Day 1: Takijiri-oji to Takahara (Nakahechi)
3.7km, 2 hours, 317m elevation.
On a Thursday morning like any other, we took two trains and a bus from Nara to the starting point of our Kumano Kodo adventure in Wakayama Prefecture. With our first day of hiking ahead of us there was a lot of nervous energy buzzing around; There was no turning back now and I wondered if I was up to the task.
Day one was thankfully the shortest day of hiking, a nice two hours as we made our way from the trailhead at Takijiri-oji to the ridge-top village of Takahara. Although short in distance, the trail starts off very steep and climbs steadily towards the destination so it was a good warm up for the longer days of walking to come. On the way we passed landmarks including the Chichi-iwa rock, linked to local legend, and a lookout point with beautiful views of the mountains. At around 3pm we reached Takahara-Kumano-jinja, a shrine surrounded by camphor trees (some between 800 to 1,000 years old) before checking into our accommodation for the night in Kiri-no-Sato. The name of the town means "Village in the Mist" however we had beautiful sunny weather and there was no mist to be seen. Instead we had clear, stunning views of the Hatenashi mountain range from the balcony of our amazing lodging. So, just like that, day one was finished and I wasn't so worried about venturing into the unknown for the next four days.
Day 2: Takahara to Tsugizakura-oji (Nakahechi)
13km, 5-8 hours, 690m elevation.
We set alarms to give us time to get ready before our 6:30am breakfast so that we could set out as early as possible on day two. This pattern worked well and so we stuck with it for the rest of the trip. Getting up early meant that we would arrive at our accommodations by around 3pm with lots of time to settle in and rest up before the next day. Day two started with a steep walk past houses and fields which met up with a path into the mountains. We spent the morning climbing through the forest up to the Uwada-jaya Teahouse ruins, then descending to the creek by Osakamoto-oji. We had a simple but appreciated lunch of cup noodles in the valley, chatting to a lovely trio of elderly female hikers, then continued on our way. After another climb, we descended down into Chikatsuyu village.
The sun was hot as we climbed a long section of paved road with no trees for shade. Along the way, though, we were treated to small glimpses into the Japanese country lifestyle: old women making green tea on the roadside, children running around the oval for P.E. class, farms and old houses engulfed in the peace of the surrounding mountains. Finally we made it to the final landmark for the day, a shrine called Tsugizakura-oji with huge 'one direction' cedar trees (Nonaka-no-Ipposugi). After exploring the shrine a little we made our way down to the Nonaka-no-Shimizu spring, one of Japan's 100 famous water sources with delicious fresh water, where we waited to be picked up by a little van to take us to our lodging for the night.
Day 3: Tsugizakura-oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha (Nakahechi)
Unfortunately a recent landslide closed off the first section of our intended trail and we were faced with the option of a 4km detour along forestry roads or taking a bus for the first section. Due to the heavy rain we decided to choose the bus, and soon found that all the other hikers on our schedule had chosen the same option. So we started day three at Hosshinmon-oji, headed for Kumano Hongu Taisha: one of the three grand shrines of the Kumano Kodo. Our morning was filled with beautiful forest trails and isolated mountaintop villages. It had rained all night and morning, easing just as we started our walk so we were able to quickly shed our rain gear and enjoy a forest full of mist. Along the way we came across tea plantations, villages and gorgeous countryside scenery before our descent to Kumano Hongu Taisha. The shrine was lovely and full of eager tourists. Nearby, Japan's largest torii gate was also a sight to behold.
Kumano Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen Town
After lunch we decided to forgo a second bus for the day and instead walk to our night's accommodation in Yunomine. It only seemed a short distance, less than 3km away, but we ended up finding out the hard way that it was a tough, steep climb up and down a small mountain (Mt. Dainichi) to get to the onsen. The worst part about this detour was that we didn't plan on taking it so none of us knew how long the climb would go on (which subsequently made it feel like an impossible task at the end of the day). It's an understatement to say I was happy when we made it down the other side and saw the onsen town we would stay in for the night.
Yunomine Onsen Town was one of the best accommodations of our trip. The town is considered one of Japan's oldest onsen areas and is home to the only hot spring bath that you can bathe in that is UNESCO World Heritage listed. After a much needed shower and bath, Kam and I took a walk around the tiny and charming town, watching families boil onsen eggs and vegetables in a hot spring next to the little river. The dinner at our ryokan was especially impressive, and the old woman running the place was a true gem.
