Kumano Kodo Day 4 & 5: Koguchi to Nachi-san

It was so hot that it felt like mid-day already.  Unfortunately, I made it only about 15 to 20 minutes into the hike and my trek came to a halt … or rather a circle … I was lost.  Looking at my map, I walked back and forth looking for the Kumano Kodo signs but was unable to locate them.  The trail took me through a tiny residential block with small homes.  With all the dogs barking at me, eventually a very kind woman pointed me in the correct direction of the trail and I was relieved to finally continue on my way.

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It was a solid night’s rest after day 3’s challenging 27km hike on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.  I anticipated that the hike today would be less challenging than yesterday’s in terms of distance but I had read ahead of time I’d reach the highest point in elevation along this part of the Kumano Kodo trail.  The fact that there would be a cumulative effect of hiking long distances day after day was not lost on me, but I did not seem to be experiencing it.
Learning from what I had experienced on yesterday’s hike, I made sure to run across the road from the ryokan to a convenience store to pick up some lunch that I could carry along for the hike.  I figured that this would keep me going.

Soon after breakfast at the Yoshinoya Ryokan, I was sitting in the lobby making use of the WiFi when a very well-dressed gentleman stepped in.  I had no idea who he was but eventually was informed by the owner of the ryokan that he was the taxi driver who would be taking me to my starting point today.  I didn’t expect the taxi to arrive 15 minutes early but fortunately I had already packed up and was ready to go.  It was a fascinating but rather long ride in the taxi to the starting point — approximately 30 minutes.  The driver was silent nearly the entire way but was so professional — and was extremely keen on ensuring that I didn’t get lost when he dropped me off.  If I had more time in Japan, I would have planned to hike the way to Koguchi (where I would be starting today) but I had already made plans to meet up with friends living in Osaka.

After a lengthy taxi ride to Koguchi, I got dropped off here by the extremely polite and friendly taxi driver.

A quick view of the surroundings here in Koguchi

Where I began the last section of my journey to Nachi-san

Once I got dropped off, I immediately set off with a good pace.  It was so hot that it felt like mid-day already.  Unfortunately, I made it only about 15 to 20 minutes into the hike and my trek came to a halt … or rather a circle … I was lost.  Looking at my map, I walked back and forth looking for the Kumano Kodo signs but was unable to locate them.  The trail took me through a tiny residential block with small homes.  With all the dogs barking at me, eventually a very kind woman pointed me in the correct direction of the trail and I was relieved to finally continue on my way.

As soon as I stepped into the woods, the temperature felt quite a bit cooler but I was also confronted with a long series of steps to climb.  This climb continues for quite a while.

After wandering around in between houses and having every dog chase or bark at me -- a woman finally directed me the right way to get back on to the real trail. So begins the toughest part of the journey.

A small shrine as I begin the last major climb.

The steep climb up begins involving mossy rocks. A tad slippery.

Just chilling out for a bit. This is probably the only picture of me on the Kumano Kodo trail.

After climbing many series of staircases or mossy rocks, I eventually came across a very nice rest area and paused shortly.  I was very fortunate to not have rain the entire time that I’ve been out on the Kumano Kodo trail.  Many folks have mentioned that it gets very slippery out here due to the moss.

This part of the trail is what really has that ancient historical feel.  Maybe it was just the stone-laid steps, but combined with the really stunning jizo statues I encountered along the way — I could not help but try to imagine hundreds of pilgrims hiking this path hundreds to thousands of years ago.  Although I don’t really show it in this blog post, the climb up to the highest elevation point of the Nakahechi part of the Kumano Kodo trail (referred to as Echizen-touge Pass) is very challenging — particularly in the summer.  I think I spent a large amount of time on today’s hike tackling the climb up.  Echizen-touge Pass oddly enough had a lot of signs littered around the area — too bad I couldn’t read any of them!

The climb is tough but it is beautiful to look at.There were many Jizo statues along the climb up this part of the trail. I wonder how old some of these really are. Some of them are amazingly detailed.

At the highest elevation point of the trail, there were quite a few signs. Not that I knew what any of them stated.

