Hiking the tranquil, temple-studded peninsula south of Osaka is even more a spiritual journey than it is a physical one
By Andrea Oschetti
The train pulls into the JR station at Kansai Airport, bound for Kyoto. It whisks away the travellers crowding the platform. They will be delivered to a matching swarm of tourism businesses, small and large, that will besiege them with information, suffocating many potentially memorable experiences of a city dotted with World Heritage Sites. With the travellers gone, the station falls silent. I am standing on the opposite platform, alone except for a few airport workers.
My train is heading south, towards the Kumano Kodo, a network of pilgrimage trails through the brooding forests of the Kili Mountains deemed sacred since the 11th century. The pilgrimages link the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto to three holy sites: Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan. The shrines and temples that dot these routes display a cultural fusion of Shinto, Japan’s ancient tradition of nature worship, with Buddhism, which was brought back from China over the centuries by devotees and monks.
The Grand Shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of three that make up the Kumano Sanzan site, is at the centre of the entire network. I choose this as my first objective and start my hike at the head of the most famous trail, Nakahechi, which starts at Takijiri-oji, 45 kilometres away. It is listed together with Spain’s Camino de Santiago as a UNESCO World Pilgrimage Route. This trail is well marked and preserved, but empty of people. In a full day’s hiking I come across only one family of three. Silence prevails.
The Kili Mountains are not high but the trail is steep. The pilgrimage was designed to be challenging: suffering and forbearance are needed to enhance the religious experience. In Japan, spiritual practice is not about transcendence from the material universe to seek union with God. It is about becoming one with the flow of things, with nature.
The route is narrow, mostly unpaved. In a few places, old stone steps are evocative of centuries of zealous devotion by the pilgrims who walked on them. The cryptomeria forest cradles the path. Hermann Keyserling, the German travelling philosopher, suggests in his travel diaries that the cryptomeria is the most powerful tree for bringing to life religious associations: it has the duskiness of the cypress; it symbolises joyful hope like the thuja; but it also has the majesty, cosmic power and immortal quality of the fir.
Rays of sun break through the forest canopy, highlighting details on the forest floor: the contortion of a root, the spiralling needle-thin leaves of a fir branch, the scales of a seed cone. These simple forms are the substance of the Japanese aesthetic called furyu, the elegance to be found in nature’s simplicity. He who is able to appreciate it is freed from the torments of ordinary life.
For me there is nothing in long distance hiking in itself: not the endurance aspect, nor the narrative of the ego. It is just a process, rooted in what the wanderer encounters, and their capability to connect to it. Only these facets bring real meaning.
I came to this trail to experience a new intimacy with nature. The Zen-infused holiness of the place invites the hiker to have a different relationship with their natural surroundings, even in a trail so expressive with its beauty. It calls to surrender the rational approach, which longs to extrapolate meanings and anthropomorphise the environment. It calls to adopt an intuitive perception, and cultivate feelings. Moralistic reflections are misleading, as nature always manifests itself in the transience of its beings. In Japanese, the term ‘mono no aware’ captures the wistfulness in appreciating the ephemeral beauty of a world of impermanence.
The trail abandons the forest to cross small villages, then enters more forest. Some families open their house to hikers. In Tsugizakuma-oji, Yuba Minoru and his wife take only one reservation for their small house each night. He has worked for 40 years in Kaiseki restaurants, providing the refined seasonal style of dining evolved from the Zen Buddhist’s tea ceremony.
Everything here reflects the elaborate simplicity of Japanese culture. The small wooden bathtub is made ready for ritual bathing, a pre-dinner custom of purification and relaxation which is one of the pleasures of Japan I treasure most. My host gives me a yukata, the traditional robe, as he takes my clothes for washing and drying. They will be ready in the morning. He will also take care of my luggage, forwarding it to my next homestay.
This is a modest home, but Minoru takes pride in preparing and serving a beautifully arranged, and garnished, nine-course dinner: simmered daikon with red pepper in a meat broth, chicken teppanyaki with spicy miso sauce, steamed rice with mushrooms, tuna sashimi, roasted leeks with sesame and seaweed, shrimp tempura with sweet sauce, parsimony with cheese, prawn tempura with potato, peach sorbet with azuki beans. French and Chinese cuisines are characterised by a creative quest for taste: they transform and exalt ingredients. Japan’s is the most sincere form of fine dining. Food is barely roasted or fried to maintain the purity of its original taste and natural look.
Retiring to my room, I find my futon has been laid over the tatami. All is silent. The tranquility of the place complements the demanding effort on the trail.
