It’s been a while since I wrote. As predicted, real life is getting in the way of me writing about my great adventures. But I have so many stories to tell – I mustn’t let time pass too quickly. So, in my last post I had just begun my Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) adventure and had just arrived in Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉). After a very good night’s sleep there, and after a hearty Japanese breakfast of grilled fish, rice and miso soup, I set off on the next stage of my journey. It was 25th November, and definitely what would be considered ‘off season’ for hiking in this area. I was the only traveller making use of the ryokan’s complimentary shuttle bus to Hosshinmon-oji (発心門王子) (the starting point of my hike) and when I arrived the driver of the shuttle bus insisted on taking some commemorative photos of my by the shrine before wishing me a ‘buen camino’.
‘Buen camino’ literally means ‘good path’, and is said to wish someone well on their travels. According to this website, it “also has a deeper meaning – an acknowledgement that you see a person who is searching for “perfection”. This is related to the “pilgrimage” intent. Becoming your best self – what God intends – is the goal.“. I certainly was setting out on a pilgrimage of some kind, and to be honest I was feeling quite nervous. I knew in my heart I would be fine – this was Japan after all, and I was very well prepared – but I was still about to set out on a solo hiking adventure for the first time ever in my life, and that’s a little scary.
So Hosshinmon-oji was my starting point – my entrance to the Kumano Kodo. Hosshinmon-oji is known as the ‘gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment’, and it marks the outermost entrance to Kumano Hongu Taisha’s (熊野本宮大社) sacred precincts. My final goal tonight was to reach Yunomine Onsen (湯の峰温泉), but along the way I would be visiting Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the Kumano Sanzan, three grand shrines of Kumano, and head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan.
Somewhat nervously and excitedly I found my first official Kumano Kodo sign and started walking. 6.9 kilometres to Kumano HOngu Taisha – it didn’t sound like that much. My notes said it should take around 3 hours, but I was expecting it to take me a little longer as I know I’m not the fittest person. Come on feet…
En-route to Kumano Hongu Taisha I would be passing by a number of other significant spots, and the first was Mizunomi-oji (水呑王子). Turning off the path I was on to head towards Mizunomi-oji felt like I was really going off the beaten path, although I was sticking to the official routes the whole time.
There is an old abandoned school house at Mizunomi-oji, which was a little bit creepy. I’m not sure if the building is used for anything these days, but I passed by quickly and headed straight into the forest along the Kumano Kodo path.
I continued my walk, passing through farmland and forests, heading towards Fushiogami-oji (伏拝王子). Fushiogami-oji is apparently where the pilgrims fell to their knees and prayed after catching their first glimpse of the Grand Shrine in the distant valley below, and it wasn’t hard to see why.
At Fushiogami-oji I was delighted to find a small rest area selling coffee made with hot spring water. The people there were lovely – and so was the coffee!
Next stop Kumano Hongu Taisha – but first, more beautiful forest paths. I just couldn’t get enough of the forests and trees here – I’d never seen anything like it.
Referring to my hiking notes I noticed that there was a suggested small detour on the way to Kumano Hongu Taisha that was apparently worth it for the view, so around sign post number 73 along my path I followed this diversion sign:
It was absolutely worth the extra walk – the view was incredible, and I had also found myself a quiet little spot for lunch!
Back on the main path, I continued on to Kumano Hongu Taisha, which was every bit as impressive as I thought it would be. Kumano Hongu Taisha is understated in the same way that Ise Grand Shrine is – it’s quite plain, wooden, and decorated simply with just a little gold. Also, all around the complex there were signs of the three legged crow, which is the symbol of Kumano.
Near the grand shrine is the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center, which has exhibitions relating to the Kumano Kodo and also an information desk. It was weird to suddenly be inside a modern building, but the exhibitions were interesting.
Next to the heritage centre is Japan’s largest torii gate at a site called Oyunohara (大斎原). This is the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, up to around 120 years ago when it was destroyed in a flood and moved to its current location. In 2000, the largest torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 metres tall and 42 metres wide) was erected at the entrance to the Oyunohara sandbank. The torii is called ‘Otorii’ which simply means ‘big torii’. It is made out of steel and weighs 172 tonnes.
Having visited Kumano Hongu Taisha, my next stop was Yunomine Onsen where I would be staying the night. It was possible to simply take a bus from the shrine to Yunomine Onsen, but I was really enjoying my hiking adventure and didn’t want it to stop. The sky was starting to get a little dark with the threat of rain, but I didn’t let that concern me as I decided I was going to hike to Yunomine Onsen. The optional hike took the Dainichi-goe (大日越) trail, which was described in my notes as ‘relatively steep’. Relatively steep my arse! Walking the Dainichi-goe trail was one of the most challenging things I have ever done, but because it was so tough it was also incredibly fulfilling. Finding the trail entrance took a little while, and when I found it I couldn’t quite believe I was going the right way.
Luckily, as well as helpful signs telling you that you’re on the Kumano Kodo, there are also signs telling you which paths are not the Kumano Kodo, so it should be pretty hard to get lost (even with my terrible sense of direction!).
The trail was really tough in places, with lots of steps and lots of very uneven ground.
I was delighted when I finally reached Yunomine Onsen!
Yunomine Onsen was discovered about 1,800 years ago and it is thought to be one of the oldest hot springs in Japan. Yunomine Onsen is an integral part of the over 1000 year old Kumano pilgrimage tradition. Pilgrims performed hot water purification rituals in these piping hot mineral waters after their long journey in preparation to worship at Kumano Hongu Taisha. In the creek that runs through Yunomine Onsen there is a small cabin called Tsuboyu (つぼ湯), which is a private hot spring bath and the only hot spring that you can bathe in that is registered as UNESCO World Heritage. Up to two people can use the bath at one time, for up to 30 minutes.
Just as I settled in for the night in my ryokan, Adumaya Ryokan, the heavens opened and it rained heavily all night.
Luckily I had a delicious meal waiting for me, and a Kumano Kodo beer as a reward for my hard work! And of course, a hot spring bath to soothe my weary legs!
The next day would be my third and final day of the Kumano Kodo. I went to sleep listening to the rain pelting down, hoping it would clear by the morning.