Known for its peaceful panoramas, Kumano Kodō is one of two pilgrimage routes with World Heritage status. When Covid-19 shook the world in early 2020, people from other countries stopped visiting. Now, this beautiful area and its surrounding communities are at a crossroads. We flew to Kumano in hopes of inspiring people like you to put on your hiking boots and join us on the road less traveled.
Section Hiking: Will it save Kumano?
Most people know about thru-hiking, a type of trekking in which you complete a long trail in one single trip. That’s not the only type of hiking though. You can also break it up into shorter visits. This type of experience, also known as section hiking, may be a saving grace for Japan’s Kumano Kodō.
When you decide to go on a pilgrimage route, you often think of thru-hiking as the only option. However, if you realize you can break things up and explore through section hiking, it opens more possibilities with less physical, time, and financial constraints.
Traditionally, you could only finish the pilgrimage to Kumano by worshipping at all three of the grand shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Usually, you’d do this in a thru-hike style itinerary. Read: long, grueling hikes. When there were no bullet trains or airplanes, visiting Kumano was not easy. Naturally, most people wanted to complete the pilgrimage in one go. However, with modern transportation systems, we can embark on a pilgrimage in various ways. Fortunately, the gods of Kumano, known for their inclusivity and earthy spirit, will bless all hikers just the same.
Day 1: 13 km between Takijiri Oji and Chikatsuyu Oji
On this adventure, we hiked the first half of the Nakahechi Imperial Route with members of Kumano Reborn, a revitalization initiative from the city of Tanabe. This 40 km trail only reaches one of the three grand shrines: the Kumano Hongu Taisha. It’s also a great example of section hiking, according to Sei Ouchi, a travel writer and mentor of Kumano Reborn.
“If you try completing the Kumano pilgrimage by walking one section at a time, you’ll visit the area more often. When you do this, the connection between you and Kumano transforms into something special. I personally identify with that style of traveling.” – Sei Ouchi.
Noriko Tada, the chair of Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, believes that Japanese hikers will visit Kumano Kodō as section hiking becomes more popular.
On day one, we walked 13 km from Takishiri Oji to Chikatsuyu Oji. With about 1200 m of elevation gain, it’s not an easy stroll. However, there are only a few steep ascents and downhills, so you can embrace your explorer spirit and enjoy the scenery around this ancient pilgrimage route. We recommend that you stop and pray at Ojis (王子), or little shrines in Nakahechi, to ensure a safe trip.
Are all Japanese trails symbols of rebirth?
Takijiri Oji (滝尻王子), which is 40 minutes from Kii-Tanabe station by bus, is where we started our journey. With a few small shops, cafes, and clean toilets, Takijiri is the perfect place to begin the adventure through an ancient path. If time allows, stop by at Kumano Kodō Kan Pilgrimage Center (熊野古道館), where you can learn more about the history and culture of Kumano through exhibition and guide talks.
The trailhead lies just behind Takijiri Oji’s shrine building. Soon after you get started, you’ll climb through steep rocky steps into Mt. Tsurugi (剣ノ山), which literally translates to “a mountain of a sword.” With its elevation of 371 m, you may think it is not as high as the name implies. But the 1.5 km ascent from Takijiri to the peak is nothing but steep. It’s the hardest part of the first day’s itinerary. As you climb the staircase for about ten minutes, you reach a location where there is a narrow opening between huge rocks. This cave is called Tainai Kuguri (胎内くぐり), which literally means “going through the womb.” There is a legend that says walking through this area will purify your body and spirit. If you are a woman who wants to have a baby, this will help you have an easy delivery. Still, regardless of your gender, stop by and pass through.
Actually, you can find caves called Tainai Kuguri in mountains all over Japan. The ritual, in which you experience a small “death and rebirth” by going through a dark narrow space and then stepping out into the sun again, is usually associated with O-Kaidan Meguri (お戒壇めぐり, an inner sanctuary tour in which you pass through a sacred rope circle. You can enjoy this experience at several temples including Nagano Zenko-ji (長野善光寺), or Chino-wa-Kuguri (芽の輪くぐり. It usually happens at shrines across the country in early summer.
In ancient times, all mountains in Japan were seen as either symbols of the afterlife or the mother’s womb. The idea of mixing the place where new lives start with the world after death is another representation of the syncretic attitude towards religion that the Japanese people hold. According to Sei, the Japanese used to equate words or phrases with the same pronunciation even if their meanings were different. In fact, in the Japanese language, mountain trail (山道), birth canal (産道), and approach to temples/shrines (参道) all share the same sound. This shows that in ancient times, people equated trails with birth canals, as well as paths to temples and shrines. Although Kumano Kodō is widely known as a sacred space for rebirth, we like to look at every Japanese mountain as a place where people can be reborn.
When you pass Tainai Kuguri, you’ll walk through a little passage flanked by large stones. The stone on your right-hand side is called Chichi-Iwa (乳岩), the rock of mother’s milk. Japanese folklore claims a miracle once happened there.
In late Heian era (794 – 1185), Fujiwara no Hidehira (藤原秀衡), a samurai from Ōshū Hiraizumi (奥州平泉), was on a pilgrimage to Kumano with his wife when she suddenly went into labor and gave a birth by this rock. The couple were deeply worried about continuing the journey with a newborn. However, when they fell asleep, one of the Kumano deities appeared in their dreams and asked them to leave him their child and continue their travels. The husband and the wife moved forward with their journey. After their departure, a wolf appeared and protected the baby. Even more mysteriously, milk started dripping from the ceiling of the rock. When the parents completed the pilgrimage and returned, they were delighted to see their baby, who was as healthy as could be.
