I walked a lot once the tour wrapped up. Around 85 kilometers. I spent 6 days in Wakayama on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. It was quiet, solitary, very green, and the perfect way to reflect on my time creating, playing and recording music with all these wonderful folks in Japan.
Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) refers to a network of trails located in the Kii Mountain Range, in southern Kansai. The route has UNESCO World Heritage designation (the only pilgrimage route besides the Camino de Santiago to bear this title) and has been in use for over 1000 years by people from all levels of society. The route was not only developed as a way for people to travel to the three sacred Kumano shrines—Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha—but also as a religious experience, passing through often difficult and dangerous terrain.
While there are no longer so many dangers along the route, there were some steep climbs and long days on foot. I didn’t run into too many other folks on the trails, so there were sometimes long stretches in my day where I really felt like the only one on the route. As a solo female traveler in the “wilderness,” this would normally cause me some anxiety, but I really did feel quite comfortable the entire way. I could count on passing a trail signpost every 500 meters, so it was nearly impossible to get too far off track. When I did encounter other hikers, they were all incredibly friendly and made good companions for short stretches of the walk. I always feel safe no matter where I am in Japan, and that’s a pretty special thing.
Much of the hike was through forested areas—mostly second growth but there are also some outstanding ancient sugi (cedar) and camphor trees along the way. The lush scenery and mountain vistas were incomparable. There were short stretches of the hike along narrow, often winding roads, as the route occasionally passed through the quaintest of towns.
Many Shinto shrines line the route, from small stone monuments to larger shrines with torii (gates) and honden (a small building to enshrine the kami, and in this region, the mountains are revered). Of the three sacred grand shrines, it was Kumano Nachi Taisha that I was most excited to reach on the final day of my journey. The shrine honours Nachi-no-Otaki, a 133 meter high waterfall—the tallest in Japan. The waterfall and surrounding forest have been protected since ancient times and the sight of the shrine’s three-storied pagoda with the waterfall in the backdrop is particularly magical. The approach to the mountaintop shrine is a path called Daimon-zaka. This was my favourite stretch of the entire Kumano Kodo route. The impressive cobblestone staircase (600 meters long with 267 stairs) is lined with enormous, ancient trees and runs from the valley bottom to the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine sanctuary. I made my way up these steps slowly, not just because I had shin splints by this point in the hike, but to admire each awe-inspiring tree.
I stayed in a variety of accommodations along the route and they made for the most pleasant resting spots for this journey (there aren’t too many options, so unless you are planning to camp, it’s important to booking early). From minshuku (family run Japanese style “B&Bs”) with exceptional meals, to a hostel with a hot spring bath, and an entire house to myself on a quiet mountain side, all of my stays were ultra-comfortable and the hosts were always so gracious.
I can’t think of a better way to have wrapped up my month in Japan (except by making more music). I was so glad to have those long walks, the fresh air, that closeness with nature and history, and the luxury of time to complete the pilgrimage.