Stairway to heaven: mountain climbing historical pilgrimage trails in southern Japan | Travel

Mountainous Kumano is the holy floor of Japan and pilgrims have been trekking there for hundreds of years. Shrines, mist, forests and waterfalls mix to create an entrancing hike

Pagoda panorama … the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine overlooks Japan’s highest waterfall .
Photograph: Alamy

Normally I’m not given to praying however the event calls for it. After bowing twice and clapping twice, I make a silent entreaty that my trek will go nicely. My obeisance is going down in entrance of a small wood constructing, slightly like a summerhouse. It is a shrine within the city of Takijiri-oji, a place to begin for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails.

Kumano is the standard identify for the southern a part of Japan’s Kii peninsula. It accommodates pilgrimage routes relationship again greater than a millennium. The first pilgrims had been adherents of Shinto who travelled to worship beside the pure wonders of the sacred Kii mountains. Later pilgrims adopted an amalgam of Shinto and Buddhism.

Japan map

The Kumano Kodo has a low profile exterior Japan; the Camino de Santiago in north-west Spain is significantly better recognized, however that’s altering: extra guests are coming to stroll it, Unesco has designated it a world heritage website and it has been twinned with the Camino de Santiago.

There are quite a lot of routes to select from and treks usually take between three and 6 days. I go for three days on the Nakahechi route, the preferred of the six important historic trails. The most demanding is the 80km Omine-Okugakemichi route: appropriate just for professional hikers with mountaineering expertise. I stroll a complete of 15km by way of a variety of terrain, a few of it fairly difficult. It is a pick-and-mix expertise; you may stroll as little or as a lot as you want, as a result of buses run between many factors on the path community. Guides can be found however most trekkers are self-guided.

Pilgrims in Heian period costumes.

Pilgrims in Heian interval costumes. Photograph: Alamy

The important locations are the shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha. The begin of my trek is a steep, zigzagging 250-metre climb out of Takijiri-oji. The views are compensation. This panorama is dominated by bushes: forests of maple, cypress and cedar easy the mountains into fecund cones. The path earlier than me is latticed with roots. Sometimes they provide steps; elsewhere they’re obstacles. When my left boot snags one I take a tumble: a reminder that I’m not being as aware as any person on a Buddhist path could possibly be. But I would like no prompting to maneuver away when a big insect with myriad orange legs cantilevers onto the path – it’s a mukade, a toxic large centipede.

After strolling by way of woodland glades punctuated by wild azalea I attain Takahara village (4km from Takijiri-Oji), the place I encounter Iwami Kazuyasu, a pleasant middle-aged resident hoeing a plot of mustard crops inside an enclosure. “I have to have a small electric fence round my vegetables to keep wild boar away,” he says. Down the slope under him, I can see a girl in a bonnet harvesting inexperienced tea.

Bathing in Kawayu Onsen.

Bathing in Kawayu Onsen. Photograph: Alamy

That night I keep within the close by city of Kawayu Onsen, a city constructed alongside a river valley containing a number of sizzling springs. As I lie again in one in every of them and let the aches of the day disappear, I look as much as see a black kite glide down the valley and vanish into the bushes.

The subsequent day’s aim is my first grand shrine, Hongu. It is a 7km stroll from my place to begin, Hosshinmon-oji, a subsidiary shrine that marks the outermost entrance to Hongu’s sacred precincts. The grand shrines all have an imposing torii, or gateway, that appear like unusually ornamental, outsize goalposts. As I close to Hongu its gateway looms bigger: it’s the world’s largest, at 34 metres excessive. As nicely as gateways, the grand shrines share different architectural options. Their roofs are steep and curved, with x-shaped cross items above their gables and log-like beams laid perpendicularly throughout their roof ridges.

Hongu shrine in the rain.

Hongu shrine. Photograph: Alamy

Near Hongu’s entrance is chief priest Kuki Ietaka, resplendent in white robes. He is engagingly non-sectarian, welcoming his rising numbers of overseas guests. “I really like to see them,” he says. “I’m always keen to ask them what they think of the shrine and how we can take it forward.”

Travelling by boat by way of the Kumano-gawa river valley is a standard choice for pilgrims, in order that afternoon I float all the way down to the Hayatama grand shrine, admiring the idiosyncratic rock formations alongside the valley partitions en route. Hayatama has a large Asian bayberry tree in its grounds, believed to be eight centuries outdated. Placing one in every of its robust, oval leaves in your pockets is claimed to make sure you’ll by no means run in need of cash. Alas, pressure as I’d, the bottom department stays past my grasp. Fortunately there’s different bounty obtainable. The shrine lies on the coast and Kumano is famend for its seafood. In the adjoining metropolis of Shingu I benefit from the freshest of sashimi, which incorporates translucent prawns, washed down with kumanogawa sake.

Hayatama shrine.

Hayatama shrine, Shingu. Photograph: Alamy

Originally, Hayatama was sited midway up close by Mount Gongen, the place its mum or dad shrine, Kamikura jinja, stays. Should I point out that the climate on the Kumano Kodo is notoriously changeable? As I deal with the 538 steps to Kamikura jinja, rain turns them right into a slippery waterfall. The shrine stands alongside a huge boulder known as Gotobiki-awa, which is claimed to be the place the Shinto gods first appeared on Earth. Sometimes the boulder is in comparison with an enormous toad, however to me it resembles a colossal umeboshi, one of many area’s irresistible dried pickled plums. I stand subsequent to it, drenched, and gaze down upon Shingu, unfold on the fringe of the Pacific like a soggy bathmat.

Many Kumano Kodo trails are inland however a significant path to the third grand shrine, Nachi, runs beside the ocean. I squelch gamely onwards previous paddy fields and clumps of bamboo, roiling waves on my left. A crimson clawed crab scuttles throughout my path earlier than nestling up in opposition to my proper boot.

The Daimonzaka pathway to the Nachi shrine.

The Daimonzaka pathway to the Nachi shrine. Photograph: Alamy

Shortly after, I arrive on the remaining method to Nachi, the Daimonzaka: a stone pathway between towering cedars. In the rain and mist it’s ethereal. The shrine honours the adjoining Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall, Japan’s highest at 133 metres. I can hear the tumult of its cascade however by way of the saturated air I catch glimpses solely of its base. It’s a becoming finish to my trek, a reminder that nature’s elemental energy lies so completely past our management.

Way to go

Getting there
The journey was supplied by Wakayama Tourist Board. InaspectJapan has a brand new 16-night Honshu Hiking journey that takes in sections of the Kumano Kodo trails and the Nakasendo Highway from £2,630, together with lodging – lodges, conventional ryokan and temple lodgings – breakfast and another meals however not worldwide flights.

Best time to go to
The Kumano Kodo path may be walked 12 months spherical. Popular occasions are March/April for the cherry blossom season, and October/November for autumn colors. Daytime temperatures common 10-15C in spring and autumn and 25-30C in summer season.

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