I reach for my camera bag a little hesitantly. Mt. Fuji is fully visible on this overcast winter day in Honshu. It feels strange that I still get excited every single time that I get a look at the perfectly picturesque peak of Mt. Fuji. After all, I have traveled to Japan five times before and I now live here, in Tokyo where you can get clear views of Fuji on most winter days. The uncool excitement that I still feel about Fuji (being the only one reaching for their camera/mobile phone in Nozomi, which is the fastest Shinkansen not covered by the Japan Rail Pass, thus mostly used by residents not eligible for the JR Pass) is a good sign for the week ahead. I am bound for Mie Prefecture to cover the part of Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo for my first week long solo trip after I moved to Japan nearly a year ago. I am excited but also a little nervous worrying what if the magic is lost and I no longer feel as moved by the things I see in Japan now that I call it home. The whole trip turns out to be the antithesis of my fear.
Iseji Route and Kumano Kodo are integral parts of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes located in Kii Mountain Range – a region which was added to the list of Unesco World Cultural Heritage Sites in 2004. It is the part of the region including Yoshino. Omine, Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan, which are all connected not only to each other but also to the ancient capitals of Japan, Nara and Kyoto via pilgrimage routes. The region is particularly important as it reflects a great harmony and fusion between the native religion of Japan – Shinto and Buddhism acquired from China and Korea. This harmony between the different religions is among the primary the reasons leading to the inclusion of the region in UNESCO World Heritage list. UNESCO describes the region as a cultural landscape – meaning “cultural values created jointly by humans and nature” and I get the chills whenever I come across this definition.
Iseji Route, also known as the Eastern Route or the route for the ordinary people in the olden days (to separate it from the Imperial Route – Nakahechi) starts at Ise-shi and goes all the way down to Shingu – it is a 170km long stretch where you are never too far off from the sea even though you do not get to see it for most part of the trail taking you through forests. There are more than twenty different sections and passes and it is commonly assumed and reported that the whole route may require somewhere around ten days to two weeks at a leisurely pace. Iseji Route connects the most praised shrine of Japan, Ise Jingu in the Northern end of Mie prefecture, with Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine.
The route is one of the four routes forming the Kumano Kodo`s network of trails. The most popular one is Nakahechi, followed by Kohechi trail, which takes you up to Koyasan. The lesser known two trails, in addition to Iseji Route, include Ohechi, another coastal route following the southern coast of Wakayama Prefecture. Nakahechi is no doubt the most travel friendly one out of the four routes with a central accommodation booking system and luggage forwarding service (please refer to the practical information section at the end of this post for the comparison of Nakahechi and Iseji Routes in addition to travel tips). I walked part of that trail in February 2018 and it was a wonderful introduction to the concept of long walks, which is substantially different than a long daily hikes where you get back to the same place at night. My first Kumano Kodo walk allowed me to get acquainted with that state of mind where you literally feel like you leave one worry behind with each step you take forward. It was a wonderful experience that I was lucky to be able to repeat in Yakushima circling the island.
Owase – Many Faces of Japan
However, for my Iseji walk, I decided to base myself in the same location for all five nights. My choice was mainly due to the lack of luggage forwarding service in the Iseji Route and necessity to carry unnecessarily heavy things with me for my work related duties. I chose Owase Town as my base for its central location, connection to the rail network, proximity to two great passes and a reasonable priced Huuhan Minshuku located right by the fisherman’s wharf. At the end, I was very happy with my choice as Owase turned out to be a town with many different faces. The first night that I arrived in Owase – I was greeted by one of the least lighted towns in Japan making the abandoned buildings showcasing the declining population of the country look like sets from a horror movie. It looked very creepy but in a strangely and visually pleasant way. The semi-lively town (it is a good degree of liveliness for the rural parts of Japan) that I woke up to the next morning had a completely different vibe. It was home to beautiful shrines and temples, a partially abandoned but still charming old street. very good range of stores for all your immediate needs but more importantly a beautiful fisherman’s wharf where you can watch the morning trade between the fisherman and the restaurant owners.
On my first day in Owase, heavy rain was expected so I did not plan any hikes following the advice of the locals. I however still decided to get a sneak preview of Magose Pass, which was originally in my schedule for the next day. You can catch a local bus to the trailhead from Owase for a little under 400 Yen and walk the trail all the way back to Owase. As I was made aware before, the trail was completely left alone and I met only one person after two hours, a local who – as I find out the next day – walk the trail almost everyday for exercising. Magose is a very beautiful trail, which at parts reminded of Yakusugi Land trail in Yakushima. It felt like Nakahechi Trail meets Yakushima with deep forest sections with occasional mini-versions of Moss Forest of Yakushima. The whole trail takes you two hours with the photo stops but there are two detours that you can take for longer hikes – a 30 mn long steep climb up to Mt. Tengurasan and a two hours climb up to Binshiyama with its famous elephant back. On my first day, I ddid not take any of the detours but walked the trail twice waiting for the promised rain to come. I like the dark forest feeling that the rain brings to unicolor-green trails. It however turned out to be a very light rain but still persistent enough to turn every single rock into a slippery threat. It is therefore advised that the trail is not hiked during heavy rain unless you have the proper gear.
