Walking the Kumano Kodo 熊野古道 Trail – Takes My Breath Away (literally!)

Sometimes, all it takes for travel inspiration to kick in is a photo. And mine was kick-started by this spectacular shot:-

Kumano Nachi Taisha with Nachi Falls Source: http://www.tb-kumano.jp/en/

For the longest time, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is the Kumano Kodo熊野古道, was on my bucket-list as something to aim for one day. This one day came in Spring this year so I am very grateful that my women friends were all game enough to join me on this Buddhist pilgrimage that has been undertaken since a thousand years ago by everyone from royalty to peasants, in pursuit of their faith.

Kumano Kodo trails designated as World Heritage Site

The Kumano Kodo 熊野古道 refers to a network of hiking trails that criss-cross throughout the southern  Kansai region, on the Kii Peninsula. Flanked by remote mountains on one side as well as coastal plains on the other, the Kumano journeys can span anything from 6 days to half a day, depending on what you are after and most importantly, your fitness level. The best resource for planning a trip to this area will be this site:- http://www.tb-kumano.jp/en/kumano-kodo/

Pen & paper planning and the stamps I collected along the journey

If your natural constitution is more like Po, the Kungfu Panda, it is highly recommended that you NOT test your limits by being over-ambitious. Besides distance, there is some serious elevation to encounter at different spots and the last thing you would want is to be incapacitated in the mountains when night falls …

For us, since this is our first time to the Kumano Kodo, we decided that we would take 3 days, bringing us on the more popular trail to see the famous Kumano Sanzan 熊野三山(three grand shrines). These are The Kumano Hayatama Taisha, the Hongu Taisha and the Nachi Taisha (Taisha being the Japanese word for shrine). This means sticking to part of the Kumano Nakahechi 熊野中辺路 route, which seemed do-able with about 7-8 km of trekking each day.

Owing to flight discounts, we started from Nagoya, taking a 3.5 hour train ride from Nagoya Station to Shingu Station. This is a screenshot of our itinerary and you can download the excel from here. We bought the Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass for 11,000 yen, that was good for 5 days unlimited travel throughout most of the region by train as well as buses. This is definitely worth the money as train rides are long and costly for most of the routes. We failed to read the fine print on the pass and stupidly paid for 2 bus rides before being enlightened by a Hong Kong traveller who flashed his pass at the bus driver before merrily skipping off. That money could have bought us 2 meals >_<

Our three-day itinerary started from the quiet town of Shingu where we stayed a night. We dropped by the tourist office opposite the Shingu Train Station where friendly, English-speaking staff supplied us with maps, bus schedules and pointers about Kumano Kodo.

Shingu itself, is home to the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, one of the 3 grand shrines along the Kumano Kodo. About 15 minutes stroll from Shingu Station, it was empty of visitors at around 5pm in the evening. The quietude it exuded was only broken by the sound of our shoes crunching on the gravel that filled the grounds. The vermillion pillars of the buildings and lamps contrasted with the dark green pine and cedar surrounding them. We placed our offertory coins into a wooden box and penned our petitions on broad wooden sticks, taking away with us some of the peace that this shrine proffered.

The Kumano Hayatama Shrine at dusk:

1番地 Shingu, Shingū, Wakayama Prefecture 647-0003, Japan

The next day saw us catching the bus from outside the Tourist Office near Shingu Station to get to Hongu Bus Terminal. After a 1 hour ride from Shingu, it was another 30 minutes or so to Hosshinmon-Oji where we started our trek back to Hongu. This was definitely not ideal but we had little choice since Shingu was our overnight stop after landing in Nagoya. The more ideal itinerary would be to get to Tanabe from Osaka and start the Kumano Kodo trek from that side.

Our very well-marked trail starting from Hosshinmon-Oji (signpost 62) to Haraido-Oji (signpost 75), where the trail ends at the back of Hongu Taisha, was a mixture of paved forest trails, unpaved dirt paths and a couple of stony stairs. On the map, it states that the trail is around 7km but we took another 5 or 6 more km as we stopped to explore the shrines, veered off into some people’s farms, dropped into a tea-shack for refreshing iced Shiso drinks and hunted for stamps. Overall, very manageable, the only more challenging part was the uphill path to the lookout at Signpost 73. It is here where pilgrims fell to their knees, in reverence of their first sighting of the giant torii gate that marked the entrance to Hongu Taisha. I wanted to fall to my knees for very different reasons though ….

1st glimpse of the O-Torii where pilgrims fell to their knees

There is nothing better in the world than an ice cold draught beer after sweating it out on a hike through holy grounds. At Hongu Taisha, there are rest houses, restaurants and small shops where we downed our beer and slurped up some energy-recharging udon before heading out to encounter the country’s largest Otorii (the Shinto gate that marks the crossing over from the secular to the spiritual world) in the site that is Oyunohara. Rounding the corner, the massive steel structure stood in stark relief against the surrounding green flatlands. After we gawked our fill and took our hundreds of photos, we proceeded left up the steps of some fields and lo and behold, there was the Kumano River, winding its graceful way across the rugged land. The original site of Hongu Taisha was in the midst of this very river where a massive flood destroyed it in 1889.

Largest Torii Gate in Japan – marking the entrance to the Hongu Taisha which originally stood in the middle of the river on the left

After stacking pebbles and stones by the river bank (yes, this activity induces an overwhelming feeling of inner peace), dipping our toes in the cool, clear waters and taking another hundred photos, we hastened back to the bus station at Hongu to catch our ride to Kawayu Onsen where we were to stay a night. We did think of walking from Hongu to Kawayu Onsen as the distance was short (less than 2km) but the serious elevation (on paper) had us thinking seriously that by this time, we would have expended most of our energy for the day. Crawling on hands and knees upslope seemed a somewhat unglam way to end our first day on the Kumano Kodo so it was a unanimous decision to take the scheduled public buses.

A summary of our walk on Day 2:-

It was 11 April 2018 when we took this path. It was an early Spring so we had blue skies and balmy breezes. Do not forget the sun block and for those unpredictable Spring showers, an umbrella might come in handy.

Day 3 saw us making our way back to Shingu to retrieve our bags from the coin lockers at the station, then hopping on a train bound for Kii-Katsuura Station where said bags were then deposited and bussing towards the Nachi Falls. We got off at the Daimon Zaka stop because I panicked when everyone on the bus got off. So this means that we had to make our way towards the Nachi Falls and the Kumano Nachi Taisha UPHILL via these big stony stairs!! As it was a cloudy day with intermittent drizzles, this made the going harder as the steps were SLIPPERY! If you are not hard-pressed for time and have thigh-strength like Venus Williams, by all means, knock yourself out. If not, it might be better to take the bus all the way to the Nachi Falls and then make your way downhill via the Daimon Zaka instead. So, you have been warned.

This is a summary (minus the wheezing sounds) of our visit to the 3rd and final Grand shrine on our trail:-

Where we stayed:-

Shingu Hotel New Palace – business hotel with decent sized bath and breakfast

Kawayu Onsen Sansuikan Midoriya – ryokan style accommodation with breakfast and dinner. Very special because of the outdoor onsen by the river which was so relaxing. Oh women get yukatas to wear out and men get er, a very small towel ….

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