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Sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo

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The train pulls into the JR station at Kensai Airport, bound for Kyoto. It whisks away the travelers crowding the platform. They will be delivered to the swarms of small and large tourism businesses that constantly besiege them, suffocating most experiences. With the travelers gone, the station falls silent. I am standing on the opposite platform, alone except for a few airport workers.

My train is heading south, towards the Kumano Kodo, the network of pilgrimage trails in the dense forests of the Kili Mountains deemed sacred since the eleventh century. The pilgrimage linked the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto to three sacred sites: Yoshino & Omine, Kumano Sanzan, Koyasa. The shrines and temples that dot the routes display the cultural fusion of Shinto, Japan's ancient tradition of nature worship, with Buddhism, which was brought back from China over the centuries by devotees and monks, along with other cultural traditions.

The Kumano Kodo network consists of three distinct trails centered around the shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha. I start my hiking journey at the head of the most famous trail, Nakahechi, which starts at Takijiri-oji, 45 kilometres from Kumano Hongu. It is listed together with Spain’s Camino de Santiago as a UNESCO World Pilgrimage Route. This trail is well marked and preserved, but empty of people. In a full day hike I only come a cross a family of three. Silence prevails.

The Kili Mountains are not high but the trail is steep. The pilgrimage was designed to be challenging: suffering and forbearance to enhance the religious experiences. In Japan, spiritual practice is not about transcendence from the material universe to seek the union with God. It is about becoming one with the flow of things, with nature.

Sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo

The route is narrow, mostly unpaved. In a few places, old stone steps are evocative of centuries of zealous devotion by the pilgrims who walked on them. The cryptomeria forest envelops the path. Hermann Keyserling, the German traveling philosopher, suggests in his travel diaries that the cryptomeria is the most powerful tree in bringing to life religious associations: It has the duskiness of the cypress; it symbolises joyful hope like the thuja; but it also has the majesty, cosmic power and immortal quality of the fir.

Rays of sun break through the forest canopy, highlighting details on the forest floor: the contortion of a root, the spirally needle-like leaves of a branch, the scales of a seed cone. These simple forms are the substance of the Japanese aesthetic called Furyu, the elegance to be found in nature’s simplicity. He who is able to appreciate it is freed from the torments of ordinary life.

Read "The Enchanted World of Miyazaki"

There is nothing in long distance hiking in itself: not the endurance aspect, nor the narrative of the ego. It is just a process, rooted in what the wanderer encounters, and the capability to connect to it, that may allow something with real meaning.

I come to this trail to try experiencing intimacy with nature. The Zen-infused holiness of the place calls the hiker to a different relationship with nature, even in a trail so expressive. It calls to surrender the rational approach, which longs to extrapolate meanings and anthropomorphise the environment. It calls to adopt an intuitive perception, cultivate feelings. Sensitivity and emotions are the grounds for remembrances and assertive actions. Moralistic reflections are misleading, as nature manifests itself by the transience of its beings. In Japanese, the term “Aware” captures the concept of the ephemeral beauty of a word of impermanence.

Sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo

The trail abandons the forest to cross small villages and enter more forests. Some families open their house to hikers. In Tsugizakuma-oji, Yuba Minoru and his wife take only one reservation into their small house each night. He has worked for 40 years in Kaiseki restaurants, providing the refined seasonal style of dining evolved from the Zen Buddhist’s tea ceremony.

Everything here reflects the elaborate simplicity of Japanese culture; the inessential is eliminated. The small wooden bathtub is ready for the ritual bathing, a pre-dinner custom of purification and relaxation which is one of the pleasures of Japan I treasure most. My host gives me a yukata, the traditional robe, as he takes my clothes for washing and drying. They will be ready in the morning. He will also take care of my luggage, forwarding it to my next home stays.

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This is a modest accommodation, but Minoru takes pride in preparing and serving a beautifully arranged, and garnished, nine-course dinner: simmered daikon with red pepper in a meat broth, chicken teppanyaki with spicy miso sauce, steamed rice with mushrooms, tuna sashimi, roasted leeks with sesame and seaweed, shrimp tempura with sweet sauce, parsimony with cheese, prawn tempura with potato, peach sorbet with azuki beans. French and Chinese cuisines are characterised by a creative quest for taste: they transform and exalt ingredients. Japan’s is the most sincere form of fine dining. Food is barely roasted or fried to maintain the purity of its original taste and natural look.

The futon in my room has been laid over the tatami. All is silent. The tranquillity of this place complements the demanding effort on the trail.

Sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo

My second day of hiking is to reach Kumano Hongu Taisha, twenty-three kilometres of learning to look. I respond to a myriad of details I normally would not notice. The forest is marvelously rich. I stop to drink and around me I count seven types of trees and six different bushes. How much nature has to offer depends only on the observer’s talent. Japan pushes you to be in harmony with your surroundings.

Clouds, mists and rain patches envelop the landscape. The contours of the mountains are sometimes visible, sometimes veiled, sometimes invisible. The Japanese language has two terms to describe the landscape: yugen and ma. Yugen describes the beauty of what is imperceptible as opposed to obvious. Ma refers to a negative space that is substance. You cannot appreciate things on the spot. You must select your travel to experience what already stirs your passions. Today I am delighted to see expressions of what painter Hasegawa Tōhaku depicted in his masterpiece “Pine Trees screen,” a pair of six-fold screens depicting a pine grove in a dense mist. The empty space becomes the landscape. If I did not have an interest in the Sumi-e monochromatic ink wash paintings, I probably would see just bad weather.

From Kumano Sanzan, two less beaten trails begin. One, Kohechi, goes northeast for just more than 60 km to the sacred town of Koyasan. The other, Omine Okugakemichi, ventures northwest for 80 km until Yoshino, passing by the sacred Mount Sanjo, forbidden to women.

At the end of the Kohechi trail, most of Koyasan’s temples host travelers. On the TripAdvisor.com website, many question the temples’ authenticity and their value for the money. Tourists want to see what they already know; they seek the preconceptions of a destination the media has romanticised.

The monastery is a house of old wood, with a curved roof and dry gardens. At night, when everyone has gone to sleep I stay behind, in the small library. It is silent, but the sound of rain and wind. I am taking my time to appreciate the monastery. I don’t want to only eat, sleep and quickly see the morning chanting. I take the headlamp to wander in the dark corridors and the empty tatami rooms. My beam illuminates colorful paintings on sliding panels and vertical rolls, some with ink drawings, others with calligraphy. As I walk, portraitures of old abbots and holy monks appear from the darkness. I reach the inner sanctum and its many lanterns, which cast soft lights and shadows on the Boddisvatas and mythical warriors.

Sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo

What is authenticity? Which Zen is authentic and which is fake? Is a priest with a mobile phone artificial? Or is a Zen meditation class in New York genuine, squeezed between a business meeting and a night at the movies? Can Zen for a traveller be a personal experience rather than a concept?

It is cold and dark in the deep night at the monastery. I feel anxious, yet the atmosphere is suggestive and intense. Meditative. Slowly the monastery reveals some of its intimacy. It is a strong contrast to the city: constant rush, sensory overload and always bigger desires.

Omine Okugakemichi is the toughest trail. There is no place to lodge, no settlements, no shops to buy food or water. It is training grounds of the Yamabushi, literally the mountain warrior, the wandering monk of the esoteric Shugendo sect. He seeks the attainment of spiritual power through challenging tests of courage and devotion. While Nakahechi and Kohechi are places of pilgrimage, this is a trail of asceticism; meditations under frozen waterfalls to become one with the water. The Yamabushi is powerful and violent, like the medieval monk of Europe: praying and fighting.

To hike Omine Okugakemichi is to hike in medieval Japan, bringing to mind the warrior monk, the masculinity of the samurai, the feminine sensibility. It was a time of moral courage, idealism, nobility of outlook, self denial, disregard of material advantages. To hike here is to be confronted by the questions of “Where does modern man stand?” and “What are his values?”

Kumano Kodo is a hike that offers the opportunity to look at things differently. To appreciate simplicity and solitude. To travel away form the crowds. To feel the impermanent flow of nature and become part of it. To let go of stereotypes and habits. To look at what one values. To find beauty and peace.

Sacred trails of the Kumano Kodo

 

When to go:

Kumano Kodo is a year-round hiking experience so pick your time based on the natural features you are more interested to see. June to September are the months with the most rainfall. December and January are the coldest months, but temperatures rarely drop below 0°C.

How to get there:

Many Asian airlines fly to Osaka's Kansai Airport. From the airport's railway station, it is a two-hour train ride to Tanabe city, from where a bus service takes you to the trailhead at Takijiri-oji.

More things to do in Japan:

If you are planning to travel to Japan during the Spring, there are many Cherry Blossom festivals. We at Blueflower organise itineraries to the lesser-know Sakura, and the less frequented by tourists.

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