The Kumano Kodo is one of two major pilgrimage routes in Japan, the other being the 88 Temples route on Shikoku island. The Kumano region is part of the Kii peninsular in the south of Japan’s main island, Honshu, below Kyoto. It is a region of misty, steep mountains covered in dense forest, carved by winding, jade-green rivers. Even now it is fairly remote but in the past it was regarded as the land of dead souls and nature spirits.
Not surprisingly, it has always held shrines and temples. It became an area of pilgrimage in the 9th century, when emperors undertook journeys of ritual purification following a west to east route from Tanabe, through Hongu then on to Shingu and Nachisan on the east coast creating what is now known as the Nakahechi route. Also, around this time, the monastery complex at Koyasan was established by the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, or Kukai as he is also known, who had studied in China and introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japan. The Nakahechi grew in popularity over the centuries, both with emperors, who supposedly gained more merit every time they completed it, and with nobles, samurai and ordinary people, while the Kohechi was mainly used by local people for trade or monks seeking a particularly powerful ascetic experience.
“Theoldestreliablerecord of pilgrimage [from Koyasan] dates to the 16th century: … a samurai of Iyo Province, visited Kumano Sanzan after visiting Mt Koya to perform a memorial service for his father who had died in a battle.
In the article about Kohechi in “Ritei Yamato Chomonki”  , expressions like ‘the road 1 shaku (about 30.3 centi- metres) in width’, ‘dangerous spot’, ‘horses and cattle cannot go through the road’ appear frequently,”
Things haven’t changed much since 1634.
The trail continues to be steep
The Kumano Kodo is as old as the Camino de Santiago but it’s a very different style of pilgrimage. Firstly, there is no final destination point: the journey, the shrines visited, and the rituals performed constitute the pilgrimage, not the arrival. Hence there is a network of intersecting routes of which the Nakahechi and Kohechi are the two most frequently walked. The other big difference is that there are no albergues. Once, hundreds of tea houses lined the route providing refreshment and cheap lodgings, but most contemporary Japanese pilgrims are focused on the shrines and travel between them by car so one by one the tea houses have disappeared.
We flew into Kansai Osaka airport in the late evening. After disembarking, everything in the arrivals lounge being shut, all we had to do was navigate the suburban railway system to our AirBnB located up an alleyway in an obscure suburb of Osaka, and then find a corner shop that was still open to get something to eat. Mission accomplished, next day back to the airport to get SIM cards and pre-loaded cash cards to use on the trains and buses and then a series of ever more local and ever smaller trains down to Kii-Tanabe, jumping off point for the Nakahechi route.
After completing the Nakahechi, our plan was to walk the Kohechi northwards from Hongu to Koyasan, The usual route is southwards from Koyasan monastery to the big shrine at Hongu Taisha, but we had finished the Nakahechi in Hongu, and wanted to round off our trip with a stay in a monastery.
Our first decision was very uncamino-like: use buses. So we were outside the tourist office in Hongu at 7.14 am for the bus to the trailhead at Yakio bus stop. Our only fellow passengers were two very sleepy 3rd grade schoolkids who were woken and shepherded off the bus by a solicitous bus driver. When the bus stopped for us, we immediately began a 60° ascent straight up a flight of roughly hewn stone steps. Perhaps Japanese people were taller in historical times, but I am about average height for my age and European ethnic background and for most of the first part of that day I was putting my hiking pole on the step above to push myself up onto it. The path would level out at times, mainly to give us a false sense of security because as soon as we turned a corner we were confronted by another, even steeper, set of stone steps.
Sleeping in onsen accommodation
But it was a beautiful walk, The mountain slopes are just off the vertical enough to allow trees to grow and the mist clings to the leaves and rocks. The paths, where they are not moss-dappled stone, are a mosaic of browns and yellows from the fallen leaves and the new spring growth was a bright vivid green or a mass of pink blossom. As we neared the top of the pass there were breaks in the trees revealing row upon row of mountains gradually fading into the blue-grey sky as they receded into the distance. Looking down into the valleys we could make out the road we had taken to the trailhead, small enough to remind us how high we’d climbed, and how far we had to go down after reaching the top.
We soon began to meet walkers coming the other way Unlike the Nakahechi, the vast majority of walkers were Japanese except for a very jolly gang of Korean professors. The discovery we were Australian elicited a characteristic ‘Oooh?! Australian?’ It’s nice when you can impress people just by saying where you are from.