The second day takes me the remaining distance to Kumano Hongu Taisha, 23 kilometres of learning to look. I respond to a myriad of details I normally would not notice. The forest is marvellously rich. I stop to drink and around me I count seven types of trees and six different bushes. How much nature has to offer depends only on the observer’s talent. Japan pushes you to be in greater harmony with your surroundings.
Clouds, mist and rain patches envelop the landscape. The contours of the mountains are sometimes visible, sometimes veiled, sometimes invisible. The Japanese often use the term yugen to describe such a landscape: the beauty of what is imperceptible as opposed to obvious.
Often we cannot appreciate the things we encounter on our travels at the time. You can anticipate this by selecting your travels to experience what already stirs your passions. Today I am delighted to see expressions of what painter Hasegawa Tōhaku depicted in his masterpiece ‘Pine Trees’, a pair of six-fold screens showing a pine grove in a dense mist. The empty space becomes the landscape. If I did not have an interest in the monochromatic Sumi-e ink wash paintings, I probably would see just bad weather.
From Kumano Sanzan, two less beaten trails begin. One, Kohechi, goes northeast for just over 60 kilometres to Koyasan. The other, Omine Okugakemichi, ventures northwest for 80 kilometres to Yoshino, passing by sacred Mt Sanjo, forbidden to women.
Most temples at Koyasan host travellers. On TripAdvisor, I had noted that many people question the temples’ authenticity and their value for money. Tourists want to see what they already know; they seek to affirm their preconceptions of a destination romanticised by the media.
The monastery at Kumano Hongu Taisha is a house of old wood, with a curved roof and dry gardens. At night, when everyone has gone to sleep, I stay behind, in the small library. It is silent, but for the sound of rain and wind. I am taking my time to appreciate the monastery. I don’t want to only eat, sleep and quickly snatch a look at the morning chanting. I take a headlamp to wander in the dark corridors and the empty tatami rooms. My beam illuminates colorful paintings on sliding panels and vertical rolls, some with ink drawings, others with calligraphy. As I walk, portraits of old abbots and monks appear briefly out of the darkness. I reach the inner sanctum and its many lanterns, which cast soft light and shadows on the Bodhisattvas and mythical warriors.
What is authenticity? Which Zen is authentic and which is fake? Is a priest with a mobile phone artificial? Is a Zen meditation class in New York, squeezed between a business meeting and a night at the movies, genuine? Can Zen for a traveller be a personal experience rather than remaining an unattainable concept?
It is cold and dark. I feel anxious, yet the atmosphere of the monastery is suggestive and intense. Meditative. Intimate. It is a strong contrast to the city: a constant rush, sensory overload and always bigger desires.
Next day I walk on another 30 kilometres, eager to taste a little of the contrasts of the other trails. Omine Okugakemichi is the toughest by far. There is no place to lodge, no settlements, no shops to buy food or water. It is the training ground of the Yamabushi, literally the mountain warrior, the wandering monk of the esoteric Shugendo sect. He is powerful and violent, like the medieval monk of Europe: praying and fighting. He seeks the attainment of spiritual power through challenging tests of courage and devotion. While Nakahechi and Kohechi are places of pilgrimage, this is a trail of hard-edged asceticism: meditating under frozen waterfalls to become one with the water.
To hike Omine Okugakemichi is to hike in medieval Japan, bringing to mind the samurai, with their masculine toughness and feminine sensibility. It was a time of moral courage, idealism, nobility of outlook, self denial, disregard for material advantage. To hike here is to be confronted by questions: “Where does modern man stand?” and “What are his values?”
Kumano Kodo is a hike that offers the opportunity to look at things differently. To appreciate simplicity and solitude. To feel the impermanent flow of nature and become part of it. To let go of stereotypes and habits. To look at what one values. To find beauty and peace. AA
When to go
Kumano Kodo is a year-round hiking experience so pick your time based on the seasonal natural features you are more interested to see. June to September are the months with the most rainfall. December and January are the coldest months but temperatures rarely drop below 0˚C.
How to get there
Many Asian airlines fly to Osaka’s Kansai Airport. From the airport’s railway station, it is a two-hour train ride to Tanabe city from where a bus service takes you to the trailhead at Takijiri-oji.
Tanabe city tourism, www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo/ have detailed info on the trails, including maps, distances and a platform for booking accommodation.
‘Japan Style’ – Gian Carlo Calza
‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers’ – Leonard Koren
‘Japan Season by Season’ – Sandrine Bailly
‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ – Matsuo Basho
‘The Tale of Genji’ – Murasaki Shikibu