HIK­ING JA­PAN’S KUMANO KODO TRAIL

Fol­low an an­cient trail rich in his­tory.

Dreamscapes Travel & Lifestyle Magazine - - Table Of Contents - BY MAI NGUYEN

Ihad never been through a typhoon my­self. My mar­itime blood only pre­pared me for cat­e­gory-two hur­ri­canes, Nor’easter bliz­zards and crush­ingly short sum­mers. So when my G Ad­ven­tures tour guide, Masa, told me our three-day hike on the Kumano Kodo trail would be cut short be­cause of a trop­i­cal typhoon head­ing our way, I was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed.

But safety comes first. Af­ter all, this typhoon, in­tim­i­dat­ingly named Lion­rock, prompted warn­ings of land­slides and high wa­ter. I sucked up my whin­ing and chan­nelled the Ja­panese mantra com­monly used in sit­u­a­tions like th­ese: “Shogenai.” It can’t be helped.

SIM­PLE PLEA­SURES

You wouldn’t know a typhoon was ap­proach­ing. The first day of our hike had air so calm and skies so spot­less it felt al­most per­ma­nent. To get to one of the main gate­ways on the trail, we rode the Ja­pan Rail West train two hours south from Osaka to Tan­abe, a small city sur­rounded by moun­tains in Wakayama Pre­fec­ture. Now this was no train ride to gloss over. The coun­try’s trains and rail­ways are con­sid­ered the most ef­fi­cient and punc­tual in the world and a jour­ney on one is a tourist must-do in its own right. I no­ticed some cars on our train had pink signs stat­ing “women only” and learned that Ja­pan Rail in­tro­duced gen­der­spe­cific cars in the early 2000s to en­sure safe spa­ces for women.

I sat on the right side of the train, which pro­vided glim­mers of quiet farm life that mor­phed into the Kii Penin­sula coast­line, home to white beaches and surf­ing mec­cas. Upon ar­rival in Tan­abe, we fu­elled up on lunch at a noo­dle shop be­fore hit­ting the trail. Like so many restau­rants in Ja­pan, we or­dered and paid from a ticket ma­chine by press­ing but­tons with pic­tures of food on it. I chose the ra­men bowl with a soft-boiled egg for 650 yen (CAD$8). It spat out a ticket, which I then handed to the server be­fore tak­ing a seat.

Out­side, a fam­ily was par­tak­ing in a sum­mer tra­di­tion called na­gashi somen. The fa­ther dropped thin noo­dles down a bam­boo wa­ter slide as the mother and kids caught the noo­dles with chop­sticks, dip­ping the noo­dles in a bowl of soy-based sauce and slurp­ing them. I asked Masa why they ate noo­dles like that. “It’s just a fun way to eat cold noo­dles, es­pe­cially when it’s re­ally hot out­side,” she ex­plained.

A TRAIL RICH IN HIS­TORY

With food in our bel­lies, we started the Naka­hechi route of the Kumano Kodo trail. This 68-kilo­me­tre sec­tion of a wider criss­cross­ing net­work of an­cient trails is touted as the coun­try’s best un­known hike. There’s a well-doc­u­mented his­tory of fa­mous em­per­ors who have un­der­taken this trail and it’s one of only two Unesco-des­ig­nated World Her­itage pil­grim­age routes (the other be­ing the El Camino de San­ti­ago in Spain).

For more than 1,000 years this route was trav­elled by all mem­bers of so­ci­ety, first by

re­tired em­per­ors and aris­to­crats, then by com­mon­ers, all of whom walked for as many as 40 days to visit the three Grand Shrines along the trail. For much the same rea­sons most of us em­bark on any long rig­or­ous hike, th­ese pil­grims did it to seek heal­ing and sal­va­tion. With so much his­tory em­bed­ded in th­ese trails, nav­i­gat­ing the Kumano Kodo trail feels less like a back-break­ing work­out and more like re­trac­ing the foot­steps of oth­ers through the spir­i­tual coun­try­side.

