Almost two months ago, I met a guy named Ryan, who is on a six month mission to walk across Japan from the south to the north, a distance equivalent to the length of California. As open-hearted travelers, writers, and adventure-seekers, we quickly formed a solid friendship. Thus when Ryan asked me to join him for the “Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage,” I eagerly agreed, intrigued by the mystique of a pilgrimage before I even knew what the trip would entail.
About 100 kilometers (62 miles) south from Osaka, there are a series of hiking trails through the mountains of Japan’s Kii Peninsula. These routes lead to various shrines and temples, which are sacred to Buddhism and Shintoism, and are collectively known as Kumano Kodo. For more than 1,000 years, Kumano Kodo has served as a pilgrimage destination. Registered in 2004 as one of two World Heritage pilgrimage sites, the other being St. James’s Way in Spain, Kumano Kodo now attracts tourists looking for a meaningful sojourn into the majestic nature of Japan.
Ryan and I started the pilgrimage from a small town called Takijiri. After traveling by plane, train, and bus to get there, we arrived around 5:30 PM. We declined the advice of the kind man at the Information Center to start our trek in the morning and eagerly embarked on our hike. As if to instantly warn pilgrims that Kumano Kodo is no romantic walk in the park, the face of the first mountain sits as upright as a menacing, vertical wall. Yet with no food except for a few bags of peanuts in our pockets, we raced the fading daylight and rain clouds to reach the next town 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away.
Highly motivated, we made it to Takahara in an hour and a half. We briefly rested at a lookout over a vast and breathtaking view of the Hatenashi mountain range before darkness, hunger, and rain set in. Thankfully, we soon stumbled upon a hotel where we enjoyed a revitalizing dinner of gourmet Japanese cuisine. Although the hotel was fully booked, I made sure to take advantage of the restroom to brush my teeth and take out my contacts before heading back into the rain to find a place to pitch the tent. With limited options and ever-increasing fatigue, we made camp on a thin patch of grass between the road and a cliff, where only a small cement sign and a measly tree stood between us and a terrible fall – all part of the adventure.
Day two began with a generous breakfast of chocolate and homemade rice balls gifted to us by an elderly Japanese woman whom we met at the lookout. After learning that the nearest grocery store was a 30 minute walk in the wrong direction, we decided to continue our Kumano Kodo journey and stock up on food in the next town, Chikatsuyu, 9.5 kilometers (6 miles) away. Shortly after starting our hike, we were joined by the rain. Although the thick canopy of tree leaves shielded us from much of the shower, the slipperiness of the ancient, moss-covered trails presented an additional challenge as we followed the steep inclines and declines of Kumano Kodo. Nevertheless, we delighted at how the fog from the rain created a mystical feeling in the forest; and five hours later, we arrived in Chikatsuyu. We warmed ourselves up with hot bowls of ramen noodles, secured food supplies from the grocery store, and opted to ride the bus towards our next destination.
The town of Yunomine is a rustic haven for those making the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. Steam rises from the natural hot spring at the heart of Yunomine’s one main road, and the scent of sulfur and the wooden buildings add to the charm of the town. The Yunomine hot spring is considered one of the oldest onsens in Japan, and it is the only hot spring on Earth that is registered as a World Heritage site. According to legend, bathing here provides medical benefits and even cures diseases.
After a well-earned and restful night in a traditional Japanese hotel, known as a “ryokan,” Ryan and I hopped on a series of busses to take us to Nachi Falls – the culmination of our pilgrimage. This famous waterfall, considered divine by the Japanese, is 133 meters (436 feet) tall and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. The sound of one ton of water rushing down the waterfall every second and the wind created by its force was awe-inspiring to behold. Then, tuning out the tour groups and the individual visitors around me, my thoughts turned to the pilgrimage and the significance of making this trip.
By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place that is taken in order to demonstrate devotion, gain divine aid, or serve as an expression of thanks or penance. Ryan and I pursued Kumano Kodo together because we both like to physically and mentally challenge ourselves, because we both enjoy spending time in nature, and because we wanted to share an amazing experience. Even though we did not walk the entire Kumano Kodo or see every shrine, the roads which led us both there represent our own individual journeys of self discovery.
According to the Kumano Kodo Guide published by the Shingu City Tourist Association, “Visiting sacred places is not the only goal of a Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage. It is a journey on which we can look back over the past. Ultimately, we can free ourselves from our pasts and be renewed, allowing our minds to fill with feelings of freedom and gratitude.” In this sense, the few days that Ryan and I spent in Kumano Kodo mirror the larger journeys that we are both undertaking. Ryan’s 6 month traverse across Japan is actually the beginning of a 5-year mission to walk around the world. He began this trip after losing a considerable amount of weight and hopes to utilize it to raise awareness about obesity issues and inspire others to pursue their dreams. I, on the other hand, have been teaching English in Japan for the past two years. My main goal in coming here was to gain experience living abroad. Totally submersed in a foreign culture and away from every ounce of familiarity and comfort that home provides, I realized who I am at my core – what I value, what makes me happy, and what I dream about.
For the final night in Kumano Kodo, Ryan and I pitched the tent near Nachi Falls. Since most visitors come in tour groups during the day and very few people live on the mountains surrounding the waterfall, we essentially had the area to ourselves. We celebrated our Kumano Kodo pilgrimage with a moonlight dance party, an exhilarating romp through an ancient shrine in which we were possibly trespassing, and spot-on, laugh-out-loud-funny impersonations of each other.
Making the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage showed me another magnificent side of the land I’ve called home for the last two years. It indeed proved to be a rewarding journey of self-discovery and showed me that I have the endurance to climb up and down mountains (in the rain!), to part with my makeup and electronics, and the ability to stay patiently focused as I work towards any goal. Through Kumano Kodo’s captivating nature and rich history, Ryan and I now share a connection with each other and also past and future pilgrims, who know all too well the dedication required and the sense of freedom, renewal, and accomplishment acquired from completing the Kumano Kodo journey.