HIKING JAPAN’S KUMANO KODO TRAIL
Follow an ancient trail rich in history.
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.
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