Walking Japan’s Kumano Kodo trail

The warm lights of the guesthouse beckoned to us across the valley. We had just completed our gruelling second day of hiking and the sun was starting to set. The group had sent suitcases ahead the day before so we were all carrying extra weight in our daypacks. There had been a lot of uphill climbs and we were cold, quite exhausted, and ready to stop. In addition, Lucy had a bad cough and cold and was starting to limp as an irritated calf muscle grew steadily more painful.

“You see those lights?” our guide Toru asked as he pointed up the hill. “Our guesthouse. We are nearly there. But first we have to see Totoro.”

Toru took a turn off to a different path, up a different hill. We trudged after him.

“You know the Ghibli movie Totoro? This tree. The people say a forest spirit lives in the tree.” He pointed to a magnificent tree on the side of the hill. “Totoro.” Earth had fallen away from the base of the tree, leaving roots exposed and forming a death-defying staircase. Toru clambered up the almost-vertical path.

“Are we coming back down the same way?” asked one of the group. “Okay then, I’ll wait here.”

The rest of us made our way, single-file, up the narrow dirt track to higher ground.

“Here.” Toru pointed to a hole in the trunk of the tree; a round opening into the heart of the tree where the spirit lived.

I peeked my head into the opening and called a greeting to Totoro.

“Konbanwa!”

Lucy made it to the top of the path and I stood aside so she could greet the spirit. She started to say something to me, then looked like she needed to cough. She quickly turned her head to one side.

“Achoo!”

Lucy sneezed on Totoro. Her head had turned so that it was facing directly into the doorway of the tree spirit.

“Sumimasen,” she said.

If you walk the Kumano Kodo trail near Takahara and see a tree with a runny nose, now you know why.

Me and Totoro | Our guide, Toru.

At the end of November 2017 we joined Walk Japan’s tour of the Kumano Kodo trail, which cuts through the forests of Wakayama and Mie prefectures in the Kansai region of Honshu. The trail is a heritage-listed pilgrimage route that takes you through the forest and over mountains to visit ancient shrines and temples.

These are some photos and stories from the trail.

Photos: Koyasan and shukubo pilgrim lodgings

Incense sticks and a quick prayer mark the start of our journey
Okunoin cemetary
Vegetarian temple cuisine

Photos: Koyasan to Tanabe

Torii gates and zen garden
Koyasan’s happy mascot
Forest path

Sulphur Flowers

Yunomine Onsen

On the fourth night of the tour we stayed in our first ryokan with baths fed by natural hot springs: Yunomine Onsen. The smell of sulphur hit us as soon as the doors of the shuttle bus opened. Opposite the ryokan entrance steaming water bubbled out of a rock and left trails of pale yellow sulphur down the side.

We were assigned rooms, told what time to meet for dinner, and left to explore. Normally the public baths are separated by gender, often swapping each day to allow everyone to enjoy the different designs and surroundings of each bathroom. This ryokan also had two ‘family’ onsens which you could commandeer for private use and mix genders as you please. Because tattoos are generally not allowed in public baths, Lucy and I raced to secure a private bathtime experience, and we were in luck.

The private baths were in a wooden hut outside the main ryokan complex. And it was very cold. We hurriedly prepared ourselves for the bath, washed and rinsed ourselves, then stepped into the steaming mineral water. As we moved around we noticed strings of minerals dancing around our legs, occasionally floating up to the surface.

“Sulphur flowers,” Rinaldo explained. “Toru told us they’re called sulphur flowers or onsen flowers.”

We had braced ourselves against the cold, dressed ourselves in the yukata provided, and put glasses and watches and jewellery back on before joining the rest of the group at dinner.

“Did you try the outside bath?” Toru asked.

“No, we used the private onsen.”

“Ah. If you use the public onsen you must try the outside bath.”

The next morning I did. Some of the places we had stayed got quite cold overnight so I had made a habit of taking a quick bath or shower first thing in the morning to warm up before breakfast.

The public onsen was much warmer and much larger. I put my towel and clothing in the basket and opened the door to the main bath. I could barely see for all the steam. As I washed and rinsed off I felt cold drips of condensation falling from the ceiling above me.

The outside bath was beautiful. I had the option of a warmer and cooler bath, as I had inside, and trees and sky above me. Pretty soon I was alone and could sit and swirl the water around me to mix the hot surface with the cooler depths. Onsen flowers swirled around me, too.

“Oh noes! Look.” I held my hand out to Lucy. “I forgot to take my ring off before the bath this morning.”

The silver ring Lucy bought me in Mexico City — a temporary replacement for the wedding rings locked up at home — was now gold, stained by the sulphur in the natural spring water. I washed it, to no avail, and wondered whether the $30 ring was real silver. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted it to be real or not, considering I had ruined it. Or maybe, if it were a fake, it might be worth more than $30 as it could now be sold as that more valuable yellow metal.

