This post is part 2 of my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage on the Nakahechi route. If you haven’t read part 1 which covers the start of the journey over 3 days from Kii-Tanabe to Kumano Hongu Taisha you can read it here!
Day 3 (continued)
After hiking 38km over 2.5 days I reach the first grand shrine by noon: Kumano Hongu Taisha!
This shrine is filled with quiet dignity. I think it’s my favourite shrine out of the three I visited; not having many tourists around probably helped with the atmosphere (Kumano Nachi Taisha was the busiest but I also loved how the shrine was understated so you can see the beauty of it without any distraction. The wood is untreated, aging naturally with time. The only embellishments are the metal gold accents on the roofs and hanging lanterns. The roof is made of thousands of thin cypress shingles, meticulously placed forming graceful lines and curves that seem to flow into its natural surroundings.
Outside the entrance leading to Kumano Hongu Taisha are an array of shops, restaurants, cafes and B&Bs. You can visit the Kumano Hongu Heritage Centre to learn more about the history of the area. It’s also a tourist information centre so staff can help you with any questions you may have – I was lucky to speak with someone who could speak English who helped me figure out how to get to the next trail head to continue on to Kumano Nachi Taisha. Unfortunately they had limited material in English, he gave me a map of the Iseji route in Japanese but told me that when I got to Kumano Nachi Taisha he would arrange for an Iseji map in English for me to pick up.
No adventure is complete without some hiccups, and this was one of those moments the universe helped me along my way. The trail head for the next section of the Nakahechi route leading to Kumano Nachi Taisha is not near to where the trail to Kumano Hongu Taisha finishes. The next trail starts at Ukegawa bus stop, and to get there you need to walk along highway 168 for 2km. Sounds easy when it’s written down, but after being spoiled with all the Kumano Kodo signs guiding me on the trail, without any signage I was unsure and felt lost. Practising my severely limited Japanese, my plan was to ask people along the way where the Ukegawa bus stop was until I would eventually get there.
*Note: Don’t cross the first bridge you see, keep walking until you walk pass Dainishi-san tunnel and then cross Ukegawa-bashi bridge to reach Ukegawa bus stop. From there, keep walking down highway 168 until you reach Shimoji-bashi bus stop where there is a Kumano Kodo marker 54. It would probably take about 40mins. Or you can also take the bus from Kumano Hongu Taisha bus stop to Ukegawa, several bus options are available.
I walked down highway 168 asking people where Ukegawa bus stop was and following the general direction of their pointed fingers until I was nearing a bridge and thought this might be the one to cross (it wasn’t). I asked someone close by who didn’t speak any English but did nod to say yes go and cross this bridge! As I crossed it, large trucks roared by bringing materials to a construction site below… probability of being off route has increased.
At the end of the bridge a man was cleaning up the road and sweeping, and I tried again to ask where Ukegawa bus stop was. After playing the usual game of language barrier charades he told me to wait and ran towards an excavator where another man came out who spoke more English, took a look at my map and explained where I needed to go. He looked at me and my backpack and asked “Kuruma?” (car) making hand motions of a steering wheel to which I enthusiastically responded with “Hai! Arigato!” (Yes! Thank you!). I think I probably was an entertaining break for them after hours of sweeping and digging.
The route map shows it’s 13km to the next town of Koguchi where I planned on staying the night. It was already 3pm by the time I got to the trailhead so if I wanted to make it to Koguchi I needed to switch gears and move quickly. The first 6km is a gradual uphill with 400m in elevation gain, and as you make your way up you can see glimpses of the mountain range peeking through the forest. The sky at this point also cleared up with the sun shining down, which was super lucky because the best viewpoint of the Nakahechi route was coming just around the corner.
Suddenly the forest clears and the most dramatic landscape appears with a small shrine marking Hyakken-gura lookout. While only at 460m elevation, “gura” means “a high cliff” and the sign nearby instructs you to take a moment to enjoy the panorama as pilgrims have done for over a thousand years. At this point I had to take my bag off so I could stand at the edge mouth agape. I feel like this view captures the essence of the pilgrimage as something sacred and purifying, no wonder images from Hyakken-gura is widely used in most of the brochures and content related to Kumano Kodo Nakahechi.
