I wanted novelty on my third trip to Japan. When I chanced upon the Kumano Kudo [熊野古道] on my google search, I knew this was it (not sure if brave or stupid). The Kudo is made up of seven trails that wind through the Kii Mountain Range in the Wakayama Prefecture [和歌山県], requiring a whopping 30-day period to complete.
We decided to embark on the final 15km of the pilgrimage, which would take on average about 8 hours to complete. The walk would lead us to the mystical Kumano Nachi Taisha [熊野那智大社].
At 6.30am, we headed to Kyoto Station [京都駅] to take a train to Shingu Station [新宮駅]. There, we also picked up our 5-day JR Kansai Wide Pass, which we had purchased online earlier. The Pass entitles you to unlimited rides on JR vehicles for the stipulated period. We then hopped onto the JR Kuroshio 3 特急 Shingu.
Off we were!
We arrived almost 5 hours later. We then headed to the bus station opposite the station to confirm the bus timing to Koguchi Village [小口]. The starting point of the trail is at Koguchi.
Since we had some time to kill after lunch, we took a stroll to the nearby Kumano Hayatama Taisha [熊野速玉大社], another of the Kumano shrines. The streets were empty and peaceful. Many shops were closed because it was Sunday. As rain clouds gathered, the air was dense with solemnity, beckoning at the pilgrims who were passing through the quiet, pensive town.
The gloomy weather did not dull the bright vermillion gates of Hayatama Taisha. We also noticed many pilgrims and elderly braving the rain to visit the shrine. That spirit was truly respectable.
Afterwards, we were on the bus to Koguchi. Ours was the last stop and we arrived an hour later. There was something mesmerizing about the undisturbed little village. The only audible sounds were the sound of nature. We stood at the bus-stop for a few minutes, submerging ourselves in the rare, fleeting stillness in our minds. Yet, in that moment, amidst the tranquility, our hearts begin to stir with excitement for the adventure that laid ahead of us.
We also saw our ryokan, Koguchi Shizen no le [小口自然の家] immediately. When we arrived, the staffs were already waiting for us. Very patiently, they walked us through the huge compound and introduced the various facilities (including a traditional Japanese bath!) and our room.
Before dinner, we headed to the convenient shop to stock up on water for the next day. The convenient shop can be tricky to locate! Despite the directions given by the ryokan, we meandered around the village quite a bit before we found it. Nevertheless, the convenient stall had a wide variety of items useful for those embarking on the hike.
I must say, we had a wonderful stay at Koguchi Shizen no le! It was clean, homely and spacious. It was also the perfect place for a quiet, soul-searching vacation. Although one would have to pay 100yen / 2 hours for air-conditioner, there was absolutely no need to even turn it on because it was so chilly at night (yes, even in summer). Another plus point was the quality of food they served. The meals were sumptuous and tasty. We chose the all-in package that included teishoku [定食] dinner and breakfast, as well as a simple lunch bento for our hike.
My advice is to book early! There are only three ryokans available for hikers in Koguchi. Checking for availability and booking of accomodations can only be done through the official Kumano Tourism Website.
I had originally opted for the slightly cheaper option at Minshuku Momofuku [民宿百福], but even with two months’ head-start it was fully booked. I later found out that they could only accommodate up to 8 persons.
Nevertheless, my silver lining – Koguchi Shizen no le – was lovely. I will certainly be back.
THE BIG DAY
We left our ryokan at 7am after breakfast. Over dinner last night, a local had warned us of the impending bad weather and horrible terrain. He cautioned that it was going to be a tough walk. I would also advise against bringing heavy camera equipment if it is your first time at this, because trust me, climbing with weight is no joke.
You can download several maps from the official Kumano website as a general guide. If you look closely at the map, you will also notice that after the first 2.5km or so, there will be a 2.4km with 850m ascent. We were warned that this would be the toughest part of the climb, in fact, even pilgrims in the early days have commented that it was so harsh and steep that it was almost impossible to complete. Well, we were going to give it a try anyway!
As we searched for the starting point in the rain, we coincidentally bumped into the lady owner of the convenient stall, who actually stopped her vehicle to wish us luck on our pilgrimage. While we were no pilgrims, her kind gesture made us feel like we were actually participating in something greater than just a mountain trail or a day hike. It was wonderful to be part of this meaningful fragment of the Japanese history.
We also saw many interesting sights along the way!
The ascent was tough. The terrain was uneven and slippery (due to the rain) and I almost slipped many times. My calves were aching so much that I started asking myself why I was doing this to myself. But we kept pushing on – if pilgrims from a few hundred years ago can complete this with little or no equipment, in probably worse conditions, how can we give up so easily?!
After what seemed like for eternity, we finally experienced flat ground. Despite the frogs, salamanders and strange insects, I have never been happier to walk on a flat terrain! The walk after that was significantly easier. Every now and then we would experience a slope and aching calves, but none were as difficult as the earlier ascent.
At some point, I realised we were focusing very much on keeping ourselves going, that it actually felt carefree. We were not thinking about anything else – be it study or work – that we would have been usually. Nothing was at the back of our minds. In that moment, we were completely immersed in the nature. I marvelled at how small we were in this vast forest, and how frivolous our problems were compared to those of this world.
The silence in the forest was also deafening. Save for the sound of the streams and occasional rustling of leaves, there were little traces of human. I wondered how individual pilgrims (we passed by a few lone elderly on the way) felt alone on the trail. Personally, I really appreciated the company – a companion can go a long way in encouraging you to keep going.
After about 1.5km descent on these rock steps (oh how I despise them so!), we heard the waterfall and behold, we were at the Kumano Nachi Taisha! Finally arriving at our destination – clocking 6 hours 20 mins – and witnessing this glorious sight, no amount of words could describe how elated we felt. As we stood before the Nachi Falls, we felt so much pride, exhaustion and relief that we burst into hysterical laughter. Truly, what an experience of a lifetime!
After washing up, we headed to the Main Shrine to complete our pilgrimage.
Nachi Taisha has long been hailed as the grandest of the Three Grand Shrines (one of which was Hayatama Taisha). With its beautiful architecture, and accompanied by Japan’s longest waterfall, such praise is no wonder. As we toured the temple grounds, we could not help but revered at the ancient Japanese – how much determination must they have had to build this magnificent shrine when travelling up and down the mountain itself was already a nightmare? How steadfast must they have held onto their faith, to embark on a pilgrimage, risking their lives to travel miles of treacherous roads?
That night as I was soaking my feet in a tub of hot water, I wondered if I would go back on the trail again, or attempt the full pilgrimage for that matter. Someday, maybe? One must surely have a strong reason to hold tightly onto while on this pilgrimage, or the attempt is bound to fail. For now, I am grateful for the privilege to have walk this historical path that carries the hope, veneration and courage of many (especially pilgrims from many hundred years ago who have given their life in the process). This has made my trip to Japan so much more memorable and meaningful!