They were mainly quite young and carrying equipment for wild camping – illegal but the authorities seem to turn a blind eye. We reached the pass, had lunch and began the equally precipitous descent which transferred the pain zone from my thighs to my long-suffering knees.
Our first overnight stay was at Totsukawa Onsen. ‘Onsen’ is hot spring and we expected there to be a hot spring in town: what we didn’t expect was an Onsen in our accommodation. It was a Ryokan, which means traditional inn so the walls of your room are sliding panels, the floor is covered with tatami mats, and you sleep on a futon. We were shown (with help from Google translate) to our rooms and the Ryokan’s own private onsen, a large room containing a built-in pool of water coloured just a hint of jade green from the minerals in it at exactly 40°C, which is exactly the temperature at which it stays, being fed with geo-thermally heated water straight out of the volcanic rock.
Our second night was in a minshuku, essentially a family home, in this case the home of Suji and his frail but alert mother.
Next day began like the first with a bus ride, to the trail head at Nishinaka. Once again, we faced a climb of around 900 metres over a few kilometres followed by an equal descent to the next river valley on the other side of the mountain. It was also our introduction to why the Kohechi route has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years: the slopes are steep, this is an earthquake zone with periodic heavy storms. As a result, there are frequent landslides. You’d have to be very unlucky or foolhardy to get actually hit by a landslide but there are sections where instead of a steep but tree-clad slope at the side of the path, you have an almost sheer drop of a few hundred metres of loose scree and mud. Which is alarming if you have a tendency to vertigo but it also means that you have to be very, very careful crossing an old landslide because if you slipped or stumbled, you could end up at the bottom of that few hundred metres of scree and mud.
Our second night was in a minshuku, essentially a family home, in this case the home of Suji and his frail but alert mother. They fed us a traditional Japanese meal of deceptively small dishes of fish, vegetables, pickles, rice, soup, and noodles, very filling, as we tried to compress our aching, inflexible occidental limbs under the low table: traditional Japanese meals are eaten in the traditional way – sitting on the floor.
Meanwhile we watched a DVD of a Japanese TV documentary featuring Suji and his mother in more nimble days showing their life as farmers and community members. Rural Japanese life is clearly very hard. They were clearly not poor but, equally clearly, they worked all the hours they weren’t asleep (and there didn’t seem to be many of those). It is also very isolated; as we took a walk around the village, two young women, separately, came out to accost us and practise their English. That night I felt as tired as I had ever felt in my life, and more than a little bit lonely, so it was a struggle to get going next morning. But after a traditional Japanese breakfast, similar to and as filling as a traditional Japanese dinner I managed it. Suji and his mother came to wave us goodbye and we faced another day of ascent and descent. A glorious day, bright and clear with a cold bite to the air. A hard day, but with the reward of being reunited with the third member of our group, followed by a good meal in a comfortable Ryokan.
The last day was the least strenuous, though that is a relative term for what would be considered a fairly technical walk if it were up in the Blue Mountains. Signs of approaching civilisation became more frequent. On a section along the road, weekend drivers were gunning sports cars and alarmingly large motorcycles around the hairpin bends. On the way down to Koyasan we met Kazu, a kind and thoughtful one-time IT engineer who had walked up from the town and was collecting litter dropped on the trail, not that there was much of it, but it was a lovely thing to be doing.
It felt strange coming off a walk in isolated country into a town. Koyasan is a fairly low-key place, lots of local tourists and pilgrims, shops and cafes but still centred around its impressive monasteries, although many of them double up as guest houses, and one of those is where we spent our last two nights. The monks serve food and invite you to morning prayers.
Staying two nights meant we could visit the cemetery, temples and pagodas and witness a fire ceremony (part of the reason very few historic Japanese buildings survive). One final onsen, courtesy of the monks and it was down the cable car to the train for Kyoto.
Overall, it was a strenuous walk, not one for vertigo sufferers, but a memorable experience and I am glad I did it. It was also my first visit to Japan, but almost certainly not my last.
Fire ceremony on Koyasan
Highest point on the Kohechi Trail
Eileen and Dick in Hongu – site of one of the three great shrines of Kumano Kodo. It is on both the Kohechi and Nakahechi routes