With my time in Japan rapidly drawing to a close, I decided to make one last trip out from Osaka and tick off another must-see off my list. My destination, the Kii peninsular, a rocky knuckle that cuts out into the Pacific Ocean, some hundred and fifty kilometres south of Osaka. Here, stretching across the mountains lies the Kumano Kodo 熊野古道, a network of pilgrimage routes that circle three of Japan’s most venerable shrines. The route’s history stretches back to the arrival of Buddhism when it was used as a means to practise ascetism, later however it becamee more closely related to the native Shinto faith, and, amongst others, was frequented by the imperial family as a means to perform purification rites on themselves as well as the nation. The route originally consisted of a gruelling, forty day walk from the then Imperial Palace Kyoto, though fortunately the route has now been reduced considerably and hikers now choose between one of two stretches of ancient road run westwards from the city of Tanabe in southern Wakayama Prefacture.
I decided upon Nakahechi, a two day hike the cuts horizontally through forty kilometres of mountainous terrain to the central shrine of Hongu Taisha. Though not as gentle as alternative Ohechi, a far flatter coastal route, Nakahechi saw little alteration from Japan’s rapid modernisation and so offered a real chance to witness a glimpse of a culture long forgotten in most of the country.
The plan was to walk the first eighteen kilometres and then stay at a minshuku in the rural farming community of Chikatsuyu, just about the only place where any people lived along the way. Unfortunately heavy traffic on the drive down from Osaka meant that I was already two hours behind schedule when I set out early Friday afternoon. Nonetheless I kept a steady pace and an hour later made it to the top of the first speak, where I was forced to seek shelter from a sudden thunderstorm (Kii is reknowned seeing more precipitation than anywhere else in Japan). I soon discovered that I could not afford this luxury as a local farmer told informed me that there were no more settlements from that point to Chikatsuyu and if I didn’t hurry it would be sundown and I would risk loosing my way. I spent the rest of the day soaked through by the driving rain, but to to the surreal backdrop of rolling thunderclouds crashing into the mountainside, which made for some great photo opportunities. I managed not to get sidetracked for too long though (as pretty as it was, I was still very wet) and made it to Chikatsuyu just before nightfall.
Day two saw much fairer weather, meaning that I could properly enjoy the views of isolated countryside that ahead been blotted from sight the day before. A continuous blanket of dense, rich greenery coated mountaintop and valley in every direction, untouched by man. Walking through this seemingly forgotten land, I almost felt as if I was the first person to be walking it, the continual silence of the forest broken only by the sound my footsteps or the sudden screech of a cicada. Only the mossy stone path that guided me served as a reminder as to how many people had passed along the same way.
Every half an hour or so, dotted along the trail, tiny wooden huts, some no bigger than post boxes sat in a state of decay, as if being reclaimed by the forest floor. These Ōji 王子 or subsidiary shrines, were the sites were Emperors and Shoguns would have come to perform purification rites as they neared the spiritual heart of Kumano Kodo. Inside were offerings to the Shinto deities (Kami) specific to that part of the forest, some with stone prayer cards and tiny images of Jizō Bōsatsu, others with offerings of sake or monetary donations. Strangest of all was a shrine to appease the serpent demons that preyed on the unwary travellers in the area. This was done by scattering a great many stone eggs across the forest floor (a snakes preferred meal), and the warning not to finish all your lunch for the next couple of kilometres, as it could be used hasty escape from perusing spirits. I had an onigiri rice ball at the ready, just incase.
As I drew closer to Hongu Taisha, the eyry bliss that accompanied my solitude was sadly cut short by a descending hoard of day trippers who had taken a bus to not far from the main shrine and were walking the last hour of the route. This momentarily marred the experience, but not enough that I wasn’t amazed when descending the last mountain, I saw Oyunohara for the first time.
Standing at 33 metres Oyunohara, the former Torii gate to Hongu Taisa, is the largest of its kind and can be seen for miles around. The gate stands boldly up on the floodplain of the Kaminogawa River a sudden interruption in an otherwise uncultivated scene. A short walk away, overlooking the towering figure, sits Hongu Taisha, an organic meddley of gold, cedarwood and thatch which enshrines all three of the Kumano Kodo main deities. Considering its massive importance in Shintoism, the Hongu Taisha was relatively quiet save the day trippers I had encountered earlier, giving it a more authentic feel than the great shrines of Tokyo and Kyoto, which at times are more tourist-trap than temple. Moreover, as chance would have it the day I visited just happened to also be Bon-dōri (a traditional Japanese dance festival) and I was got a crash course in the dance from one of the priests, who was pretty nimble given the kimono and a age of over seventy.
Feeling thoroughly cultured out and looking wind-down after all that walking, I checked into a Minshuku (family run bnb) further up the valley before heading off to Nachi Taisha (Kumano Kodo’s second shrine) the next day. This was quite different to Hongu as much more the norm, the shrine was painted a bright vermillion and featured a buddhist temple intergrated into the complex. Most impressively was a three storey pagoda that sat high in the mountain, and commanded a view right down the valley to the Pacific Ocean.
A postcard image of Asia Pacific, Kumano Kodo should be a top of the list priority for anyone interested in experiencing authentic Japanese culture at its height. The added bonus is that as of yet this Unesco World Heritage sight has not been swamped in so many camera clicking tourists that it’s lost it’s touch. This is the real deal, unmissable for anyone who wants to see Shinto shrines at their best, and walk paths over a millennia old.