Distance – 92km
Days – 5
Onsen’s – 4
Coffee Roasters – 1
Spiders Seen – 736
Spiders Ran From - 736
Tokyo, 2am. Stranded, alone, on the rooftop of a hostel. More accurately, chatting to two Americans on the rooftop of a hostel. Being alone would have been a luxury. This is where the Kumono Kodō began for me. Through ever increasingly frequented shots of Sake I began to learn about this ancient pilgrimage. Weeding through slurred rhetoric and confusing insults about my accent, I began to build a mental picture of this hike. They described a scene of dense forests, waterfalls, and solitude. After a couple of overzealous ‘sayonaras’ that only an American tourist could muster, I was alone again. I arose with pure excitement and a burning headache. Maybe it was the extreme and suffocating air pollution, or more likely the effects of cheap sake. Either way I headed to the station, ordered a bitter long black, jumped on the train and headed south.
9 hours later I arrived in Tanebe (a small coastal town) and inhaled my first decent breath of fresh air in 72 hours. This is the gateway to the Kumano Kodō. The pilgrimage is over 1000 years old and one of only two UNESCO pilgrimages in the world. After a few short and slightly aggressive phone calls from the receptionist at the information centre, I was ready. A short bus ride later I was dropped off in a small town in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. With headphones in (I recall abusing The Strokes album, “Is This It” at the time), map in hand (yes it was a physical map) I started walking. The hike flows through valleys and along ridgelines, lined as far as the eye can see with ancient Japanese cedar trees giving you the feeling you were strolling through the ‘forbidden forest’. This is a mental image I won’t forget.
My nights consisted of bento boxes and Tatami bedding (they say good for your back, I disagree). I’ll explain. My accommodation as it turned out was makeshift at best. As a result of my last-minute itinerary, I found myself sleeping on the floor of local farmhouses. If there had ever been a blessing in disguise, this was it. I was cooked the simplest, most pleasant bento box I have ever eaten by the local man whose property I was on. To experience authentic home cooked Japanese food was an incredibly cathartic experience for me. As Anthony Bourdain once put it, “walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food.” As the days went on so did I. Onsen’s here, waterfalls there, coffee shops in the most bizarre locations. Remarkably I even found a young man operating a coffee roaster somewhere deep in the mountains, his coffee was truly delicious. I asked to take his photo. See below.
One of the truly special moments of this hike came at the end of my last day. I had aimed to finish my hike at a small bridge before jumping on the bus and heading back to civilisation. Maybe it was my lack of Japanese or an inability to read a bus timetable but there I sat, on this bridge, for hours waiting for my bus. I could see in the distance a man wading upstream fly fishing. For hours I watched this man fish. Admiring his stealth and skill. I have never been patient enough for fishing myself, but wow this looked peaceful. Finally, he appeared below me on the bridge and I snapped this photo (see below), still one of my favourites to date. As I sat on the train heading back to the chaotic streets of Tokyo about to be engulfed by one of the great contrasts, I had two thoughts: Thank God for those Americans I met on that rooftop and cheap sake. Without either I don’t think I would have learnt about this hike.
And the Kumano Kodō — for anyone chasing blissful solitude, this is it. It could well be the remedy to the modern world.