Kumano Kodo Iseji – Mie, Japan

This post is part of a series about the Kumano Kodo trail network in Japan which links the three grand shrines of Kumano. You can read the first part of the journey here.

After hiking Kumano Kodo Nakahechi, I had grand plans to walk the entire Iseji route starting from Kumano Hayatama Taisha to Ise Jingu which would be about 150km. The Iseji route is named as such since pilgrims would use it to journey to Kumano Sanzan after visiting the Ise Grand Shrine.

I managed to obtain an Iseji route map in English from the tourist centre but comparing it to the Iseji map in Japanese, the English version I was given was different and not as detailed. For example, the Japanese map would show which part of the route was on a road and which part was the Kumano Kodo trail. I was warned people don’t walk the whole of Iseji because most of it is road, but I’m stubborn by nature and learn my life lessons through practise instead of theory. So armed with my route map rolled up and sticking out from my pant leg pocket for easy access, I started walking the first 15km section.

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Crossing one of the bridges. One thing I love about Japan is that almost everything is accessible to pedestrians and cyclists with separate paths.

Spoiled by the scenery and mountain vistas along the Nakahechi route, walking for hours by the roadside just didn’t have the same appeal, and I found myself beginning to waver in my conviction to walk the whole way. Half of me was chastising, “This is a pilgrimage, it’s about suffering, sucking it up and carrying on!” The other half lenient, “If you’re not having fun anymore, maybe it’s not worth doing?” And a ping pong match of conflicting thoughts battled on for the next few hours as I walked.

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Walking along route 42.
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On the road sections that are not part of the Kumano Kodo trail, signage is limited. So I was very happy to see this Iseji marker (after 3.5hrs of walking) to confirm I was going the right way. The green paint indicates a walking/cycling path.

After 4 hours I reached Atawa station with heavy feet. I mean that literally as my hiking boots with waterproof leather and solid soles built for rugged trail felt like clunky anchors dragging along tarmac road. Shichiri-mihama beach starts at this point and the Kumano kodo trail continues along the lovely stretch of beach with varying shades of blue waters and gentle rolling waves. I began walking along the beach and a crowd of seagulls cheered me on (some physical fatigue at this point was making me think funny things) and I looked ahead to what seemed like a beach that never ends (actually the beach is 22km long).

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Shichiri-mihama beach which ranks one of the top 100 beaches in Japan is a beautiful spot that calls out for summer fun and picnics when the weather is warm.
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My cheerleading seagull squad.

I began to realize that walking on a beach with a heavy pack and boots was going to be exhausting, every step I took needed extra effort. I contemplated continuing and then pitching my tent somewhere along the beach, but as the wind picked up and the sky began to darken with the look of rain, I decided to take the train to Kumanoshi station to spend the night and rethink my plan. Overall I felt that I didn’t want to spend my time in Japan mostly walking along a busy road, and budget wise I’d rather spend my money moving on to explore different parts of Japan. Off I went to Kumanoshi to drop by the tourist office and ask for help to find a place to stay for the night and to think of my next steps.

At the tourist office the cheapest place they could find for the night was for ¥‎8000 ($94 CAD), which was out of budget. I had on me another map that showed a detailed route for Matsumoto-toge Pass and Magose-toge Pass, 2 popular routes along Iseji. Matsumoto-toge Pass is 4.5km long and goes through where I just was, with Shichiri-mihama beach being one of the viewpoints. Magose-toge Pass is 5km, starts at Aiga station and ends at Owase station. The map showed some budget hotels right next to Owase station, which hopefully would be cheaper so I waited for the next train that would be coming in an hour.

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The view from the train along Iseji.

*Tip: If you don’t have a lot of time to explore, taking the train is another great way to see the landscape. The JR rail track mostly runs along the Iseji route so there is the option to do it in parts using the train as well.