Day 4: Kogumotori-goe (Hongu area to Koguchi) (Nakahechi)
13km, 4.5~6 hours
I woke up feeling a little off colour on day 4. A combination of accumulative tiredness and too much rich ryokan-style foods meant that I could barely stomach the morning's traditional breakfast with fish, pickles, rice and miso. Instead I got my energy from the Muesli Bars Kam's parents had brought over from Australia. What a strange thought that I would ever enjoy a yoghurt top muesli bar (which were a regular lunch box fixture in primary school) so much!? Unfortunately another landslide on the first section of the trail meant another detour. This time we opted to walk the detour and started our day with an 8km trek up a paved road in the sun. The break from the usual terrain of rocks and roots underfoot was welcome and the gradual but steady incline allowed us to make good time, distance and elevation in the morning.
We met up with the Kumano Kodo trail after Hyakken-gura, where we started towards the Sakura-jaya teahouse remains. The trail rose and fell a few times through the forest; a pleasant walk, and we were lucky enough to spot a squirrel on the trail! Spirits were high in our group this morning with 8km already behind us and a lovely sunny day ahead. The teahouse remains made a wonderful spot for lunch (cup noodles again, and tea of course!). This lookout spot was blessed with beautiful views of the mountains of Wakayama, which seem to go on forever into the distance. After lunch we went quickly down into the valley, traversing lots of mossy cobblestone and rocky steps. Soon enough we were at the bottom of the trail, heading across a bridge and through a tunnel towards our night's accommodation in Koguchi.
One of the highlights of this trip was without a doubt the accommodation at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie, an old Junior High School that was closed 30 years ago and converted into lodging for travellers on the Kumano Kodo route. It was simply an amazing experience, and one unlike any other I've had at ryokan and minshuku in Japan. Right next to the old school house we spotted a river that Kam and I immediately decided we would swim in. As soon as we arrived, we changed into bathers and cooled off with great joy before checking in for a great night at Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie.
Day 5: Ogumotori-goe (Koguchi to Nachisan) (Nakahechi)
14.5km, 6 to 8 hours
We had been told by almost every Japanese person we encountered on the route that our toughest day would be the final one. Old ladies held their arms at steep angles to illustrate to us how difficult the climb would be, and we read with trepidation about the "Dogiri-zaka" or "Body Breaking Slope" which climbs around 800m in elevation over 5km at the start of the day five trail. The guide we read quoted a famous pilgrim who wrote "This route is very rough and difficult, it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is".
So, you may understand that I was not exactly looking forward to day 5. Starting out at 7:15am meant no time for second thoughts, and before I knew it we were there climbing the never-ending mossy stairs I had dreaded so much. But, as we got into the rhythm there was a mutual sense of early relief - we we here, doing it. After this section, the toughest part would be over. Also, having been told repeatedly how difficult the section would be, we were all mentally prepared for hell, and the reality of it was not so bad. Yes it was a difficult, steep, long climb. But if you took care not to look up and see how far you had left to climb, if you focused on each step, each new rock your foot was to find, then the climb became bearable. I think that's the essence of hiking - to place each step thoughtfully, not to get caught up in how far away your goal is, or how steep the path is - but to just keep going. Taking it at your own pace is also a skill to master, and one that made the climb easier. So we made our way up the endless stairs until they weren't endless anymore, and we were at the top.
After a little rest we continued on with a series of shorter climbs and descents on our way to the Jizo-jaya teahouse remains. Here we stopped for lunch and an onigiri bento box went down very well. Then we started out again on a road, then through the forest past Mt. Myoho, and up to the Funami-toge Pass where the view was lovely and it was starting to sink in that the end was near. Both a happy and sad thought, as by now the thought of not being in the mountains was starting to seem strange.
From here it was a sharp and long descent with stone staircases that went on forever, putting pressure on the ankles and toes and building frustration that mixed with the mounting anticipation of reaching the goal. Weren't we supposed to have finished the most difficult part already? The thing I always find funny is that going down a mountain is often much more difficult than climbing it. More than two hours later and we were at Nachisan. Nachi-no-Otaki falls appeared in the distance and it was a truly beautiful sight - pure joy spread across my face as I realised we had made it. A great adrenaline rush as we high-fived and congratulated each other and ourselves. "We did it!" I couldn't believe it.
The 133m tall, 13m wide waterfall at Nachi is Japan's tallest waterfall, and the shrine grounds are sacred to the ascetic mountain monks. Ordinarily it would be a wonderful spot to visit, but on that day I was the most excited I had ever been to see a shrine! We all indulged in celebratory soft cream and wandered the grounds in elation before checking in to our final accommodation for a bath, luxurious ryokan-style dinner and chats and laughter with Kam and his parents as we reflected on the grand adventure we had just completed.