When I started this website in 2006 (see first post) the plan was to put up a picture every day, clearly I’ve failed at that, but it has been fun. I’ve never considered myself a writer and why I thought just pictures would suffice. Now things have changed and since we’re on this great adventure trip I’m trying to write more while also sometimes allowing the pictures to speak for themselves.
Last month we were fortunate enough to spend time in Japan and were able to walk in their Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. With Selina’s guidance; this is my recollection of those days, hope you enjoy.
We were tired of the [Japanese] city life. The dense, overly crowded and confusing subway, the expensive accommodation, food and everything in general. So with two nights left in our reservation, we decided to ask our hostel in Osaka to check out early and switch the last two nights to a week later. It took a minute to get our point across the concierge counter but we think they understood our intent and allowed the change. After all, with the Golden Week holiday in Japan I didn’t think they would have any trouble finding guests while we were gone.
My cousins in Tokyo had mentioned the Kumano Kodo trail and with very little research we decided to go there. We packed our bags in 15 minutes, made a quick stop to get camping fuel and we were on our way to Tanabe. The limited express train took 2.5 hours. By 14:30 we were in the Tanabe tourist information center asking about the trail, stopping points, water refill stations, campsites, etc. The lady was very nice and spoke English very well. She informed us there is no campsite in Tanabe, and there are only two places to camp on the trail. She implied that if we were to camp illegally, to be discreet and avoid doing so on the trail… I was just happy to be out of the city and thought we’d figure it out. So we got an information booklet with all the trail directions, our official trail stamp booklet and off we went to the trail visitor support center.
At the visitor support center, which offered luggage storage service, we sorted our bags and only took our tent, sleeping bags and mattress pads, cooking stuff, plenty of underwear / socks and one change of clothes. I think we left behind 70% of our things. A quick stop at the convenience store to make dinner later and we took the bus to Takijiri, where the trailhead is.
Traveling in Japan during Golden Week holiday is not the time to travel on a budget, and even less for making last minute accommodations. On the bus ride to Takijiri we decided to try camping along the road. Since the Kumono Kodo trail is considered sacred we found a spot off the trail, on the river bank. And being good campers we followed the “leave no trace” practice. But this meant waking up at five a.m. to pack up and not draw attention to ourselves.
In Takijiri we filtered some water from the river and made dinner while waiting for it to get dark and set up camp. By then we had a lovely light and steady rain drizzle that was forecasted to last all night and all day. Yay wet camping / hiking! I was just glad to be in the forest listening to the river next to us.
Five a.m. came quick. We packed up in the drizzling rain, got our first trail stamp and started our hike. Even in the rain nature has a way of being beautiful: the fog and rain clouds half covering the mountains, the wet plants shining; they were more vibrant with the water. The birds started to sing as the day came and we continued our walk through the first steep section of the hike. Who needs coffee with this steep hike surrounded by such -wet- beauty?
The trail was clearly marked for every important turn, additionally every 500meters there was a distance marker ( a constant reminder how far you’ve gone, or have remaining). We zig-zagged uphill noticing all the colors, tall pines, the small flowers, the random shrines, abandoned cars, the different types of ground. We walked through small villages, steep paths, past rice fields, bamboo forests, big and small streams and noticed orange river crabs. House remains and stone markings with Japanese writings on them. Stamping stations and very few other hikers. Selina set the pace, I set the pace. We talked some and spent equal amount of time in silence. Even in the rain it was perfect. We felt at peace, grateful; THIS is how we meditate. We walked for hours; without schedule, without worry for food or staying dry, getting lost. We were present, we were in the forest in Japan.
Before we knew it we were in a village with two restaurants, a small supply store and a bus stop. One restaurant was closed and the second only had bagels and rice ball set. She told us it’s not lunch and that everything else was sold out, but when the rice ball set came out it was plenty for us, and delicious!
Earlier in the walk we had asked another hiker if he knew the weather forecast. We looked on his phone and it said for more rain until 16:00 with clear skies and sun the next day. Selina saw on the trail map there was a covered shelter off the trail at around km 18, about 5 km from where we had lunch. We kept walking in the rain and got to the shelter around 17:00 with an hour of sunlight left in the day. We ended up walking roughly 19 km that day.
The shelter seemed to be an old bus stop, shortly before the entrance to a tunnel, off a small road. We changed into dry clothes and made pasta with pre-cooked single serving packaged marinara sauce and spiced canned tuna. Rather luxurious for camping food, and it was equally tasty, or maybe we’re just that hungry from walking all day. By then, it was getting dark and the rain seemed to have stopped.
Morning came quick, twilight sunrise was around 05:00. We changed into our wet clothes and started our walk. It was cold and the damp clothes didn’t help, but walking and the sun coming up did help. Eventually the clothes dried from the rain water, but then they were soaked with sweat.
We walked through more villages. There were more people, more rice fields and even tea plantations, and of course more forest. The forest seemed different in the sun. More animals were singing; we could hear more birds and bullfrogs. We almost stepped on a few snakes and I kept walking into spiderwebs.