Towards Takahara, the village in the mist
After Chichi Iwa, the steep ascent continues for a little while, but once you get over the peak of Mt. Tsurugi, the route towards Takahara (高原) is easy on the toes. When you reach Takahara, also known as the village in the mist because of its scenic misty mountain view, you move off the trail and on to a paved road. Here, you’ll see a small Japanese village, where you can take a peek at how locals live their lives.
Takahara has no Oji though. There is Takahara Kumano shrine (高原熊野神社), which boasts of the oldest pavilions in Nakahechi and holds a sacred object granted by Kumano Hongu Taisha. Here, you can take a few minutes to stop by and pray for safe travels.
From the shrine, you can take a little walk to the Takahara Kirino Sato rest station, which is equipped with toilets, benches, and a rest house with tables. With its panoramic mountainous view, it’s the perfect place to have lunch if you depart from Takishiri in the morning.
The 9.2 km from Takahara to Chikatsuyu can be daunting, so make sure to buy drinks from the vending machine, fill your water bottles, and use toilets at the station, before you head out.
A long trail with typical Kodō-like scenery
The trailhead is on the other side of the road from the rest station. From there, the path continues through the mountain, but it’s not as steep as the ascend from Takijiri. After the first uphill, there are gentle ups and downs, flanked by flat passages.
Here, make sure to enjoy the quiet mountain path, sandwiched by the deep forest of Kumano. You can chat with other members of your party or escape into your thoughts. There are many ways to enjoy Kumano Kodō.
Passing three Ojis through Gyuba-doji
Just under an hour after you leave Takahara, you’ll reach the Daimon Oji. It’s been said that the Oji is named Daimon (大門), meaning large gate, because there was once a Torii (鳥居) shrine gate near it. Then, you’ll continue through mild ups and downs for about 30 minutes, until you reach Jujo Oji (十丈王子).
Jujo Oji has an open space where you can sit and stretch your legs. It also has toilets, so it’s an appropriate spot to take a nice break. Until the Edo period (1603 – 1868), there were a few houses and a shrine here. After the shrine was removed, because of a shrine merger at the end of Meiji period, the place turned into an empty spot on the mountain.
After Jujo Oji, there is a little ascent that is much shorter and less steep compared to the uphill from Takijiri. From Jujo Oji, you’ll walk a little under an hour to Uwadawa-jaya tea house remains (上多和茶屋跡). This is the highest point on this trail, which reaches an incredible 688 m. There’s a steep downhill between the teahouse remains and your next landmark, Osakamoto Oji (大坂本王子). Be mindful of your steps here.
After Osakamoto Oji, hike down for 15 minutes until you reach the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Michi-no-Eki rest stop. There are toilets there, and if you are a little hungry or thirsty, you can purchase bottled drinks or snacks.
A melancholy symbol of Nakahechi
A 15-minute climb from the rest stop leads to the Hashiori Toge pass (箸折峠) and the Gyuba Doji (牛馬童子). This charming rock statue, which is 50 cm tall, was produced and installed in the Meiji-era and has now become a symbol of Nakahechi.
It’s been said that the statue depicts retired Emperor Kazan, who was crowned at 17 years old, but had to abdicate because one of his wives suddenly died during pregnancy and the powerful politicians around him had evil intentions. Kazan, who left the Imperial Palace with a broken heart, was one of the first to make a pilgrimage to Kumano. Even though he didn’t thrive in a political sense, he was artistically gifted and left a number of beautiful Waka poems behind.
A night in Chikatsuyu
A 10-minute walk from Gyuba Doji takes you to Chikatsuyu Oji (近露王子). The name Chikatsuyu, derives from a legend about the retired emperor. Kazan, whose career forcefully ended at a young age, broke off stalks of a plant to use as chopsticks. Then, he saw dew on the stalks, which reflected the sunset and looked bloody red. He asked his servant with a disconsolate look if it was blood or dew. In Japanese the word for blood is “Chi” or “ka”, while the word for dew is “tsuyu.” Chikatuyu means blood or dew.
Chikatsuyu is the village with the largest number of accommodations in the Nakahechi area. Even so, each accommodation is unique, and the facilities and menus vary. You can order supper, breakfast, and a bento box meal for the next day’s lunch. If you are willing to walk a long trail in Nakahechi, we recommend you stay in Chikatsuyu for a night.
This time, we stayed at Minshuku Chikatsuyu (民宿ちかつゆ), where we enjoyed the home-cooked dishes made with local ingredients. Our highlight was the Ayu-gohan (鮎ご飯), or steamed rise with roasted sweet fish. This place is a perfect accommodation for pilgrims to rest after a long hike. It even boasts of a natural hot spring. Another way to ease the pain and get a little extra energy is by drinking with home-made Ume-shu (梅酒), or plum liqueur. It’s rich in citric acid and does the trick.
Up next: The second half of the Nakahechi
In part two of this series, we’ll introduce you to the 13 km route from Takishiri Oji to Chikatsuyu Oji. In part three, we’ll explore the remaining 26 km from Chikatsuyu to the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. We’ll also introduce a hidden hot spring, which is part of UNESCO certified area. It’s a World Heritage Site where you can soak in the adventure.