Day 2 on the Kumano
(you can read about Day 1 at this link)
Waking up with the sun is a wonderful thing. No alarms and no worries. The light just gently calls you to rise with it. When this becomes natural, the things you can see are pretty amazing.
On the morning of Day 2, I awoke to one of the most beautiful sunrises I had ever seen. Shortly after heading out and wandering a dense dark patch of forest, I came to clearing which opened up to the rest of the valley. There was a soft low fog on the village I had just climbed from, and with glorious mountains in the distance and the earliest beginnings of a rising sun behind them, it was one of the most spectacular things I had ever seen. It was a great way to start the day.
For the first two hours or so, the trail went through many little village roads and surprisingly close to homes (one with a particularly excellent Kumano Kodo welcome sign), but I saw no other humans. At most, I encountered a giant worm, a coconut-size wasps(?) nest and a scurrying monkey jaunting through the trees.
There was a detour in the trail due to a “major crack in the mountain” caused by a devastating typhoon that hit the Kii Peninsula back in 2011. Torrential downpours resulted in severe flooding and damage which is still being treated.
The detoured section of the Nakahechi route was only about 4km. It started near vertical for the first 2km, dove downhill into a woodsy valley for another 1km, and then rose back to uphill for the finale.
At the top of a the final uphill stood the Hosshinmon Oji, which meant only 6.9 km left until the Hongu Taisha! Hosshinmon Oji is the gate of “hosshin” which means “spiritual awakening.” It marks the outermost entrance to the Kumano Hongu Taisha’s sacred land, and is therefore one of the most important sites along the pilgrimage. Passing through this gate symbolizes a death of sorts and a rebirth on sacred ground. Incidentally, this was about where the major forest-walking stopped and the remote roads and villages began.
I walked through a charming area with a few scattered houses and rice fields where a man was burning little triangular piles of something. I later read that, after harvesting season, the rice crop remains are sometimes burned and added back into the soil to increase its fertility.
Further down the road, there were scattered wooden stands selling yuzu (a yellow citrus fruit prevalent in Wakayama), umeboshi (also very abundant), and some kind of tuber. I bought some shiso-flavored umeboshi by placing 200円 in a tin can.
The final 2km to the Taisha was well-maintained forested trail. There were many volunteers cleaning up the route and restoring a few of the steps. There were many many steps. Probably the entire last kilometer was all peopled and steppy downhill.
Kumano Hongu Taisha
After 21km and seven hours of pilgrimage-ing, I finally made it to Hongu Taisha! If I had had more time, ideally I would’ve stayed in the area for the night and then continued on down to Nachi Taisha but time was not permitting.
It was strange finally reaching the taisha, as it meant also encountering the most people I had seen in the last 48+ hours. Actually, it made me uneasy at first. (To be fair, I have lived in the deep inaka of Japan for the last 1.5 years, so seeing large amounts of people doesn’t happen too often. But it probably tends to make me a bit uneasy anyway). Historically, this is where pilgrims on the Kumano would worship or “find salvation” so accordingly, the area was filled with tourists.
Like many sites in Japan, this was not the original Kumano Hongu Taisha. Up until the late 1800s, the original was located about a 10 minute walk away at Oyunohara. While only two small shrines still remain, the world’s largest torri gate (Otorii) stands where the main shrine once was. This otorii is about 34 meters tall and weighs 172 tons. Ancients believed the area to have great mystical power which is why it has been the culminating destination for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimages.
I had never done a pilgrimage like this before. And when it was finished, I recognized the feelings of freedom and naturalness that I usually experience with bike trips or other long-distance hikes, but there was something more.
There is complete freedom and oneness in moving and going places by means of your physical body. It is said that the nature of all life is movement and change. Like the movement of animal migration, of weather, the change of the seasons, the tides, our very own cells. As a form of life then, it would make sense that humans do the same, and that we function best when moving and changing.
I would recommend that everyone do a pilgrimage of sorts at some point in their lives. This is definitely one of the most enlightening things I have ever done and I was only in the woods for two days.
But there’s something to being able to count on one hand all the people you cross paths with in a day. There’s something to being completely surrounded by nature to the point where you feel one with it and then strange when you leave its canopy.
I think one thing that speaks for itself is how easy it is to wander into nature and sort of leave everything else behind. It’s feels natural, like going home. It’s as though you are welcome stay as long as you want and to remain simple and peaceful. But once you leave this nature and go back into the “real world” of work and expectation and stress, it all feels wrong, completely unnatural and unreal.
I can’t wait to go back to the woods.