It began to rain slightly and the train station was chilly, combined with the feeling of slight disappointment at how things turned out, I didn’t look like a happy bunny. I must have looked like a pitiful lost foreigner because when the time came to go to the train platform and I handed my ticket to the man behind the window, a wooden token suddenly appeared and the man said “presento”. My eyes lit up a thousand lumens with a smile as wide as that stretch of Shichiri-mihama beach. Energetically bowing and singing my arigatos, I hurried to the platform and caught the train to Owase. A simple act of kindness that filled me with so much warmth in that instant, suddenly I found myself really missing friends and family scattered around the world and a tinge of loneliness.

At this point I remembered a quote that was stuck on the air conditioner back in the ashram I stayed in Chiang Mai while studying Yoga. Since we were only using fans and the AC was not to be used, the quote read: “As a rule man is fool, When is hot he wants cold, When is cold he wants hot, Whatever is, He wants what is not.” How often do we find ourselves longing for what is not? Probably lots! In this moment I was wanting company and connection, but what an incredible opportunity I’ve been given to be able to travel around Japan at my own pace and experience all that I have with my own effort. As a solo traveller it’s normal to feel bouts of loneliness along the way and want company, but focusing on this takes us away from the present moment where it’s really wonderful to be alive and kicking. One of life’s delicious ironies! Remembering the quote made me chuckle, and I looked out to the blurry scene as the train rolled by, the wooden token in my hand, and made my way to Owase.

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Left: Present from the JR train station man, a wooden token that says Kumano Kodo ancient path on one side, and on the other side Kumanoshi which is the name of the station stop. Right: While waiting I bought some tasty local snacks, this one is mehari-sushi. A rice ball wrapped in a pickled takana (mustard) leaf.

Stepping out of Owase station I found the nearest budget hotel just in front and paid ¥‎5000 ($58 CAD) for a dingy room that reeked of cigarettes. But it was warm and dry as the rain began to pour outside, and I got to take a hot shower which always revitalizes! Looking through all the maps I had, I ultimately decided to cut my Iseji trip short and focus on hiking the two trails I found most interesting which was Magose-toge pass and Tsuzurato-toge Pass, and then take the train to Ise. I felt like I had achieved all I wanted to experience from my Kumano Kodo journey, and was ready to take on a new adventure after this one. Having made this decision, I had a peaceful nights’ sleep.

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The next morning, lots of rain.

Magose-toge Pass

I woke up to the sound of heavy rain falling against the metal roofs. I had hoped that by morning the rain would stop but it was going to be a wet hike. Putting on my rain pants and jacket with an additional waterproof poncho I fashioned out of a garbage bag (so sexy), off I went in search of the start of the trail which was thankfully quite easy to find!

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A sign on a drain cover. I can’t read kanji, but the symbols on the left match the symbols on my Magose-toge map. A lot of the signage on the Iseji routes are in Japanese only, making it a little trickier for non-Japanese readers to find our way (but not impossible!).
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Getting closer. A road sign points towards Magose-toge Pass.
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Onwards and upwards. The path starts to incline, and goes through a cemetery. Magose-toge is up ahead where the mountain is, hidden behind the mist.

Every place in Japan has a cemetery that you’ll probably need to walk through sooner or later, and the stereotype of cemeteries being scary places I feel doesn’t apply as much here in Japan. One thing I realized is that cemeteries in other countries are separated from the living, you travel to a cemetery to pay your respects. In Japan I’ve seen cemeteries placed right next to apartment blocks. This probably has to do with the limited amount of space in cities and towns, but even in smaller towns where there is more space it’s almost like the cemetery is integrated into daily life with houses right beside and people walking through to get to where they need to go.

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Finished already! Not quite, looks like I was doing the trail backwards. It was nice to see the familiar Kumano Kodo wooden markers again though these are much smaller compared to the Nakahechi markers.

Magose-toge Path is not long, 5km with an elevation gain of about 315m. The path is a little steeper starting from Owase station whereas starting from Aiga station would be more gradual, but in all it took 2 hours to hike from Owase station to the end of the trail. Once reaching the top of Magose-toge Pass, there are 2 options to hike to the neighbouring Mt. Binshiyama (the map says 4hrs return back to the Pass) and Mt. Tengurasan (1hr return) with some stellar viewpoints that would make it a longer hike. I opted to pass since it was raining heavily and wanted time to visit the Kumano Kodo Centre before it closed at 5pm.