*Tip: If you don’t have time to hike all of Nakahechi, definitely hike the 13km Kogumotori-goe section of Kumano Kodo which connects the small town of Koguchi to Ukegawa bus stop that is close to Kumano Hongu Taisha. Hyakken-gura lookout on this section has one of the best viewing spots along the whole Nakahechi route. An option could be to take the bus to Koguchi and hike to Kumano Hongu Taisha, then spend the night there at one of the relaxing onsens nearby.
I eventually had to force myself to look away and continue down the trail. It’s all downhill from Hyakken-gura lookout and the path was dry so I was able to complete the last 7km to Koguchi quickly. I reached Koguchi by 5.30pm, just in time before the sun began to set. Today had been a big day, I covered a total of 28km in 9hrs and while I didn’t mind finding a spot to camp again I thought I’d take a look at the Koguchi Shizen-no-le Lodging that was on my map.
I didn’t book in advance, leaving it up to chance to make a decision for me. There was one room available for ¥6000 ($70 CAD) which was a little over my budget but it did include breakfast and a bento lunchbox. After the long hike today I thought I’d spoil myself and my very sore back. When they opened the door to my room it was absolute luxury compared to sleeping in my tent. It was also my first time staying in a more traditional Japanese style room and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
*Note: Since I was hiking in early March, it wasn’t very busy. I can imagine these accommodations book out during high season (national holidays and weekends) so booking in advance.
Because I had arrived later and didn’t make a booking in advance, they weren’t able to prepare dinner for me. In true Japanese hospitality, the man at the reception desk drove me to the small grocery store nearby to buy some food for dinner. He also showed me where the next section of the trail leading to Kumano Nachi Taisha starts which is right next to the grocery store and less than a 10 minute walk from the lodge.
The grocery store didn’t have any ready made meals like what I could find at a convenience store, so I bought a cake roll and asked the sweet old lady which instant ramen was the most delicious. Back at the lodge I thought I would just boil water and eat my food in my room, but they took my instant ramen, made it for me and sat me at the dining hall giving me some small side dishes and rice to eat as well. Add a few slices of cake roll for dessert, I was very full and certainly replenished the calories I burned off hiking.
Today was a day filled with good fortune. What luck to catch a ride from the kindness of a stranger that helped me to the trailhead, to have a room available in the lodge for me to rest, and to be driven to buy dinner and have it cooked for me! After enjoying the wonders of the Japanese bath (a Japanese bath usually has a tub of hot water where you can soak after first cleaning yourself with the showers on the side), I had a fantastic sleep – on flat ground!
Check out time was 9am, so I made the most of my stay and left at 9. It was a good decision to lay in and get some extra rest because the next part of the trail is the most difficult of all, which I will soon find as I struggle upwards what felt like a very very long ancient stairmaster.
The route map showed the distance from Koguchi to Kumano Nachi Taisha to be 15km, and I did see a big elevation gain on the map of 780m over the first 5km. Looking at the map while laying around in a comfy bed, it didn’t click until the next morning when I was trying not to breathe so hard while commanding my muscles to toughen up and continue climbing the never ending stone staircase.
It took me 2.5hrs to hike the 5km up to the highest point at Echizen-toge pass. The slowest slog of the journey so far, but I guess it’s not a real pilgrimage without some suffering. A sign at the top declares how pilgrims have long struggled on this section of the trail, including a quote by the famous poet Fujiwara Teika from his pilgrimage diary in 1201: “This route is very rough and difficult”. The hike must have sucked all the energy from his tired body as that was quite unpoetic for a famous poet…
I was fooled with a short downhill section thinking it was over! But the trail leads to a paved road where, surprise, another 100m in elevation gain over the next 2km greets you. I did see a lot of people on this section of the trail. Most of my journey I had the trail completely to myself, but it was a weekend with the sun out and halfway from the popular Kumano Nachi Taisha so it was bustling.