Once over the pass, it was a steady and sometimes steep descent down from the pass.  I was focusing on my footwork because the rocks on the way down were covered with moss and quite slippery if your boots were wet so I didn’t take many photographs of the descent.  I often attempted to find routes around wet areas of the trail down but the river along the side made for quite a challenge.

Just as I thought the major ascent was over, I was given more climbs to tackle.  Sometimes climbs lead to more climbs or climbs lead to a peak to descend from, however this one climb led me to an absolutely beautiful area.  It almost looked like it were a landscaped area in the middle of the forest.  Perhaps this was done hundreds of years ago?

Quite a beautiful part of the trail after a lengthy descent with a small stream running along side.

Just when I thought the climb was over... it begins again...!Some parts of the trail appear amazing -- it sometimes looks as if there was some custom landscaping involved!

A beautiful Jizo statue with lots of donations...

I was feeling pretty good about the progress made so far and just as the trail took me out of the woods and on to a small road, I found the perfect spot to enjoy lunch before continuing onwards. Just adjacent to the rest area was an old tea house — I keep wondering if someone would be serving tea from these spots during the months when hiking the Kumano Kodo is quite popular.

This is when I discovered that the two buns I grabbed from the convenience store the previous day were actually two different versions of red bean buns.  The irony is that I’m not a big fan of the red bean but who am I to complain?  At least I had lunch this time around!  Directly across the rest area was a vending machine (surprise!) that actually spoke to me (in Japanese of course).  Unfortunately at this point, the major ascent had caused me to consume a significant amount of my water (3 litres) — and when I sought water out at the vending machine, all it had was iced tea or coffee.  Ended up purchasing two bottles of iced tea, hoping that it would last me the remainder of the journey to Nachi-san — which it didn’t but I can’t predict the future.

I watched a British couple pass me and was surprised at how little water they were carrying not to mention how little rest they opted for.  I had passed them before along the major ascent and I would eventually pass them again.  After lunch, I continued on my way on to another detour — a consequence of the recent typhoons that had completely destroyed nearby sections of the trail.

An excellent rest area with an incredibly relaxing breeze and a nice view of the river. Enjoyed a cold tea drink and two red bean buns for lunch (i accidentally purchased two).

Noboritate-jaya teahouse

After stopping for lunch, there was another detour from the actual trail. This is the damage that a previous typhoon had done to the real trail. Pretty crazy.

The detour took me a long trek up a road that followed a river that ran parallel to the actual trail until it crossed the road and into a deeper wooded area.  Even in this section, it was pretty astounding to see the damage that the typhoon had on the area.  Fallen trees and large rocks could be seen lying all over.  I figured the trail was still open because people were able to safely clear out most of the fallen debris or most of the debris did not block the path and did not pose any risk to people on the trail.

Perhaps it was the humidity that was bugging me (I also had this weird ear infection from a mosquito bite), but one issue that nagged at me was the fact that maps would often inform me of the large ascents but not show any of these other ascents — in fact, elevation diagrams would often show very small inclines.  I wish I were better able to determine where the ascents were to better plan where I would rest and how I might be able to conserve water.  The tricky thing about topographical maps in Japan is that they are extremely expensive for whatever reason so I opted not to purchase them.

Despite the clean up that had happened, this is a pretty astounding look at what had happened to the trail post-typhoon.

Passing by what appears to be the remains of an older shrine of some sort. Didn't hang around for too long because the mosquitoes really seemed to love this area.

Some additional climbing in the final section of the trail. It seemed never-ending.

Shrines always end up in the most fascinating and peculiar of places. Always curious how they get set up.

Just as I began running low on iced tea (I was already running on drops of vapor from my water bladder), I finally reached Funami-touge pass.  Supposedly there was a nice view of the sea but I wasn’t able to get a good glimpse.  Having very little water or tea left, I was just happy that it appeared to be a lengthy descent.  It was more important to me to reach Nachi-san than to have one good view of the sea.

This descent led me through a parking lot and into a very peculiar looking park-like zone.  Next to the trail, there was a giant slide, which I thought at the time should become part of the trail (just for fun), and a number of A-frame structures.  I’m not sure if they were for children to climb into but it was neat to see.