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Most of Magose-toge pass is covered in stones, preventing erosion from the heavy rainfall this region receives.
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The view from close to the top of Magose-toge Pass.
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The mist and rain made all the stones glisten, with the sounds of the stream carrying through the forest. I feel most at peace in moments like these!
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End of the trail. The rest of the way is along a road to Aiga station. Which was hard to find since there was no signage.

Hiking Magose-toge Pass was easy. Finding Aiga station so I could catch the train to Osoneura station to visit the Kumano Kodo Centre was more difficult. The map lacked detail in this part but luckily I came across a woman who happened to be going to the station as well and followed her. Just as we approached the station, a train came by and left. Unfortunately it was the train I was supposed to catch and the next one wouldn’t be until 1.5hrs later. Wet and cold, there was nothing else to do but to take off my wet pack and jacket, and make a cup of tea.

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When life gives you a rainy day and a missed train, you take out your camping stove and make tea.

Eventually the train arrived and I backtracked two stops to Osoneura station. Getting off I wasn’t sure which way to begin walking but again I found a group that pointed me in the right direction. Looking back, I feel pretty lucky at finding people who can help me with directions at the right time since most of the places I went to were rural small towns with not many people around.

Tip: To visit the Kumano Kodo Centre in Mie from Osoneura station, turn left and walk along the road until you see a sign for the Kumano Kodo Centre. It should only be a 10 minute walk.

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One half of the Kumano Kodo Centre. This side houses the information desk, and other building exhibits Kumano Kodo history and other information.

The Kumano Kodo Centre consists of two beautifully built buildings made of local Owase hinoki cypress, all solid natural wood. The floor to ceiling windows let in so much light even on a rainy day, and you can appreciate the landscape from inside. I was dripping wet walking in, and felt like a dirty hiking bum inside such a pristine building. The staff though were very kind and welcoming, even giving me a towel to dry off with. I can see why the Japanese have such high customer service expectations when they travel abroad. I asked if they could help me find accommodation nearby for the night and for something cheap. Despite speaking limited English, we managed to communicate and she had me explore the exhibit in the next building while she looked for accommodation.

And it’s here by sheer luck I met one of the kindest most thoughtful human beings to grace this earth. His name was Suzuki-san, and he spoke very good English asking me where I was from and where I was hiking. He told me he was retired and doing all of the Iseji routes by driving in his Toyota Prius to the trailhead, hiking the trail, and then driving to the next one. He would sleep in his car overnight for free in michi-no-ekis along the Iseji route (road side rest stops) and continue on. An avid traveller, he and his wife had a goal of visiting 100 countries together, but she died a few years ago with less than 30 countries to go. So he continues to travel to different countries to reach 100 (he had just come back from Peru), and when I asked him what his next stop was he said maybe Uzbekistan! I felt like a newborn compared to this well seasoned yet humble world traveller.

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The Kumano Kodo exhibit – it was fun to learn about the history of the Kumano Kodo trail for pilgrims. The stone has Kumano Kodo written on it and it dates back hundreds of years to the Edo period.
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Left: A display showing how much rainfall Owase receives (on the far right) compared to the national average (on the far left). It’s a very rainy region. I may not complain as much when go back to Vancouver. Right: Since the staff speak limited English, they provide a nifty gadget that can speak several languages. Tap on the sheet or number next to the display sign, and a commentary in English starts playing.

The woman helping me find accommodation comes to tell me she’s found me a place to stay for ¥‎4500 ($53 CAD). Right in my price range! Another staff member begins to tell me how to get there by bus when Suzuki-san comes by and starts speaking to him in Japanese. Then he asks if I would like a lift, I sure would! So I grab my pack, and the lovely woman gives me another dry towel and umbrella to take! I feel like I should be writing down all these customer service lessons I’m learning here in Japan.

