If you enjoy travel that encompasses nature, culture and history, you will love Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. One of the only two UNESCO protected heritage pilgrimage routes in the world (the other being the Santiago de Compostela in Spain), travelling the Kumano Kodo was an amazing experience for my husband and I, during a recent trip to Japan.
The Kumano Kodo route stretches across the Kii Peninsula Mountain. There are a number of different routes that you can choose from, with the most popular being the Nakahechi route. We took a train from Kyoto to a small town, Kii-Tanabe, before jumping on a bus for an hour to Takijiri— the starting point of Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route. It was an amazing experience, and I’d love to share with you five things that stood out from our pilgrimage.
1. Nature and Culture
We hiked approximately 38km in two days, averaging eight to twelve hours a day, on the way from Takijiri to Hongu Taisha. As we walked we reflected on the spiritual journeys that the imperials and aristocrats had embarked on, several hundred years ago.
I took a deep breath, I listened to the soothing wind and enjoyed the peacefulness of nature. The scenery before us was surreal; the rain had just stopped and oh, I always like the fresh smell after rain! I stopped, captivated by the divine scenery, it was mystical. Then, almost suddenly, I realised that we were the only people in the forest.
As we climbed our way up and down the mountain, the scenery and the types of vegetation dramatically changed with different colours and species. Colourful wild fungi dotted the track.
What distinguishes the Kumano Kodo trail is that along the journey we had the opportunity to encounter shrines and ojis (a small/subsidiary shrine), the site of the tea house remains, a cemetery, all while learning the history behind them.
The route that we took is rated four out of five in difficulty. However, the tracks are very well maintained with clear directional signage in English. Some of the terrain is very steep, the ground varies from pebble stone, gravel, big rocks, soil, to bitumen.
The difficulty level of the walk depends on the route you take in Kumano Kodo but I would recommend you train beforehand.
2. Japanese Style Bath
We stayed overnight at a guest house in Tsugizakura village. It is a small Japanese style house with a bedroom view of beautiful misty mountains. We were welcomed with a glass of ice green tea and a tasty Japanese sweet. After a short rest, a pair of pyjamas were prepared for us and we could not wait for a Japanese Style Bath.
Experiencing a Japanese style bath is a must. Before you dip into the bath, whether it is in private or public bath, you will need to rinse yourself. A stool and a small bowl are usually prepared in front of a mirror for you to rinse.
After facing all of the challenges along the walk, a rejuvenating and relaxing bath was perfect. From a very small window above our bath, we could see a glimpse of the mountain view. Who can resist the combination of a beautiful view and a warm bath? We were spoilt.
3. Hot Springs
On the second day of our journey, we reached our final destination at Hongu Taisha, the grand shrine. The ryokan (Japanese Style Accommodation) where we stayed is located by the river which is famously known as the Kawayu Onsen area. Waking up quite early, we did not want to miss out on the opportunity to dig a hole in the river. The hot spring bubbled up to the water surface between the pebbles. After a long walk the night before, a bath out in the natural environment accompanied by ducks and fishes was amazing.
If you have spare time, it is also worth experiencing Tsuboyu Onsen in Yunomine Onsen area, the oldest hot spring in Japan protected by UNESCO. It is a small wooden cabin and the bath was formed by natural rocks. The water changes colour seven times a day.
During our overnight stay on our pilgrimage, we were pampered with a 10 course Japanese meal called Kaiseki. Yes, 10 courses! And each dish was presented as a piece of art. It tasted delicious and we can definitely say that it was some of the best Japanese cuisine we had ever tasted. Not only delicious, we were amazed at how beautifully they put together various elements on one plate.
For our entrée, we had a pair of peanuts that were partially peeled, accompanied by two slices of apple, a boiled prawn, and cubed omelette. One of the main courses was chicken and eggplant that was dipped into Japanese barbeque. They called it a, ‘mini BBQ’, as we needed to grill the chicken on a mini charcoal BBQ grill. All of this was made complete by washing it down with the locally crafted plum wine.
In Kawayu Onsen, fish is the signature dish due to the region’s proximity to the river. It was served with each course as well as my favourite coffee dessert. The coffee was mixed with the hot spring water and was presented as a jelly drink and topped with delicious sorbet.
After each dinner, our futon (Japanese mattress) was ready in our bedroom. Having a good rest after a great meal is a perfect way to end your pilgrimage day.
5. The Pilgrimage Experience
It is said that people in the past were seeking salvation from their sufferings along the pilgrimage trails, in order to purify themselves. For me, the pilgrimage was indeed a challenge, both physically and mentally. The beautiful aspect of a pilgrimage is how it will teach you that no matter how difficult your life challenges are, if you continue to focus on your goal, you will make it. I had to keep walking in the forest no matter how bad the weather was and no matter how sore my feet were. It was such an achievement to be able to accomplish this journey.
You can find more information about the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, here.
If you have any questions or have achieved a pilgrimage, please let me know in the comments below!
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you,
and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
Christina Sunario works at an architectural studio in Sydney. She loves to spend her spare time decorating and styling as well as diving into her latest crafty project (her favourite materials include timber and leather) . She shares her works on Instagram and her blog.