After the final climb, it is a long journey, steadily descending.

The final steps as we get closer to civilization! It was also getting a bit annoying with all the chainsaw noise coming from around the area.

Perhaps they should have made this giant slide part of the Kumano Kodo. Make this part of the hike even more exciting!

As I made my way through the park-like area, the dirt trail evolved into a stone path and thus began the long and final descent to Nachi-san.  This section was one of the most beautiful wooded areas to pass through but I can see why many people find this part to be very difficult.  The old stone path is covered with moss and the humidity and additional moisture just makes for an even more slippery experience.  There were times when I had to significantly slow down my descent just to make sure that I wouldn’t slip just as I turned along the switchbacks.

There were some more shrines along the way that I noticed but the main feature of this part of the trail are the long series of steps.

The final stone path to Nachi-san begins.Passing by a shrine along the stone path towards Nachi-san

The distance countdown begins towards Nachi-san.

This stone path just kept going on and on and on... slightly slippery but not too much.

I think this is a large sign explaining or describing the area around Nachi-san and the Kumano Kodo trail.

The final set of steps into Nachi-san!

As I stepped into Nachi-san, I had this sigh of relief and accomplishment.  My legs were definitely aching at this point and my body was crying out for water.  Just as I turned to my left at the foot of the set of stairs, I saw ice cream!  I had been meaning to try out plum flavoured ice cream and I immediately embraced that opportunity.

It was still too early to the Mitaki-sanso Inn (the only place to stay in Nachi-san) so with my journey near to completion, I decided to explore the area a little.

Arriving in Nachi-san and pretty tired of steps but in awe of the view.

Ice cream hit the spot at the final steps of the Kumano Kodo trail into Nachi-san. I enjoyed the plum flavour.

A view of of the Nachi-san pagoda - Seiganto-ji.

It is near to impossible to miss the the Nachi-san pagoda (Seiganto-ji) amidst the backdrop of Nachi-no-taki waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Japan.  Supposedly, there have been people who have had spiritual training under this waterfall which is quite impressive considering that is water falling from a height of 133 metres! I had the opportunity to make a brief visit into the pagoda and its different floors — there was even an elevator in there!  There is a small entrance fee but it’s worth taking a look.  I only wish they didn’t set up a huge net around the upper levels of the pagoda because it made taking photographs quite difficult.  Fortunately, someone was very thoughtful and had made sure to cut open a gap in the net large enough for cameras to take photograph through.  I can only imagine how busy that may get during tourist season.

I poked around the pagoda some more before strolling over to the temple and simply taking in the atmosphere and the beautiful architecture.  From there, the trail continues to descend to what I referred to as main street Nachi-san with vendors and stores serving tourists.  There was also the option of getting closer to the Nachi-no-taki waterfall so I made my way down more steps (ugh) and eventually had an excellent view of the waterfall.  There was the option making a small payment to reach the base of the waterfall but at that point, I really didn’t feel like having to trek anymore — particularly as I was completely out of tea and water, and it was getting very hot and humid.  So I turned around and made my way to the inn I was to stay at.

A beautiful view of Nachi-no-taki waterfall from Seiganto-ji.

Nachi-san Belfry.You could pay a little sum to hike closer to the Nachi-no-taki waterfall but I felt satisfied.

Main street Nachi-san? All the little shops and restaurants seemed to be lined up here.

Of course, once I arrived at the Mitaki Sanso Inn, I was greeted by the owner and another elderly man who appeared to be a friend or a colleague.  At that point, I was very tired and as typical of local Japanese, I was greeted with an “atsui desu ne?” (hot isn’t it?).  I simply smiled in my tired state and responded with “hai” (yes).  I don’t think they heard me because the owner began to try and translate for me.

I found out that I was the only person staying at the inn which was nice and I had a beautiful view from my room of the waterfall.  The inn itself wasn’t as nice as the other guesthouses that I had stayed at but it was comfortable and the food was excellent.  I had only spent 5 days in what most would consider “rural” Japan but it felt so much longer than that and it felt weird that my journey would end with a train ride back to Osaka.  More importantly, I had a feeling of contentment and peace after completing this journey — I just needed to get a good night’s rest.

