Walking Kumano Kodo: UNESCO World Heritage

It is 5 am. I will shortly start hearing the footsteps of the monks and their students. The preparations for the morning prayer start at 5:30 am. It is a cold February morning and the prayer room, decorated with hundreds of lanterns, needs to be heated up. The temple where I am lodging is located in the temple town of Koyasan sitting at an altitude of 800 metres surrounded by the eight peaks of Mount Koya.

Joki-in Temple is among the 117 Buddhist temples of Koyasan. 52 of these temples, which all belong to the Shingon school of Buddhism, open their door to overnight visitors. The Shingon sect, originally born in China, is introduced to Japan by Kobo Daishi.

Walking Kumano Kodo

I arrive at the temple at noon on a cold winter day. The temperature shows -5 C degree, there is no one around, and I am having difficulty locating the door leading to the guest rooms. The sudden sound of a gong presumably coming from the prayer room makes me feel like I am in a spooky environment similar to the setting of the Name of the Rose, a famous novel by Umberto Eco; a remote and isolated monastery located up in the mountains and filled with mysteries.

Kumano Kodo

While I initially feel a little uneasy, it does not take long for my mood to change. The doors opening to the greeting room of the temple lead me into a much more welcoming environment. The lady monk, who graciously helped me during my entire stay to better understand the rituals and the daily life in the temple, gives me a quick temple tour.

Dinner time at the temple

Dinners are served in the privacy of each guest`s room. The dinner ritual at the temple is important to get an insight into the Koyasan Buddhist culture. Shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine), based on five flavors and five colors, excludes meat and fish. The preparation of the meal is also a religious ritual. To ensure harmony between the seasons and the human body, only seasonal ingredients must be used. Not only fish and meat but the ingredients with heavy smell, such as garlic and onions, are also excluded.  

Morning Prayers in Koyasan

The next morning, a student resident of Joki-in Temple who attends the nearby Koyasan University where she studies Buddhism, notices that I am greatly taken by the kind attitude towards the guests and feeds me with additional information. She notes that the tradition of hosting guests at Koyasan temples goes back 1200 years – to an era during which the temples opened their doors to pilgrims without making any distinction between the common people and the reverends.

Morning pray at Joki-in

I enter the prayer room, and the morning prayer starts at exactly 5:50 am under the direction of the head monk. There are two other guests today, but I am the only non-Japanese in the room. Everyone is welcome to participate in the morning prayers regardless of nationality and, more importantly, religious beliefs. This is also the case for the nearby Okunoin Cemetery – the literal meaning of which is “inner sanctuary” in Japanese. This welcoming nature of Okunoin does not only apply to day visitors wanting to take a walk around more than 200,000 tombstones located in the cemetery; people of every nationality and religious belief are welcome in Okunoin for eternal residencies.

The Inner Sanctuary – Okunoin

Koyasan was established in 815 by Kobo Daeshi, the founder of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. Daeshi was first introduced to Shingon teachings in China during his training years.

Kobo Daeshi, also affectionally referred to as Kukai, is also seen as a founding father in Japan. He was not only an important religious figure but also a leading teacher in the fields of education, art, language, and literature. It may be more accurate to say that “he still is”. It is believed that Kobo Daeshi has not died and has been in eternal meditation since 835, still guiding the ones seeking help. Monks serve him food twice daily – at 6:30 am and 10:30 am. This rigid daily food regimen is also followed by some of the students at Joki-in Temple. They note that a strict diet is not a requirement but a matter of preference to better focus on meditation.

Books about Japan - Koyasan

Kumano Kodo: ancient pilgrimage route 

Koyasan is an integral part of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes located in the Kii Mountain Range – a region added to the list of Unesco World Cultural Heritage Sites in 2004. It is part of the region including Yoshino and 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 Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes.

My journey in the Kii Peninsula, before I arrive at Koyasan, starts four days earlier at the western leg of Kumano Kodo, the pilgrimage route with a known history of at least 1000 years.

Solo Travels

I wanted to at least partially experience the routes walked by pilgrims back in the day under substantially more severe conditions before deserving my stay in Koyasan. I decided on a walk of three days covering part of the route known as Nakahechi, one of the four main routes in Kumano Kodo in addition to Iseji Route, Kohechi Route, and Ohechi Route.

I left Kyoto early on a weekday morning by train to travel to Tanabe – a small city located at the western end of Wakayama prefecture . After a lunch break and a short bus ride later, I arrived at Tajikiri – the starting point of the pilgrimage route.  Once I left Tanabe beyond, the scenery started to change very quickly, no longer in the company of uninspiring city/town architecture of Japan but the beautiful rivers and forests instead. In Takijiri, I was greeted by Kennis Wong – an area resident of 20 years and my guide for the following two days.

