooned in the forest all day.
After the shrine we plodded through town to the giant Torii which marks the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the shrine at Hongu. It was moved up hill from a river plain after floods more or less swept it away. Then it was time for the last few kilometres to our campsite for the night, at Wataze Onsen. It was a scramble to get there before it got pitch black, since we’d somewhat underestimated the hill between Honshu and our bed for the night. I was entertaining visions of snakes lurking in the falling dark, and the shrines that had seemed pleasingly eerie in the sunlight became genuinely creepy.
On the way we passed Yunomine Onsen, which is a little town in a steep river valley, full of steam from the hot springs that bubble forth all over the place. (An onsen is a hot spring bath.) In the middle of town is a tiny wooden hut perched perilously over the river, which is the only hot spring in Japan that’s a Unesco World Heritage site. Being there was like going back in time. It was very quiet, and very misty, as people clopped around in their sandals and cotton yukata. The sound of splashing water drifted from the windows of hotel bath houses.
A little further up the road we eventually found our campsite, though nobody on it to pay. A bit of guessing on Arthur’s part secured us a pitch (the hotel next door turned out to run the campsite), and by 7 o’clock we’d made our home and started on dinner.
When we woke the next morning we found the site was very scenic, though it was obscured in darkness and steam the night before.
Dinner was noodles and stuff, which was all well and good, until we realised that we’d left our chopsticks in the station locker in Tanabe. Our fellow campers got treated to a ‘westerners eating noodles with their bare hands’ show, which I’m sure was hilarious.
Wataze has several hot springs, but the main draw is the rotemburo, which is an outside onsen, apparently the largest one in western Japan. The rotemburo was utter bliss after a long day walking. There aren’t many better ways to spend time than lying stark naked in hot water, surrounded by trees, next to a rushing river, watching steam drift by a fat full moon.
Men and women bathe separately, so it was some solitary time for us too, which is really quite nice after two months in each other’s continuous company.
Going to an onsen has some procedure about it. You undress in a changing room, and leave your things in a locker or basket, then it’s into the shower room, usually through a sliding door, which totally threw me the first time. Standing naked, helplessly rattling a door which you know should open, but won’t open for you, is a humbling experience.
Showering in Japan involves sitting down. First you rinse off the little plastic or wooden stool with the shower head, then seat yourself facing the taps, and go about your shower in the usual manner. At an onsen this is in a big open room with a row of showers along the wall. There’s usually a basin with the stool, but I never quite worked out why this was necessary — most people seem to use it to chuck a deluge over their hair when they’re washing it, but I find the shower head more effective. When you’re finished you rinse off the stool again.
Once you’ve had a good wash, you’re ready to get into the hot bath, or baths in this case.
Wataze rotemburo has five baths of various temperatures, the hottest one is hot enough that I could only stand it for a minute or so. I spent a very happy hour or so milling between the baths, with a Japanese mother and toddler, and I think Grandma, for company. The little girl was having a great time splashing calmly about in the warm water, but I could hear some more boisterous splashing and laughter coming from the men’s bath over the wall. I think the dads had more children to look after.
Once I’d dragged myself out of the hot water it was time for another shower (though purists would argue you shouldn’t wash off the hot spring water because it’s good for your skin). Then I made full use of the free hair dryers and combs, and chilled spring water to drink, while I very languorously dried off and got dressed. All of this luxury, by the way, cost about £3.50.
After our onsen we wound down further with a vending machine hot chocolate (it was a tough choice — beer and Haagen Dazs were also available), and tucked ourselves up in our tent. I slept the best I have in years.
Next morning there was just time for an improvised hot spring by the river before hopping on the bus back to Tanabe. You can dig into the river bank to make your own spring, since hot water springs up from only a foot or so down. The whole area is volcanically active enough that hot springs pop up all over the place. Thankfully we didn’t have to dig our own spring (we’d neglected to pack our shovel), and we just used one somebody had left behind. I think this hot spring au natural experience is pretty popular if it isn’t raining, which it was.
Swimwear is useful for this onsen experience, since you’re lying in full view of the whole town. That didn’t stop the Japanese man who pitched up next to us from stripping off though. His wife stayed on the dry bank, looking somewhat put out.
Getting back into our clothes without getting soaked by the persistent drizzle was something of a challenge, and we nearly managed it, but not quite.
Luckily the bus driver stopped at a vending machine on the way back, and we got a hot coffee to warm us up.
Life’s hard sometimes…