Day 5 – Kii-Katsuura

The next morning I woke up, had breakfast, and bid the owner of the inn farewell.  Made my way back to main street Nachi-san to catch a bus to take me to the port town of Kii-Katsuura.  It was a pretty early morning and much of the town was closed.  After walking around the town for a bit, I got bored and sat down on a bench next to the train station.

My train wouldn’t be arriving for some time but it was really neat watching ex-patriots and locals greeting and chatting with one another.

The view of Nachi-taki falls from the Mitaki-sanso inn.

After breakfast at the Mitaki-sanso inn, I hopped on a bus to Kii-Katsuura -- a port town -- to catch a train back to Osaka.

Quiet streets in Kii-Katsuura. Nothing is really open yet -- still too early in the morning while I am waiting for my train.

When I returned, people often asked me why I would push myself to do something so challenging.  I don’t have a specific answer for them other than the fact that I knew I wanted to do it and that it would be something for me to learn from and to push the boundaries of my comfort level.  I had researched and read about the Kumano Kodo ahead of time and would often encounter blog posts about 2 or 3 day treks — if I had the time, I would tackle the longest route but perhaps that will be something for me to do in the future.  Maybe just not in the summer when it is extremely hot and humid.  This time around, it was worth it because I also had the opportunity to hike Fuji-san.

You may also want to take a look at the full Kumano Kodo photo gallery.

Kumano Kodo Day 3: Chikatsuyu to Yunomine Onsen

This was going to be the most challenging day of the Kumano Kodo trek as I needed to tackle 27km (ignore the fact that the GPS states 22km — not sure why it reports such a lower number) in distance and make sure I arrive on time for a bus that left at 16:58.  Unfortunately, my body and mind was apparently so excited for this lengthy and challenging hike that it didn’t rest very well.  Fortunately, breakfast at the Minshuku Chikatsuyu was very satisfying and had me up and running in no time.

This was going to be the most challenging day of the Kumano Kodo trek as I needed to tackle 27km (ignore the fact that the GPS states 22km — not sure why it reports such a lower number) in distance and make sure I arrive on time for a bus that left at 16:58.  Unfortunately, my body and mind was apparently so excited for this lengthy and challenging hike that it didn’t rest very well.  Fortunately, breakfast at the Minshuku Chikatsuyu was very satisfying and had me up and running in no time.
After breakfast, I packed up and wished the owner well.  It was surprisingly hot at 7:00 in the morning that day.  I was hoping that the morning would be overcast but alas, it was looking like a bold and hot sunny day.

Observing what I think is a Blue Heron while having breakfast at the Minshuku Chikatsuyu.

I wasn’t sure how quick a pace I could maintain so to ensure I would make it on time to certain “checkpoints” on the map I had picked up, I decided I would refrain from taking as many photographs when possible.  The owner of the Minshuku Chikatsuyu had shown me on the map the approximate time required to hike certain sections and I strived to meet those time frames wherever possible.

It was a really great experience to have the opportunity to trek through these villages and towns.  I never imagined the school grounds would be so impressive in the mountains and that I would encounter so many jizo statues along the road side.

Starting the day as I passed the local school grounds.  It was going to be a long day as I had to hike 27km towards Kumano Hongu Taisha to catch a bus to Yunomine Onsen.Walking along the local road.Passing by a local jizo statue and shrine.More dilapidated structures.  Not sure if someone is living in here.

The pilgrimage trail would take me into a mix of road and wooded path.  Everyone I encountered that morning greeted me with “Atsui desu ne?” — meaning, “hot isn’t it?”  Aside from “konnichiwa”, speaking about the heat or cold seemed to be a common response … I guess it isn’t too different from talking about the weather here in North America!

I was making good time that morning and eventually found myself hiking up to various shrines.  These shrines would often be located off the side of the road but would require one to hike up a steep hillside trail in order to reach these statues or shrines.  As much as I enjoyed the wondrous sight of these shrines in a remote or hidden part of the mountain at times, they were hindering my ability to cover a certain distance within the times that I had originally set out.

