a long walk
Spring had come; the snow was gone. We decided a pilgrimage route would be a good thing to do. So the Kumano Kodō it was.
Although the name Kumano Kodō could be rendered literally ‘bear field old road’ in English, and is commonly referred to as a pilgrimage route in the singular, the name infact refers not to one but rather a network of roads which criss-cross Japan’s mountainous Kii Peninsula, (紀伊半島; Kii Hantō), through a landscape of dense-growing temperate rainforest. For those not in the forest-know, the perhaps impossible-sounding ‘temperate rainforest’ consists of coniferous and broad-leaved trees growing together in temperate zones which receive heavy rainfall, and can in fact be found in many areas across the world. This type of growth means limited chance for farming – a situation not too unusual for this mountainous, island nation on the whole, which in 2010 produced only 39% of its own (admittedly, generally highly perfected) food. Forestry and fishing have instead long been the main activities of the peninsula from a human perspective. Waterfalls from a hydrological point of view. A relatively isolated feel pillows the already quiet forest.
Vermilion, Kumano shrines (熊野神社) are scattered with as heavy frequency along the route as fire-bright deciduous leaves come November. Each shrine houses the kami of the three Kumano mountains. Kami- could you say god in English? Spirit? Deity? Language is so poor when it comes to carrying across concepts of belief; it seems only possible to interpret suprahuman agency through the your own cultural prisms. These shrines are special, in any case. It is the intent of a pilgrim to visit each of these, perform the rite, and then… collect a rubber stamp in a small notebook. Like many places in Japan – shrines, temples, railway stations, motorway service stations – each Kumano shrine has its own design of rubber stamp, hidden behind a small, small spring-hinged door in a small wooden box on a short post, about a metre or so high, in a space next to the shrine. There’s a red ink pad which is kept at least moderately full by unknown hands. For further memorabilia fun, the trail is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site, ‘twinned’ with the Santiago de Compostela. There’s a certificate if you complete both, one side with the clam shell symbol of the Santiago and the other with the three-legged, black crow of the Kumano. The black crows made for a good running theme for a group of kids fresh out of the mountains. (No product placement intended.)
‘Maybe we will start the trek? People missing.’ The first jotted note of the trip, was likely either an augury of success eluding us or of a good time, though at this point it was difficult to say. An early start had become a leisurely one, which is not really so much of a problem when your accommodation is carried on your back and can be set up when you, rather than check-in, is ready, so long as you can still see the ground into which you’re hitting those pegs. There had been a bus from Ōsaka to the town of Tanabe, the nearest settlement with a transport hub to the trail head. The intention was to then take a bus from Tanabe to said trail head, but a wallet had somehow continued the train journey without its owner, leaving three of the six to ramen-up by the train station, one of them to take on the perennially challenging task of foraging for gluten- and meat-free sustenance in Japan, and two to report said missing wallet to the station staff. Well, that Japanese has got to be practised- always a shame for a language to get rusty. The ramen consumption was, of course, certainly the best of the three options, although by this point it should be obvious that spicy miso ramen outside of its northern home in Hokkaidō will also be a bit of a let-down. An addict’s quest continues, regardless of the ‘yen-down, yen-down!’ result. In any case, the sun was fully out, the sea air was fresh, and the energy to start was, if not high due to the wallet hiccup, certainly present. A motley crew of hearts in various situations, with various levels of experience in carrying your house on your back for multiple days, but all with a solid love of going higher and higher and an acceptance that things probably won’t go as smoothly as stated on paper. As it was, four made it ahead of the wallet hunters, via the bus to the trail head and the location of the first shrine. Takijiri-oji (高尻王子) was not at first visible, despite the afternoon sun, just a tidy, peaceable visitor’s centre on the southern side of a broad, sweeping river valley. A number of groups of elderly Japanese, decked out in All the Gear (but likely also An Idea), passed by us to start walking in time for a comfortable arrival at their homestays before sunset, perhaps curious about why we found the visitor’s centre more interesting than starting the walk, or wondering if we knew about the lack of street lights after dark in the forest. Inside, they charged money for odd-shaped sticks to hike with. We were sure – and later proven correct – that forests are decent enough places to find sticks ten minutes into walking. So we decamped to the cool river for a while before the next bus arrived over an hour later, with the successful wallet-hunters. Time to get the show on the road.
Crossing the road and taking a path into trees next to a shop, we were met by the clearing in front of the first shrine. We performed the rites, stamped the stamp and started the ascent. Like much of the route, the gradient at the start didn’t beat around any of the bushes – the legs were awake and burning again. A few comments about step machines, about a winter of leg day forever. It had also been a while since having fifteen kilos on the back, but the knowledge that some grams of that was a car windscreen for later comfort was comforting in its own way. Inventive purchases can result from the simple equation of ( no sleeping mat + limited budget ) x ‘scienceright?’ Sometimes.
We were moving though, soon divided naturally into partners of pace, and we were laughing, the light was gorgeous in this late portion of the afternoon, and our feet brushed dried, sepia-toned leaves underfoot, creating that comforting woodland sound, as we made our way over the mix of beaten earth step and slope. We found the expected, appropriate sticks for free, this being a forest, which would serve us to the end. Not far in, we were offered the welcome respite of a small cave with a hole formed by a schism in the rocks on one side, which a small sign informed us would bless fertility and pregnancies if we made it through the gap. It seemed like an opportunity to get our backpacks off already, and use arms to move up rather than feet, so regardless of the actual value of the blessing to us, we gave it a go. People must have been even more slender in the heyday of the rock. Somewhat questioning how many beers may have been tried in Ōsaka and whether ramen for lunch had been wise, we put our packs back on, and progressed.
“… it could be too switchback-y and too rice paddy-y.
“And so not very appropriate for inappropriate camping.”
The first day was a very short distance – only 4km with 430m elevation gain and 200m loss. After a climb through forest to start with, the trail levelled out, presented us with another shrine, and opened up along a ridge with a view of a settlement to one side, a darkening valley of bottle green trees to the other side. The sun hung very low at this point, owing to our late start. We looked at the map to try and decide in advance where would be best to place the tents that night. You can free camp in Japan, but on such a set route as this, we figured that it would be best to employ the usual level of utmost respect for our surroundings, and then some. After a false friend village towards the end, we found the path which was due to be the start of the next day’s segment, and not long after that, a patch of expanded path, relatively flat and unadorned by rocks or too many large, fallen branches. Perfectly suitable. Enough overhead as well for the tent without a fly. We brought a tent without a fly.
There were two curiosities to the spot, however. The first could have been construed as a somewhat imagination-induced drawback. On a back a little way further up the path from our tent-pitching spot, there was a large, wooden construction with a slanted roof and a gaping, black mouth for a doorway. On tentative closer inspection, there was some smashed glass making it more of an actual door. Dust covered the inside, from what we could make out, and so it was only with hesitation that we could decide that perhaps this was someone’s overnight place. The second curiosity was cairns made on top of tree stumps, of various heights. Little ghosts, visible traces of human decisions made before ours, decisions to put one foot in front of the other in this direction, to pile stones on these natural but cut-shot pillars. Traces of an imagination which could take a story and realise it.
The night was dry, without too many animal shrieks. Mostly sweeping conversation above us. The wind swelled and made us aware of its swelling by a sonic mark, the swirling of bamboo tops and coniferous emergents. The sound leaves being moved to tap their neighbours and their home twigs and branches, a quiet sound made sonorous by being repeated in its thousands carried down to where we lay on our mats. Or car sunscreen.