Our planned route cov­ered enough ground to reach two of the three shrines, the Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Paths are lined with tow­er­ing bam­boo and cedar trees, dot­ted with small stat­ues, burial grounds and red stamps you can col­lect in a note­book along the way.

Typhoon Lion­rock made land­fall by the time we reached Hongu Taisha. Thank­fully, the eye was far­ther north, leav­ing us with no gust­ing winds but still some rain­fall. At times the dirt trail felt more like a river­bank. At­tempt­ing to walk on the drier edges be­came an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity be­cause the wa­ter would find its way be­tween our toes one way or another.

Squishy shoes aside, it didn’t take away from the ma­jes­tic views of Hongu Taisha’s torii gate, the largest in the world at 34 me­tres tall and 42 me­tres wide. Torii gates have been built since the mid-heian pe­riod (794 to 1185 CE) to mark the en­trance to a Shinto shrine. When you walk through it, you’ve sym­bol­i­cally just left the pro­fane and en­tered a sacred space.

Af­ter see­ing the tallest torii gate, we were off to view the tallest wa­ter­fall, Nachi-no­taki. We made it to Nachi Taisha on the last day of the hike. From afar, the wa­ter­fall is so skinny it looks like a gi­ant noo­dle dan­gling in the for­est. To get closer, we climbed the Dai­mon-zaka cob­ble­stone stairs for 45 min­utes. I saw a woman walk­ing down the steps in a style of ki­mono worn by the an­cient im­pe­rial fam­ily in the Heian pe­riod. Rent­ing tra­di­tional court noble dress is an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar—al­beit un­com­fort­able—way to nav­i­gate th­ese steps and cap­ture brag­wor­thy pho­tos while you’re at it.

A TRAN­QUIL RE­TREAT

We spent a night at Ho­tel Urashima, a huge com­plex that juts out into the Pa­cific Ocean. Din­ner was a buf­fet of raw fish, sushi, tem­pura and miso soup, but the star dish was a freshly caught maguro tuna the size of a tod­dler. The whole fish was fil­leted in front of our eyes by a sushi master who sliced it into per­fect-sized pieces of sashimi.

Ho­tel Urashima oc­cu­pies a mas­sive foot­print (it’s ac­tu­ally four ho­tels in one) that houses six nat­u­ral hot spring baths called on­sens, which are sep­a­rated into women’s and men’s quar­ters. I went to the Bokido, the most pop­u­lar bath of the bunch and for good rea­son: it’s built in­side the mouth of a cave, lend­ing in­cred­i­ble views of the ocean. A cou­ple of things are manda­tory at an on­sen: wash­ing your­self be­fore you soak in the baths and nu­dity. This is not for the in­hib­ited.

The nice thing about a typhoon when you’re pro­tected by the strength of a cave and mel­low­ing out in 50 C sul­fur-rich spring wa­ters is that it can be ter­ri­fy­ingly beau­ti­ful. I watched as vi­o­lent waves re­peat­edly slammed against the cave walls, splash­ing salt wa­ter into the calm blue bath. I started off the hike curs­ing Lion­rock; now I couldn’t help but be mes­mer­ized by its power.

ABOVE: The three-storey pagoda, Nachi-taisha, is lo­cated near Nachi-no-taki, the tallest wa­ter­fall in Ja­pan. BE­LOW: The Dai­mon-zaka trail fea­tures 267 stairs lined with ma­jes­tic cedar trees. Mai Nguyen

RIGHT: Vis­i­tors of the Nachi Taisha shrine can rent Heian-pe­riod ki­monos for one-of-a-kind pic­tures. BE­LOW: Na­gashi somen is a fun way to eat noo­dles by catch­ing them down a bam­boo slide with chop­sticks. Mai Nguyen BOT­TOM: Per­fectly sliced maguro tuna—a tasty treat. Wakayama Pre­fec­ture/jnto

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