Despite allowing myself a sleep in until 7:30, I woke up around 6 this morning when the house started to make noise. I felt a bit disoriented for a while, but then I remembered that I was 1/4 of the way through my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. I lay there and listened to the sound of the rain falling before I worked up enough courage to get up and test the level of soreness in my muscles. Strangely, I was fine.
I got ready for the day, then stripped the sheets from the futon and folded all the bits up neatly. I was half way through writing a message in the guest book when Tsugizakura Okaasan came in and said good morning. She had obviously come to remove the futon and rearrange the room for breakfast, so she was surprised and happy when she saw I had already done it. I just wanted to be helpful and show my appreciation for her hospitality.
A few minutes later, Tsugizakura Okaasan returned to lay out breakfast for me. I can’t usually eat much at breakfast, but this morning I had an appetite, and after last nights meal, I was excited to try more of the minshuku’s home cooking. Breakfast was, of course, huge. It consisted of miso soup with tofu, 3 different vegetable and bean dishes, pickles, mini mountain potatoes cooked with bonito flakes, a vegetable and prawn gratin kind of thing, tamagoyaki, cooked salmon, sweet black beans, simmered vegetables and firm tofu, nori strips, fruits with yoghurt, fresh orange juice, green tea, and enough rice to feed three people. It sounds like a lot, but they were all mini portions. What am I saying, it was a lot of food! I ate everything, much to my surprise, but I couldn’t finish all the rice.
After breakfast, I gathered my things and said goodbye to both the minshuku owners. They gave me a very cutely wrapped box of chocolates as ‘energy snacks’ for the road. I wrapped up my backpack in its rain coat, and said goodbye to Tsugizakura Okaasan and Otoosan. I had really enjoyed my stay there, and I loved all the little personal touches of the place. I had felt so welcome. Tsugizakura Otoosan made sure I knew where to pick up the Kumano Kodo trailhead, then I set off with my umbrella for day two of my journey.
I made a quick stop at Nonaka no Shimizu, which was a crystal clear spring about one minute away from the minshuku. It was beneath a red bridge, tucked in a corner of a stone wall. In the middle was pool of water that was so clear, I was pretty sure you could drink out of it. Then the spring ran below that. It was so perfect that it could have been constructed for a movie, but of course this was Japan, and places like this really do exist.
It was raining lightly as I headed off again on the Kumano route. But I was in good spirits. For some reason, my body didn’t feel tired or sore, and my pack really didn’t feel half as heavy as yesterday. Maybe I had developed giant callouses on my shoulders that were acting as extra padding, who knows. I walked along a sealed road for a while, which was easy because it was so even, and I reached the distance markers quickly. I walked past a few houses, some of which had these funny wooden statues out the front.
It was really windy, and the rain got a little heavier, but it was never so bad that I actually needed my umbrella. Before long I came to the first bit of unsealed road for the day. The sun came out to commemorate my arrival at this point. Up until then, the walk had been very easy, but now the uneven uphill climb began. It still wasn’t as steep as yesterday though. It didn’t take long to reach Warajitoge Pass, which was a place where pilgrims traditionally traded their worn and broken straw sandals for fresh ones. From there, it was a steep and slippery downhill climb to the river. The whole time I was thinking ‘thank god I don’t have to go up this bit.’
At the bottom of the river I was supposed to cross a bridge and continue through the forest on the other sign, but the bridge was blocked off, and a huge sign saying ‘Kumano Kodo Detour’ pointed right. It said that the detour would take 1.5 hours. I had no choice really, so off I went down this gravel road that looked like it was made for trucks and construction vehicles.
But I didn’t have to walk on the road for long. I crossed a river into a section.of forest that reminded me of highland mountains. Think mountain goats, and you’ll get the picture. A really tall and steep-looking mountain was in front of me, and I remember thinking ‘wow, it would be crap if I had to go up that.’ I was certain that I would curve around the mountain or that there would be a valley.pass, so I wasn’t really worried. But the trail kept going up for some reason. Steeply. After 20 minutes of strenuous climbing, I realized that I WAS climbing the dreaded mountain. I was so high up that the tops of other mountains were LOWER than me. But still I had to keep going up. At one stage I came to a net across the path with a big sign that I didn’t understand. I could read the kanji for ‘Kumano Kodo’ and ‘detour course’ but I had no idea what the rest meant. Beyond the net, I could see one of the familiar wooden signs that marked the detour route, so I guessed I was still going the right way. Plus, there hadn’t been any other trails, and I had just climbed up a long way, I wasn’t about to go back down again and undo all that hard work. So I snuck under the net and just hoped it wasn’t a net to contain wild boars which might attack me.