The last 1.2km before reaching Kumano Nachi Taisha is a steep downhill of stone steps, by the time I got to this part my legs were reaching jelly point. But just as I felt like my legs were about to surrender, I see a pagoda emerge and groups of people wandering around. As luck would have it, the trail ends right next to a snack shop that sells the tastiest matcha soft serve ice cream to bring me back to life. Despite the trail from Koguchi being only 15km, this was definitely the hardest stretch of the Nakahechi route and it took me 5.5hrs to complete.
Kumano Nachi Taisha is the biggest shrine of the three, and the most popular with tourists. The shrines have their origins in nature worship, and when buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, these religious systems merged. The sacred Nachi waterfall pictured above behind Seiganto-ji Pagoda is the object of worship at Kumano Nachi Taisha.
I tried to look for someone that might know where I could pick up the Iseji route map in English, but nobody spoke English so I thought I would try go to the nearest tourist information centre to ask for help. I left the shrine hoping to see a tourist office outside, but there were only rows of souvenir shops. My Kumano Kodo route map showed no more details beyond getting to Kumano Nachi Taisha. Turns out the nearest tourist office is in Kii-Katsuura and some very nice ladies at a souvenir shop helped me find the right bus to take from Kumano Nachi Taisha to Kii-Katsuura station for ¥620 ($7 CAD). I chose to take the bus at this point and spend the night at Katsuura after visiting the tourist office, my legs had no more juice left in them for wandering around lost in a small Japanese town.
*Note: This is the official end of the Nakahechi route based on the English route map! Overall it is almost 70km from the start in Takijiri to Kumano Nachi Taisha. While it is possible to continue walking to Kumano Hayatama Taisha, the only map available for this is in Japanese, there are no Kumano Kodo marker signs, and all of the walk is along paved road. Not very picturesque after all the stellar views on the mountain passes!
At the Katsuura tourist office they helped me connect with the Kumano Hongu Heritage Centre and arranged for me to pick up the Iseji route map at the tourist office at Shingu station. Shingu is also where I would get off to walk to Kumano Hayatama Taisha, the final shrine left to visit. They then helped me book a night at a budget hotel (key word to use is yasui which means cheap!) next to the station for ¥3,500 ($40 CAD).
Again I had one of those fun travel experiences you hear about and only experience when you’re on the road and open to it! I walked for about 10 minutes to a restaurant close by as recommended by the woman at Hana Hotel aptly named “Mother’s Delicious Home Cooking Izakaya” – how could I not try it out with a name like that. I walked into a very lively and rowdy small restaurant and sat at the bar counter. I had spent four days by myself with just the trees and wind to chat with on my hike – it was a little overwhelming to now be cramped in a small local eatery with peals of laughter coming from groups of people having a good time drinking on a Saturday night.
A friendly woman sitting next to me struck up conversation and I learned that she used to be a dolphin trainer at the aquarium nearby! She offered me a ride back to my hotel and even though it was within walking distance I accepted because she was really fun to talk to. But she first had to do a milk and cigarette run to the local supermarket, so while I was waiting I was looking at a shelf of shampoos in all sorts of colourful packaging and she must have saw me because when she came out she had bought me a small trial packet of shampoo and conditioner. The gift of hygiene! We drove back to my hotel and upon learning I lived in Canada proceeded to share her love of Justin Bieber with me and playing his music on the ride back – there really is no escaping him… and I do admit I was rocking out to Sorry when I was at a bar in Chiang Mai…
I waved goodbye and now do wish I had stayed an extra night in Katsuura because she had offered to take me to an onsen nearby the next day, but I was leaving in the morning to continue my journey along the Iseji route. After washing up, soaking in the bath of hot spring water and smelling of roses from the shampoo I was gifted, I had another comfortable night sleep. Though I did have to use ear plugs; the walls were so thin I could hear someone snoring next door.
At 8am I hopped on the train from Katsuura to the next station, Shingu. Since it was only one stop over and nearby, the ticket was ¥240 ($2.80 CAD). Getting off at Shingu, the tourist information centre was next to the station and I picked up the Iseji route map in English, hurrah! All the tourist office staff along the Kumano Kodo route are really helpful, even if you don’t speak Japanese, most of them speak some English and you will get the help you need!