Thankfully my mistake did not tarnish our relationship.

Fish-on-a-stick for breakfast | Vendable ice-cream

Photos: Takahara to Yunomine Onsen

Incredible autumn colours
Colours and shadows
Gyuba-doji statue, emperor riding a cow and horse | Cute/scary scarecrows
Tzugizakura

Toru, the man who led us up a mountain

“Have you heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?” I asked Toru. He hadn’t. “It’s a… folk tale. A fable.”

Walk Japan had provided a guidebook to our 9-day tour. The book gave a little description of what we would do and see each day as well as some important information such as what distance we would cover, and what the elevation would be. Each day had a graph that depicted the topography of our journey. Each morning we all studied the graph to see when the uphill climbs would be mostly finished and we could enjoy a flat or even downhill walk.

“Today’s walk is uphill until about the 3km mark,” someone would say at breakfast.

“Yeah, and there’s another steep bit around 7km,” someone else would contribute.

The Kumano Kodo trail is well signposted. As well as signs pointing you to the trail, and signs clearly marking offshoots that are “Not Kumano Kodo”, there are markers every half-kilometre to give you an idea of your progress. And, for us, when the uphills might be.

But we also had Toru, our guide, who had walked this trail three times already in the past month and a half.

“Today we finish at marker 45,” he might tell us when we reach the first marker for the day. We would then calculate the difference and distance between the two marker numbers.

“That’s 12 and a half kilometres,” I worked out. “And the last bit’s all downhill.”

The first real day of hiking was a surprise. We knew we had signed up for a walking tour but we didn’t appreciate exactly what that meant. What it meant was walking up a lot of mountains.

We started off in jumpers and jackets. It was, after all, a few degrees above freezing. By the time we hit the second marker of our all-uphill-journey we were all back to a single layer of clothing. Everyone but Toru, who kept on a light version of his red jacket.

“It’s my uniform,” he later told me. He had different red jackets to suit the changing weather. It’s just an example of how seriously he took his job as tour guide. He looked out for us constantly from breakfast to dinner for more than a week. He carried a camping stove and thermos of water in his backpack so he could make us fresh coffee on the trail. One morning I saw him in the lobby before breakfast, sipping a coffee and on the phone booking a hotel room for the parents of the siblings on the tour with us. When he found out Lucy had a cold he gave her a handful of lozenges, and kept giving her more until we found a convenience store that stocked some. He did whatever he could for us without hesitation or complaint.

Wellington and Toru in red

Eventually we made it to the top of the ascent and enjoyed a gentle walk that was flat, occasionally downhill. Gradually the jumpers and jackets returned. Then we would hit another uphill patch and strip down again.

“This wasn’t on the graph,” I puffed. “It’s supposed to be flat.”

“This is the last one,” Toru promised.

A few markers later there was a shout from the front of the group.

“You said that was the last one!”

“Oh,” said Toru. “This is the last one.”

At the third or fourth “last one” I caught up to Toru.

“There’s a boy who is given the task of watching a flock of sheep at night. It’s up on a hill above the village. Well, the first night the boy gets bored so he starts shouting ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ and all the villagers come running up but of course there is no wolf.”

I tell the story in broken phrases as I trudge up the incline. Toru listens. He works as a children’s camp leader, taking kids out on week-long hikes and camping trips. At the beginning of our day’s hikes he peps us up with chants that I’m sure he perfected with seven-year-olds, and they work to get us ready to face the first climb of the day. I suspect he is a better storyteller than I, but he is following the tale, seeing the pattern.

“On the third night a wolf appears. The boy cries ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ but nobody comes.” I pause to look at the rest of the climb ahead of us, catch my breath. “So when you say this hill is the last one…”

“Oh!” Toru laughs. “You don’t believe me.”

“No!” We laugh along with him and climb another mountain.

Coming down the mountain

Photos: Hongu

The view from up a mountain
A bus full of (elderly) hikers stretches before setting off | Abandoned swimming pool makes a great reflection pond
Deluxe bento for lunch | Site of an ancient tea house
Temple of the three-legged crow (Yatagarasu).
Giant torii gate of the Hongu Taisha Shrine. It’s less pixelated in real life.

Photos: Koguchi to Nachi Taisha

Mountain priests chant a ceremony at the beginning of our day
We walked up a mountain and walked cautiously down the other side
Nachi Taisha shrine
Mixed messages. Outside the taxi window: “No Pokemon Go”. Inside the taxi window: an ad for Pokemon Go?

Photos: Kii-Katsura to Shingu and Ise

Cold and hot vending machines
Sunrise in Kii-Katsura. The little spot of light on the right is a cave with a hot spring bath.
Hiking up the misty mountains
“Seemingly endless slope.”
A glimpse of the ocean and today’s destination
Warning signs at Shingu train station
Ise, the finish line.

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Pete Lead

Pete Lead

I work with startups, teach entrepreneurship, and freelance in improv and leadership coaching.