While the main route starts from Tajikiri located at the Western end of Wakayama and leads to Shingu, on the eastern side, there are many other alternative routes that you can take. The first day of the walk involved a relatively short but steep hike – also known as the second most challenging section of Kumano Kodo. This first section required non-stop climbing for at least an hour before reaching the gentler hills.

Kennis noted that the people who walked the pilgrimage route in the old days only wore sandals, and the route was not as well kept. In fact, it was so dangerous that the pilgrims wore white clothes for the walk, a color that signified purity. That is how they wanted to greet death if they did not make it. Thinking of my complaints during the initial uphill section and feeling ashamed of my comfortable clothes and boots, I decided not to mention anything about tiredness for the remainder of our walk.

Walking Kumano Kodo

Since it was early in the season, Kennis and I were the only ones walking the route. The busy season for this route starts in late March and lasts till the beginning of June – a month which is described as the fifth season in Japan, the rainy season!

Thousands of cedar trees accompanied us along the route. It was impossible not to notice certain sections in the forest where the trees were lined in a perfect order. I showed those sections to Kennis just to find out that I touched upon a matter of heated neationwide debate, which has been going on for decades. One of the governmental policies to revitalize the country’s economy following the devastating effects World War II was to cut down native trees and replace those with quikcly growing trees that have a higher commercial value. This created an environment in Japanese forests where one can easily spot the difference between parts occupied by native trees and planted ones. This is not only the case for Kumano Kodo but also for many other forested areas of Japan that I had a chance to visit.

In Lost Japan: Last Glimpse at Beautiful Japan, commonly accepted to be one of the best books written by a foreigner about Japan, Alex Kerr criticized the forestry policies of Japan and noted that the replacement of the native trees with commercially more viable new trees turned the forests of Japan into a desert where it is no longer possible to walk by hearing the sounds of plants and animals. 

Luckily, I was a little luckier. While observing the trees smashed down to the ground due to the typhoon, which hit the region in September 2011, we heard a sound and noticed three beautiful deers curously looking at us. Kennis noted that I was lucky as the animals are usually only spotted during very early hours of the day. Our walk on the first day, in around four hours, took us to Takahara, also known as Kiri-no-Sato.

Walking Kumano Kodo - Hikes in Japan

After saying goodby to me at Kiri no Sato Lodge. Kennis got on her car to get back to Tanabe where she lives with her husband who runs a restaurant. In short ten minutes, she would be back to Tanabe.

After I settled in my room, I took a bath at the Japanese style hot springs – “onsen”. I woke up early the next morning to find out that there could be no better nickname for this small town. The fog which snaked around the mountain passes felt hypnotizing. The view reminded me of the hilltop town of Nagarkot in Nepal and the scenes from the movie Clouds of Sils Maria – a visual feast.

Kumano Kodo and El Camino: dual pilgrimage

On the second day of the walk, our end goal was Tsugizakura-oji where I would be spending the night at a Japanese-style guesthouse. The distance on the second day was almost twice the first day but on a much gentler terrain.

Walking Kumano Kodo

We passed through forests and semi-frozen lakes until lunchtime. We ran into two Spanish walkers at our lunch spot who were also covering the same route. I felt compelled to ask whether they decided to walk the Kumano Kodo as part of the dual pilgrimage program, which covered Kumano Kodo and Camino de Santiago located in their native country – Spain. That was, however, not the case. They prioritized the Kumano Kodo walk, which they found to be more connected with nature and felt more secluded than Camino de Santiago, known with the high number of walkers that it attracts each year. But now that they almost finished Kumano Kodo, they felt compelled to walk the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James. Little did I know at the time that the Japanese owners of the guesthouse where I would be spending the night, Guesthouse Mui, did the exact opposite. The walked the Camino de Santiago but not Kumano Kodo, where they lived.

The joy of long walks

At the end of the second day of walking Kumano Kodo, I started to understand the magic of long walks and how they differed from day walks. You truly get a sense of detachment from daily occupations and worries with each step, and it feels so soothing to know that you will keep walking and not leave the forest and the secluded environment behind to get back to the city in the evening. I think I now appreciate the following words from Henri David Thoreau even more: “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

On my last day of the walk, the four-hour-long trail took us to one of the most important stops at Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route – Kumano Hongu Taisha. On the last day of the walk, I was accompanied by Kim Kuribayashi who used to be a school teacher. Kumano Hongu Taisha is not a temple but a shrine, a common source of confusion for foreigners. But this is what makes Kumano Kodo special – a region that reflects the perfect harmony between Shinto and Buddhism.