Magose Pass and Mt. Tengurasan
The next day I met up with Yamawaki San whom I connected with through the wonderful guide network of Iseji Route managed by Mie Prefecture. The trails of Iseji Route are not technical or difficult enough to require the presence of a guide. However, in my view, company of a local guide greatly enriches the experience giving you the opportunity to have insights about the trail/region that you would not be able to read elsewhere. I have always had wonderful experiences in all my guided hikes in Japan. Yamawaki San is a retired journalist still working – on a freelance basis – for the local newspaper. He has been living in the area nearly all his life and justifiably keen to contribute to the tourism appeal of the wonderful Iseji Route. He conducted a brief interview with me during the walk listening to my story of how I ended up in Japan and also what I think of Kumano Kodo and particularly Iseji Route. Unlike the day before, Magose trail was very busy mostly thanks to the persistent sun and very fine weather making me to take off my hiking jacket. We encountered many Japanese families hiking the trail with their very animated and happy looking toodlers. We this time also climbed up to Mt. Tengurasan, which greeted us a with a small shrine right next to the stairs taking you up to a rock offering a nice views of the region. I like viewpoints but, after walking through dense forest, I sometimes feel too exposed at those peaks/viewpoints desiring to quickly get back into the forest and somehow dissapear.
My First Encounter with Yamabushis
On our way down to Owase from Mt. Tengurasan, I experience once the luckiest of all my hikes in Japan – a chance encounter with two Yamabushis. In my every guided hike in Japan, I heard wonderful stories of “yamabushis”, the mountain monks who follow Shugendo, which is – according to Japan Times – “an ancient ascetic religion combining aspects of mountain worship, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism” but has never came across them before. There is a great short documentary about their practices including interview with recent day converts. We came across the two yamabushis including a women monk on their way up to Mt. Tengurasan climbing from Owase direction. They kindly stop, allowed me to take their pictures. They were coming from the nearby Kumano Kodo Center where they set up an exhibit about their practices. They were originally located near Nachi Falls, the longest waterfall in Japan. They were fully dressed in white (which I understand signifies the purity ) with almost sock thin white shoes, making me once again appreciate their endurance. They played their horagai (法螺貝) for us (I posted the video on my instagram account), a long shell allowing them to connect with the other yamabushis in the region. The encounter made me feel like all hikes are nice but some hikes are even nicer.
After the hike, which is very manageable even for beginner hikers, Yamawaki San and I first visited the local shrine, the entrance of which is already covered by early sakura. He then took me to the oldest street in Owase where the shops only open on weekends. We walked by the old sento (with the Mt. Fuji image of course), which is unfortunately no longer in operation. Our last stop for the day was another temple hiding between many short streets of Owase where I was invited to ring the bell. It was a little after 1pm and I hesitantly obeyed hoping that the locals would not be alerted by the ring at this unusual hour.
I took my dinner at Huuhan Minshuku, which is run by a mother and son duo, who go out their way to make your stay very comfortable. I each night enjoyed the delicious menu (always including sashimi among other changing dishes) and the chance to practice my very underdeveloped Japanese with other guests who usually travel to Owase for work purposes. The highlight of my stay at Huuhan was the view of the fisherman’s wharf right from my Japanese style tatami room and ability to watch the fisherman to prepare for take off right before daylight.
Yakiyama hike, arguably the most difficult part of Iseji Route, was in my schedule for the next day. I have been warned so many times about the difficulty of the trail that I decided pack very lightly this time. I only took my mirrorless Fuji X-Pro2 along with 27mm pancake lens, 56mm and 90mm primes. The trail deserved a much wider angle but it was not not an option for me since I broke my 16mm lens couple weeks ago and I did not want to carry my heavier Canon DSLR with me on this trail.
Yakiyama Pass turned out to be the most impressive trail that I walked in anywhere in Japan. It is, based on my hopefully objective assessment, definitely not a very difficult one which, can be tackled by any moderate level hiker . Yes, the first two hours involves a constant climb but nothing unmanageable and any difficulty you may face will sure be balanced out by the magnificent views along the trail. The perception about the difficulty of the trail may be more a result of homage to the old days when the route was infamously known to be the most dangerous route of Kumano Kodo due to steep sections but more importantly the existence of bandits and wolves, which are reported to have left the area around two hundred years ago. This is evidenced by many tombstones that you will walk by, belonging to the old pilgrims who lost their lives along the route.
The trail takes you up to a view point where you get superb views of the sea and the surrounding peaks but it is again the inner moss forest parks, which steal my heart. Out of all the trails that I walked in Kumano Kodo including Nakahechi Route, Yakiyama Pass was the one trail where I truly felt like following the footsteps of old pilgrims.
Other Trails of Iseji Route
Now that I I live in Japan, I left the other trails of Iseji Route to another visit including another famous very short trail Matsumoto Pass. My week long trip down to Mie and Wakayama included more stops such as Ise Shrine, Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama and also thanks to the kindness of Yamawaki San, Nachi Falls and a visit to the memorial of a Turkish ship sunk off the Kushimoto cost in late 1880s, which will hopefully soon all have their own posts.