With every step I noticed the different sounds; on leaves, on rocks, in the mud, over tree roots, on pavement (pictures)… every sound was heightened. We stopped at every shrine to look and read, and collect our pilgrimage stamps. We took breaks at creeks to refill our water bladder and took notice of how the sun shone through the trees. At some parts it felt that this was how the redwoods started, but this area had been affected by natural disasters (typhoons, earthquakes, landslides) more frequently. We walked by the aftermath of landslides of massive proportions. It all reminded me how little we are… we took our time and enjoyed the day’s walk.
use mouse to navigate
The day went on and so did we without much worry. The crowds thickened and we started to see public bus service on road crossings. We also noticed the vending machines on the trail shelters and toilets. All were signs that we were getting close to Kumano Hongu, our next stop and possibly final destination. Sure enough when we looked at the map we were a few km away, and instead of stopping for instant ramen we decided to finish the peanuts and push on.
At the main temple we got our final trail stamp. We finished but yet feel somewhat let down. This felt too easy, short, and there was nobody to cheer us on at the finish line. No trophy, just another two tourists. But we felt grateful for the time together and congratulated each other for finishing.
After a late lunch we found a free resting building and Selina took a nap while I went to the information center in Kumano Hongu. They told me that camping there was 620 yen (about $6 US), much more reasonable than the campground in the previous town. With a short run to the grocery store for dinner supplies we found the campground and decided to stay there three nights. This way we could have a rest day, spend some time at the hot springs and have a short day hike. After all that’s what this entire trip is about, taking our time and allowing ourselves to do what we want. Now we can set up camp in the daylight and not have to worry about waking up early.
The campground was complete madness. We had the impression the culture was minimalist. Well,… not in camping. Families were setting up home-sized tents, sometimes up to three, and I think I saw a refrigerator… car camping at its finest comfort. To each their own, I was just glad we had a spot by the river.
On rest day (day 3) we set up a clothes line and hung everything that was still wet from the first day. We refreshed ourselves in the cold river and rinsed our clothes, ate, played cards, lay down, and watched people pack up their homes and new people set up theirs.
The village nearby has a small grocery supply store ran by a really nice elderly couple. We asked in English and the woman answered in Japanese. Somehow we understood each other and she told us where the tube of garlic was and tried to sell us some pineapple candy.
For dinner we got some ramen and decided to add sausage, hard-boiled eggs and sauteed cabbage. For not being hungry we ended up making enough for three people. So we asked some other tourists if they wanted some. The first couple declined but an Aussie accepted. Ned joined us for dinner. He did a few months of workaway in Sapporo (north Japan) and had been hitchhiking his way through Japan for the last few weeks before going back to Australia.
Morning came quick again. It was cold, the rain fly was wet from the night before, the sun was coming up and there was movement at the campsite. People were taking down their camp. Some stuffed their homes in their cars, others on the back of the their motorcycles and few in their backpacks. Ned continued his walk east and we imagined so did the others that were clearly hiking. We had some hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and took the morning slow. Mid morning we set off for a day walk-loop through town, Kumano Hongu, with plans to have lunch there. We walked through the village, to the end of the road and found the path. We were back in the forest but this time with only 3 liters of water and not our homes on our backs.
There were shrines, markings; it was much warmer. We were hungrier. Selina learned how to count in Spanish. It’s really quite easy and we noticed inconsistencies when counting hundreds versus thousands. One is pluralized and the other is not. Her pronunciation is very good. We walked past another small village with hot springs and noticed people hard boiling eggs in the water.
We walked into town, decided to only have some cake, bought a large black marker, and some crackers. Selina has a knack for finding great fried food. We ate some squid fried crackers that were very tasty and went back to the campsite. We ended up walking roughly 10 km.
We took a quick stop at the village supply store to say hello to the woman that runs the store and get something to make lunch. Back at the campsite we noticed that someone set their grill by the garbage. Our camping fuel was low and almost empty so we decided to use the grill and make our lunch. Boiling water on a grill is quite comical, and slow but we took our time to saute some shallots and garlic, add sausage, tomatoes, add pasta and water to make “one pot pasta”. For dinner we grilled some steak and chicken… we are really living in style at this campsite.
In the morning we woke up early, ate and set the tent on the rocks to dry. We made a sign that says Tanabe in Japanese and walked to the road to hitchhike. Cars passed by; some waved, some bowed, some smiled, others didn’t, a few honked, some did a double take. We could see who considered picking us up and who didn’t. I started to think about all the people back in Denver holding signs at stop lights. After about an hour in the sun holding a sign with our thumbs out and smiling, dancing at the cars go by, someone finally stopped. “Run quick before they change their mind like the other car did earlier!” A man in his late 30’s got out with a big smile on his face. He said a few words in Japanese and rearranged the back seat. His daughter, 7, moved to the front seat with her booster chair. She watched some cartoons on the display while we spoke broken Japanese and English. We scrambled to read from the phrase book and translate app. We gathered they live in Hongu and enjoyed nature. He told us a few years ago there were some landslides and why there was so much road construction. I tried to teach his daughter some words in Spanish but she’s shy. She just giggled and smiled when it was her turn. That ~85 yen marker is now worth about ~4,085 yens, the cost of the bus ride back to Tanabe.
They dropped us off at the bus stop with an hour for the next bus to Osaka. A comfortable bus with internet and no talking, everyone on their phones. Back to the noise, the signs, cars…civilization. The hostel in Osaka should be ready for us to spend two more nights before going to South Korea.
Thank you for reading my long -and hopefully not- boring rant. More random pictures from the walk
Goodbye for now, let me know your thoughts below and make sure to read Selina’s entry for our walk here