Walk like a pilgrim — hiking the Kumano Kodo

10 Nov

“The routes in the mountains were designed to be arduous and the journey over them part of the religious experience, rather than a means to an end.” – UNESCO

It’s difficult coming from a country like Canada, only 146 years young, to really understand how extensive the history of some cultures are. While the aboriginal culture of Canada is strong and fascinating, Japan’s lengthy history of traditions and culture is very much a part of everyday life here.

The torii near Hongu Taisha shrine -- the largest torii in the world.

The torii near Hongu Taisha shrine — the largest torii in the world.

The Kumano Kodo trails leading to the three main shrines.

The Kumano Kodo trails leading to the three main shrines.

Now ranked as one of favourite places visited in Japan, this past September I hiked the ancient pilgrimage route of the Kumano Kodo, in Wakayama Prefecture. Along paths trodden for over a thousand years, through dense forest, my mother and I hiked.

The Kumano Kodo, together with Spain’s El Camino de Santiago, is one of two pilgrimage trails designation UNESCO World Heritage sites. Many of the paths have been developed over but some still exist as they did all those years ago. Pilgrims took the Kumano to worship at three main shrines — Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha. These paths also lead to Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Koyasan.

Along the Dainichi-goe trail, part of the Kumano Kodo.

Along the Dainichi-goe trail, part of the Kumano Kodo.

Yunomine Onsen

There are many different ways to attack the Kumano Kodo, we decided to stay centrally in Yunomine Onsen. Getting there from Osaka is fairly easy. We took a limited express train from Tennoji station to Kii-Tanabe (107 minutes, 4200 yen). From the station, it’s an hour and a half bus ride to Yunomine. The Kumano Tourism Bureau website has tons of information, including bus schedules and maps, how to ride a local bus and a map of Yunomine.

Yunomine is a quaint little spot, not really big enough to qualify as a town. Rather it’s a collection of traditional inns, minshuku and ryokan, gathered around onsen (hot spring) and baths. This place only has two small convenience stores and that’s it in terms of places to spend your yen.

The river running through Yunomine Onsen. On the left is a hotspring to boil eggs, chestnuts and sweet potatoes which can be purchased in the shop.

The river running through Yunomine Onsen. On the left is a hotspring to boil eggs, chestnuts and sweet potatoes which can be purchased in the shop.

We stayed at Minshuku Teruteya, a small guesthouse run by a cute lady who spoke little English. She served large delicious meals, including nabe, tempura and deer sashimi, and even packed us a bento for our hike.

The star of Yunomine is the Tsuboyu onsen — the only World Heritage hot spring that can be bathed in. It’s also the oldest onsen in Japan and supposedly has healing powers. Was I healed? Well, the sake with dinner and the very hot water sure put me to bed early! That’s a small miracle.

Tsuboyu onsen is in this little shack nestled over the river. It’s just a tiny stone bath fit for two or three people.

Tsuboyu onsen is in this little shack nestled over the river. It’s just a tiny stone bath fit for two or three people.

Kawayu Onsen

A great side trip from Yunomine, Kawayu Onsen is a a nearby village around a magical river. It’s quite close to Yunomine and accessible by bus. Here, holes are dug into the river bed and become little onsen when the hot thermal water seeps in.

A natural hot spring formed right by the river.

A natural hot spring formed right by the river.

Hiking the trail

We hiked two sections of the Kumano Kodo. In the morning, we set out from Yunomine on the Dainichi-goe trail. This was a fairly steep 3.4 km trail over the mountain, with lots of ups and downs. We went on a Friday morning in September and saw no other hikers. It took about an hour and a half and we ended up in the town of Hongu, home of the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine.

Along the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo.

Along the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo.

In the afternoon, we hiked a portion of the Nakahechi Route — starting from Hongu Taisha shrine and hiking north for about an hour and a half, then back. It was an isolated trail with thick, dense forest.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Emerging from the forest, the giant Torii gate can be seen from kilometers around. It’s the largest in the world, an imposing gateway to the sacred area of the shrine. Except now, this 33.9 metre Torii guards, well, nothing. Wandering the grounds, we looked for the famous Hongu Taisha shrine, not realizing we were at the wrong spot.

The scale of the torii compared to the people standing near its base.

The scale of the torii compared to the people standing near its base.

In 1889, a flood destroyed the original site and it was moved up a mountain into the forest. From the Torii, walk north to the information centre and cross the road. From here, many stone steps will take you to the shrine. Unfortunately, most of the shrine is currently under renovation so there wasn’t too much to see.

To plan your trip to the Kumano Kodo area, visit the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau wesbite. It has a wealth of information on the region and what there is to do.

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