It was a 20 minute walk from Shingu station to Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and it was easy to find with lots of signage in English. Since it was early on a Sunday, it was a good time to visit and beat the tourist groups. It was again another beautiful sunny morning, I really did luck out with the weather when I visited all three shrines. Kumano Hayatama Taisha is famous for it’s crimson red colour that bursts with vibrance amidst the calm green forest and mountains.
And that is Kumano Sanzan! A set of three incredibly beautiful World Heritage shrines, each one distinct with it’s own character and filled with history, tradition and spirituality. A Japanese friend told me that many people in Japan hope to visit Kumano Sanzan in their lifetime, and very rarely get to see all three in one journey – they usually do it in several sections over time. Being able to see all three, in good weather, and this being my first solo pilgrimage experience in a completely foreign country where I don’t speak the language, this is something I’m going to remember with a full heart. The kindness of strangers I met on my journey, the breathtaking landscape when it was sunny with blue skies or when the mountains were covered with clouds of mist and rain, and the feeling of gratitude when reaching each shrine tired but safe, make for an unforgettable experience.
I think point 6 under “Pilgrimage Etiquette” in the Kumano Kodo route map sums up my Nakahechi experience quite nicely:
“Greet others with a smile and warm heart.”
- The Kii Mountain range where the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route goes through has one of the highest amount of rainfall in Japan. Bring good rain gear and waterproof hiking shoes. Bring a cheap poncho as backup. Since it can be slippery when wet, I found hiking poles very useful on this trip.
- Bring enough warm clothes – even if you hike in the summer it is still in the mountains and if it rains can get chilly. Pack for the weather.
- If you stay at accommodations throughout the trip breakfast, lunch and dinner is usually included. If you get hungry there are many grocery shops and convenience stores in the small towns along the route where you can buy water and food. There are no garbage bins on the trail, make sure you carry out all your garbage with you.
- No open fires. Bring a camping stove.
- There is cell phone coverage on most of the trail. But in some sections like the detour route between Chikatsuyu and Kumano Hongu Taisha there was no cell reception. Be prepared. Be sure you leave an itinerary of your trip with someone so that they know roughly where you would be, and check in often.
- Tourist information centres are usually located next to train stations, not every train station would have one, only in the more visited regions. Tourist centres are the best place to ask to help you find cheap accommodation for the night if you haven’t booked anything in advance.
- Kumano Kodo Tanabe City
- Nakahechi map
- Kumano Kodo weather
- Reservation system for tours, guides, accommodation
Summary of distances and estimated times (based on Kumano Kodo route map):
- Takijiri – Chikatsuyu (13km, 5hrs)
- Chikatsuyu – Kumano Hongu Taisha (25km, 9hrs)
- Funatama-jinja – Yunomine Onsen (6km, 2hrs)
- Yunomine Onsen – Kumano Hongu Taisha (3.5km, 1hr)
- Kumano Hongu Taisha – Ukegawa (2km, 30mins)
- Ukegawa – Koguchi (13km, 4.5hrs)
- Koguchi – Kumano Nachi Taisha (15km, 5hrs)
*Tip: If you want to visit all three shrines, but don’t have time or only want to hike part of Nakahechi, you can start from Shingu station, visit Kumano Hayatama Taisha, then take the train to Nachi station where you can catch the bus to go to Kumano Nachi Taisha. At Kumano Nachi Taisha you can hike or bus to Koguchi, stay the night at Koguchi and continue to hike to Ukegawa to finish at Kumano Hongu Taisha. I recommend you hike the trail from Ukegawa to Kumano Hongu Taisha – the best viewpoint of the Nakahechi route is along this trail!
But wait! The Nakahechi route may be complete, but my Kumano Kodo adventure doesn’t stop here! The next part of my journey which I’ll write about is my attempt at walking the Kumano Kodo Iseji route from Shingu which leads to the Ise Jingu shrine in Ise. To give a hint as to how it went, there is a song by the Rolling Stones that goes:
“You can’t always get what you want, but when you try sometimes, you’ll find, you get what you need!”