Back in November, I found myself with a four-day weekend and thought I’d use the opportunity to take a mini 休み (“yasumi,” vacation). As an early birthday present to myself, I decided to head down to Wakayama prefecture and embark on the Kumano Kodo walking pilgrimage.
The Kumano Kodo is made up of a series of ancient pilgrimage trails throughout the Kii Penninsula. Together, they are registered as UNESCO World Heritage. The Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago are the only two pilgrimage routes registered as UNESCO World Heritage. If you do both, and get the stamps to prove it, you can become a “Dual Pilgrim.” [See here for more information.]
Originally, these pilgrimages were a way for people to move between the many sacred areas of the Kii Peninsula, which has been termed “the land of the gods.” But beyond that, they were also intended to provide religious experiences as emperors, nobles, monks and samurai would take these paths to find enlightenment or “heaven on earth.” The route I decided to take (mainly due to time constraints) is called Nakahechi. The hostel I stayed at (Buddha Guest House – highly recommended for a homey, Japanese-style stay) had a few pamphlets on the Kumano that explained Nakahechi as the main route due to its “steep and treacherous” qualities and the underlying belief that “penance is the road to salvation.” Picked a good one.
After a dinner of めはり寿司 (mehari sushi) wrapped in mustard greens, I bussed into Kii-Tanabe where I checked in to the Buddha Guest House. The owner was super nice and recommended me a sweet place to stay tomorrow (which I had perhaps naively planned on winging). He also gave me some of his friend’s homegrown mikans!
Day 1 on the Kumano
Woke up with the sun and caught a 6:35am bus to Takijiri where the Nakahechi route begins. I wandered into a shop next to the trailhead where I found a mini stamp book for only 100円. (I had read that there would be a few stamps along the way. There were plenty). Post-purchase, the shop owner pointed me in the right direction and I was on my way. やっぱり there was a stamp right at the gate, followed by 45 minutes of pure uphill. (Beginning of the penance?) Got warm real quick.
About 10 minutes in, there was a small cave-like rock formation called tainai kuguri. A nearby sign explained the cave – thankfully most of the signs had English translations below, and said that it was a “test of faith” or a “passing through the womb.” Supposedly, a pregnant woman able to make it through the cave will have a “smooth delivery.” Definitely not pregnant, but squeezed on through anyway!
For the first hour or so, the trail would level out, go vertical again and then repeat. There were stairs, rocky downhills, and little oji shrines with stamps every few kilometers. The trail wound through switch backs, little villages, mini side hikes and the most amazing mountain view lookouts.
Venturing on such a woodsy mountain trail unaccompanied, one may seem to be alone in the middle of nowhere but it is actually quite the opposite. There was so much life in those mountains. So much togetherness. It was not nearly as alone-in-the-wilderness and isolating as one might expect.
Though in taking your first solo step into such a deserted forest, it may seem that way initally. It’s quiet. It may feel like it’s just you, like there is nothing but you and this stationary, all-encompassing nature surrounding you. The trees are tall and hide you from the rest of the world, the rocks are jagged and mossy like they’ve laid there untouched forever. Even the smell may be that of something other, something so natural and rare that it is foreign to the infrequent wanderer.
Yet, the more time you spend in this “other,” the more you come to realize what it actually is. It’s the smell of life and of being. Personally, I have never felt more alive or more free than when I’m out in the so-called “wild,” especially alone. The trees that you once saw as shade-giving shelters are now alive, breathing with you and connected to the roots of everything below you. The moss-covered rocks are not only full of energy but have interacted with countless species from the wildest of mammals to the tiniest of bacteria. And the most exciting part is, it’s all connected. Either physically or through interrelated systems and interactions with other species, everything in nature is arguably a product of cooperation and symbiotic relationships.
Here, however, there is a disassociation, in much of the western worldview. As human beings, we are prone to forgetting that we are part of nature and tend to see ourselves as something unnatural or above it. ‘Humans vs nature’ is something we see and hear all the time but should linguistically be an impossible thing. Humans are nature. Nature is all things, humans included. Because of this super-connected relationship, we don’t simply exist, we coexist. The way we live today may not be considered the most “natural,” but we are undoubtedly natural beings, even if we forget sometimes. We are nature in the same sense that a forest is nature, or that a star is nature. It simply is. It is not wild or other, it is just reality.
Living on Earth is like walking on a delicately balanced yet sturdy pathway that has somehow been perfectly set up for you to not fall off. A rigged balance beam of sorts. Everything you need is provided for you without any effort, and all you have to do is walk the path. You can blissfully dance your way across, eyed-closed, and you still won’t fall off… so long as the connection to all things is realized. Where we come into trouble however, is when we fail to see this connection. Then things become unequal. We put ourselves and other temporary things above the very nature and processes that brought us into being and that continue to sustain our being. If we can’t see the connection, we may start to feel like we are the only ones; like we are the only ones frantically walking a winding path in a dangerously wild forest. We wonder why we are even in the forest in the first place. We think it provides nothing but discomfort and risk. That it is simply inanimate trees and dirt, rocks and sticks. That there’s no meaning in the wild. That it is scary and we should protect ourselves from it because it is other. That it is unknown and unsafe.
This is perhaps where we stand now. Nature has become unknown. It is something so rooted to the core of our being and yet it has become foreign. It’s as if we have collectively walked into a beautifully alive forest but have become sick of the greens and browns. It’s as though we would rather see a more colorful, lit-up plastic interpretation of it in some indoor museum.
Understandably, it is not very hard to get into this mentality because that is how our society brings up its children. However, it could not be more liberating to get out of it. To realize that yes, we are nature, the universe is crazy and we’ll never fully understand it but we are still here and living and connected to all things, to all beings, on this little rock floating around in space. We’re never alone in the wilderness. We are the wilderness. We all belong to the universe and to each other and are the miraculous result of a planet encouraging life in an unfathomably large cosmos. This is what it feels like to be connected.
Kumano Day 1 ended with a dirt-covered backpack, countless extraordinary views, chirping birds, free-flowing rivers, stone pathways, steps made of roots, trails flanked by cliffs, waterfalls, tree bridges, oji temples, statues, stamps (in the mini stamp book), a heart full of love and lungs full of fresh air.
Chikatsuyu is where I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon after 17km and 4.5 hours of hiking around. There was beautiful lookout point just before the town where I stopped for a respite. And just down the hill was a conveniently located public foot onsen. Dipped my toes, bought some mikans and headed over to the Iris Park (that the Buddha Guest House owner had recommended). I ended up being one of the only people in the park and got to have my own bungalow! Across the street was the park’s onsen bathhouse – probably the best way to end a day of trekking.
[See here for Kumano Kodo Day 2]