A short while later, I reached the top of the mountain, and the path went down through a pine forest. I felt kind of elated from having ‘beaten’ the mountain, and wished my dad could’ve seen me do it. Another 20 minutes later, I reached the bottom of the other side of the mountain, which connected back to the main Kumano Kodo trail. Detour complete. I felt like I had successfully finished some kind of bonus secret mission. (I’m getting a sense that I played to many video games as a kid.)
But that was only the detour, and I still had many hours of walking ahead of me. I crossed a river and an old abandoned house, then had to climb a steep hill to reach Mikoshi-toge pass. This was the highest point of the day, and I rested there briefly before continuing through an arch and down through more forest. I followed a river, and cut through one section of blinding sunshine, where a whole chunk of forest had been cleared. There was this one shallow puddle there that was filled with tiny black tadpoles. There were literally thousands of them. I walked a little further along the river before reaching Funatama Shrine, where the main Nakahechi route links up to the Akagi-goe route (to Yunomine Onsen.) Here, I sat by the river and ate a banana and a few of the chocolates Tsugizakura Okaasan had given me. They had different flavours inside; banana, strawberry, almond and caramel. Then I tried to nut out what I wanted to do next. I had planned to take the Akagi-goe route to Yunomine (where I would spend the night), then walk to Hongu the next day and backtrack a little before heading to Koguchi. That route would take me 2 more hours today. But then I thought I might walk all the way to Hongu today instead, and then continue to Yunomine. That would take about 3-3.5 more hours today. It was only 1:30, so I did have time to do it today, and my body was feeling good so I thought I should do the longer walk when I wasn’t aching. So I set off for Kumano Hongu Taisha.
I had another steep climb up to Hosshinmon-oji, which is known as ‘the gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment.’ It is important because it marks the outermost entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha’s sacred precincts. Yes, I copied that from the guide map. The next hour or so was quite an easy walk, alternating between tiny rural villages and forested paths. There were a lot of small ‘honesty shops’ on the roadside, which are basically tiny wooden sheds with bagged goods displayed for sale. There are price tags and a tin or jar for money. These stalls aren’t manned, and instead rely on the honesty of people to pay the correct money.for the things they take. Items for sale are usually fruits or vegetables, or homemade pickles. But today I also saw this store selling wood carvings. I’m sure Australian customs would love me if I brought one of those home.
Around 3pm, I finally reached Fushiogami-oji, which is where “pilgrims fell to their knees on catching their first glimpse of the Grand Shrine in the distant valley below.” Again, guide map’s words, can you tell? I didn’t exactly ‘fall to my knees,’ but it was kind of cool to be able to see my next destination. There was a very modern toilet there, as well as a rest spot and a pair of ladies selling coffee and souvenirs. I bought a postcard with a picture of a 3 legged bird on it. This bird is the mascot of Hongu. Another foreigner arrived at the rest stop, having come from the opposite direction. She was the second pilgrim I had seen on the trail today, and was from Finland. It seemed strange speaking Japanese to someone who looked caucasian, but I suppose it’s wrong to assume people speak English. Also her Japanese was brilliant.
Next, I began the hour-long descent to Hongu Taisha, which took me through more forest. At one point I really thought I was in Tasmania, because the vegetation looked so similar to some of the cold-climate forests there. I passed another bunch of remains of an old teahouse, as well as the point where the Nakahechi route joins up to the Kohechi route, which links to Koyaasan. Although I was only going down, it was very rocky and was actually harder than it sounded on the map. The trail was mostly step-like, rather than a slope, and the action of stepping down put a lot of stress on my knees. The guide map suggested using a walking stick if you have bad knees. I can tell you now, even if you start off in perfect health, you will definitely acquire bad knees after completing this pilgrimage. By the time I got to the small town at the bottom of the trail, both my knees were aching from the stress.
But I was almost there! I walked through another tiny town, and made a prayer for health and safety at a tiny ‘soul cleansing’ shrine next to marker number 75; the last number marker before the Grand Shrine. I had done it! I had really pilgrimed all the way from Takijiri to Hongu,just like real pilgrims! I was elated.
I entered the main shrine through the back way, and looked around the grounds for a little enjoying the sense of achievement at having finally reached the holy place. I prayed there, because it felt right, and then walked down the many stone stairs to the town of Hongu.
It was feeling ok, but my body knew it wanted to stop walking soon. So I pep-talked myself for the final hour hike. After walking for hours for a few days, one hour really doesn’t seem that far anymore. The trail between Hongu and Yunomine is called Dainichi-goe. Although it is only 3.4km, it is incredibly steep, and takes a little more than an hour to complete. It can’t be that bad, I thought, I’ve been faster than the recommend times so far, so I can probably do it in under an hour.
What an ignorant person I am.