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Inside the Kumano Kodo Centre exhibition hall.

Thank goodness Suzuki-san drove me right to the doorstep of my accommodation for the night because it was located in between towns amongst many other inns with signs only in Japanese. It would have taken me a while to find it myself. We arrive and the woman running the guesthouse tells me that I forgot my hiking poles at the centre… aahhhh… But someone will drop them off (saved). I profusely thank Suzuki-san for all his help and he gives me a bag of Meiji chocolates since it’s the best energy source for hikers! We wave goodbye and I settle in for the night.

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My very comfy room for the night. At 4500Y this was a steal of a deal.

After turning on the heater and settling in my room, I hear a knock on the door. Sliding it open, there stands Suzuki-san with my hiking poles and also a bag of McDonalds! Before in the car he told me about these special ¥‎100 ($1 CAD) burgers you can get at McDonalds. I was curious since I had been inside McDonalds with friends and didn’t see anything that cheap offered on the menu. Normally I don’t eat McDonalds and I’ve been trying to keep up being vegetarian in Japan, but I was so hungry and grateful at that point that it was the most delicious McDonalds I’ve ever had. He also got me a hot coffee. Wherever you are Suzuki-san, I don’t think I can ever repay you enough for all your kindness, so I will try my best to pay it forward!

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Signs leading to Tsuzurato-toge Pass from Kii-Nagashima station.

Tsuzurato-toge Pass

The next morning showed no signs of the weather from the previous day, it was all bright blue sunny sky which I was relieved to see. The woman running the inn offered to drive me to Kii-Nagashima station where the trailhead to Tsuzurato-toge Pass is, and wished me luck on my journey as I waved goodbye.

Following highway 422, I made my way to the trailhead. It took about 1hr of walking and then a sign led me to a smaller road that went through a cemetery before reaching the start of the trail. The total distance from Kii-Nagashima station to Umegadani station passing through Tsuzurato-toge Pass is 9km.

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A row of stone Jizo statues next to a cemetery along the path to Tsuzurato-toge Pass. Jizo is the protector of children, women and travellers. The red bibs that Jizo wears are usually placed by parents who have lost a child so that Jizo may protect their souls in the afterlife.
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The signpost points the way up the start of the pass. Sunlight shining through the trees, a beautiful day for a hike!
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Stone staircase and stone marker.
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Going backwards again! The Kumano Kodo marker for Tsuzurato-toge Pass.
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Parts of the trail were covered with fallen bright pink camellia flowers (tsubaki in Japanese).

A little over an hour of hiking from the start of the trail, I see an opening at the top and scramble my way up. I turn around to face the Kumano Sea with the wind blowing in my face, and the small town of Nagashima below.

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View from the top of Tsuzurato-toge Pass!

Going down, it only took 10 minutes to the end of the trail before I reached another road which passed through a mall town to Umegadani station. In total, it took 3.5hrs to walk from Kii-Nagashima to Umegadani. And that was the last hike for my Kumano Kodo adventure this time round! I was lucky to end on a high note, with good weather for the hike, it was easy to find the station and I only had to wait 10 minutes for the next train to take me to Ise!

The next and final post will cover my time in Ise, finishing my Kumano Kodo journey!

Top tips:

  • The Iseji route has mostly been developed over except for certain passes that have been registered as Kumano Kodo World Heritage and you’ll see the familiar wooden markers along these parts of the trail. Most of the other times you will be walking on tarmac road with no signs in English.
  • I found a complete English translation of the Japanese Iseji route map online which you can download here. I’m not sure why I wasn’t given this one in person, but since English resources are limited for the Iseji route, I recommended printing this version and having it with you before you start.
  • You can download the map that I had for Magose-toge and Matsumoto-toge pass here.
  • If you plan on doing Iseji by hiking and using the JR train, it’s helpful to check the train schedule in advance since these are small towns and the trains don’t run often.
  • Find more information on Kumano Kodo Iseji from Mie’s Tourism Website.

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