The trail started out ok, and it passed through Oyunohara, which was a giant torii in the middleof nowhere, with a pretty park inside. After I got to Oyunohara, I lost the Kumano Kodo route, and got disoriented for a little, but then I picked it up again on Hongu’s main road. I found the Dainichi-goe trail head, and prepared for my last climb of the day..
Boy was I so NOT prepared for what lay ahead of me. Most trails start off steep but level out after a while. But this was the hiking trail from hell. I literally climbed the whole way, and there were no flat bits at all. Each step was painful, and my whole body hurt. It was the steepest trail I had encountered so far. Each step up required me to lift my knees above hip hight, and I often had to use my hands to haul myself up too. I could hear eagles calling as they circled above me, obviously waiting for me to fall over and die so they could eat my flesh. I had felt ok after walking to Hongu, but this last hour broke me, mentally and physically. I had to force myself to keep climbing. I finally made it to the top, but then I still had at least 20 minutes of downwards climbing, which was almost as bad as going up. I was supposed to take this same route for part of the way tomorrow, but I swore never ever to cone back to it, even if it meant a two-hour detour tomorrow.
I felt the hugest wave of relief when I could see roofs below me, and could smell the unmistakable sulphuric scent of an onsen town. Forget pilgrims “falling to their knees” at Fushiogami-oji, I almost cried out in happiness at my first sight of Yunomine Onsen.
I found Minshuku Teruteya easily enough, and the lady who ran it greeted me and showed me my room. I’ll call her Teruteya Okaasan. In the room, she boiled a little kettle for me to make tea, and asked if 6:30 was too early for dinner. I knew other guests were staying the night too, and it was probably easier for her if we all ate at the same time, so I said ok.
I drank a pot of tea, then collapsed on the floor and didn’t move for at least half an hour. I wanted to shower before dinner, but I’d only arrived at 5:45, and didn’t have time. At 6:30, I dragged my exhausted body downstairs to eat in the dining room. It was a tatami room consisting of three low Japanese tables, laid out with food. A group of three older Japanese ladies were already enjoying their meal together, and another table was set for two other guests. I sat down at my designated table and Teruteya Okaasan brought out a few more dishes to add to the already full table. She explained what a few of the specialty dishes were then lit a candle under a ceramic pot containing duck and vegetables, which was to cook at the table. The dinner included pickles, tuna sashimi, squid with cucumber and wakame cooked in a sweet sauce, simmered takenoko (bamboo shoots) and mountain potato, a whole cooked fish, two rice balls wrapped in leaves, plain steamed rice, tofu cooked in an onsen, and the sizzling duck dish, which came with a tasty dipping sauce. The food was pretty good, and any other day I would have said it was excellent. But last night’s minshuku had set the bar pretty high, and tonight’s dinner wasn’t quite up to that level. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it and it was delicious, but the food at Tsugizakura was really something special.
Whilst I ate, I chatted to the three Japanese ladies, as well as a German couple, who were the other guests at the minshuku. Everyone was friendly, and I thought it might have been nice if we all sat together. The Japanese ladies were impressed with my ability to use chopsticks, my Japanese language, and the fact that I could eat Japanese food. The typical trifecta required for gaijin to impress locals. After the main meal, Tetsuteya Okasaan served yogurt with mandarine and azuki. I thanked her for the food, then returned to my room and sat with my legs under the kosatsu. I ate the purple sweet potato daifuku that I had bought yesterday, because it was going a but hard. I was also not completely stuffed, probably from having burnt so much energy hiking today.
I went downstairs to go in the bath, and was surprised to find it was actually a private onsen. I showered first, then was prepared for a long soak in the natural hot spring waters. I wanted to soak away my aches from the hell hike. But the onsen was far hotter than any I have been in before, and I could.only manage about 2 minutes of submersion before I felt like I was being boiled alive.
Back in my room, I rolled out my futon and planned tomorrow’s route. There was no way in hell I was going back over Dainichi-goe, so I thought I’d walk along some highways through onsen villages to reach the next section of Kumano Kodo. Even if it takes an extra two hours, I don’t care. The other option might literally kill me.
It felt good to just sitting there and not move. I think I should have walked the way I initially planned today. I bet I’m going to really pay for it tomorrow.
I think I like yesterday’s minshuku better than today’s. It felt more personal, and I had a connection with the owners, where as here, the owner is just kind of ‘there.’ Of course she is polite and kind, but I felt that I got on well with the others, and they acted as if they were my aunty and uncle or something. I don’t know, I just loved that little minshuku.
Departure: 9 am
Arrival: 5:45 pm
Breaks: ~45 mins
Total Walking Time: ~8 hours
Distance Travelled: ~25.5 km