Worth the brief hike up the steps.  The small shrine at the very top.Very often these shrines (oji's) or statues would be located a brief hike up from the side of the road.

It pained me to sometimes feel like I had to choose between having the opportunity to visit the shrine or cover the distance in the time.  I think I managed to visit majority of the shrines or statues along the way.  I say most because I may have passed some without noticing the signage.

Passing by an interesting tunnel through the mountain.Not sure if this is someone's home or a small temple but it was neat to see the architecture and the abandoned rusted-up van.

After passing through some more common country roads (although there was barely any traffic), I found myself confronted with a detour.  Apparently a recent typhoon had severely damaged a part of the original Kumano Kodo trail so a detour was created.  I anticipated at least three major ascents on the trail and this was the first major ascent today.

Somehow, I have a feeling that the original trail may not have been as tough as the detour but nonetheless after a lot of huffing and puffing up a steep trail, I finally reached the forest and the temperature immediately felt a few degrees cooler within the wooded area.  Almost like air conditioning!

Despite the very challenging hike up while being exposed to the heat and humidity, the view was rather pleasing.I didn't understand all the signage but tribute was often offered by travellers to these jizo statues.I have a feeling that these forests are maintained to provide a very manicured appearance.

The wooded area though cooler made it easier to hike.  Interestingly enough, I would hear a chainsaw every so often and would stumble upon construction sights.  I’m not sure if what I came across were lumber crews but they seemed to be using some form of selective harvesting approach with regards to the forest.  Perhaps they were trying to maintain a very manicured appearance to the trail and its surrounding vicinity?

Stopping by to take a look at this shrine in the middle of the forest.  Trying not to get eaten alive by mosquitoes.Having forgotten to get a bento box lunch, I only had a piece of candy from Peru and a Cliff Bar.  That was lunch time spent here and fortunately I was able to re-fill water at the tap.

One of the additional challenges on this day of the Kumano Kodo trek was that I forgot to ask the owner of the minshuku I stayed at to prepare a bento box lunch.  This meant I had nearly no food for much of the 27km.  In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that I had pocketed a Cliff Bar in my backpack before I left for Japan and had left a chicha morada candy from Peru in one of my pockets, I would have no food whatsoever!  Silly mistake that I was kicking myself for what could I do?

I was still on schedule so I decided to take a much needed break and thankfully, also found a working faucet to refill my water bladder and bottle — which was much needed!  I was surprised to find so many faucets that did not work.  Keep that in mind if you do hike the Kumano Kodo, particularly in the summer.  Despite carrying at least 3 litres of water with me, my rate of water consumption was likely pretty high.

A glimpse of the damage caused by recent typhoons.The remnants of a teahouse that was damaged by a typhoon.

The beautiful aspect of this long day was the wide range and diversity of things that I had the opportunity to experience and discover.  I really enjoyed the various shrines (oji’s) that I would encounter along the way but more so the unexpected abandoned teahouses or structures.  Considering how helpful some refreshments would be, I actually wish that some of these teahouses were still operating since they’d likely make for quite an enjoyable rest stop in the middle of the trail.

Crossing over a river with very low water levels at this time of year.Visiting more shrines along the way.A chipmunk or squirrel mascot.The long-awaited arrival at Hosshinmon-oji.  I had initially thought that the trek would be easier once I passed this point but little did I realize the trek would hold more obstacles and challenges for me ahead!The site of Hosshinmon-oji, a world heritage site -- merely two-thirds of the way on the day I tackled a 27km section of the Kumano Kodo trek.

Once I finally made two-thirds of the way, I did a little celebratory jig and enjoyed my time exploring and examining Hosshinmon-oji.  I was ahead of schedule and the uphill climb towards this shrine was worth the effort.  Apparently this shrine is considered the entrance to a sacred area called Nachi Hongu Taisha, and Hosshin means “aspiration to enlightenment”.  I was definitely feeling drained from aggressively pursuing this distance with such a pace — probably paying for it at this point.

Fortunately, the trail descended down the road and made its way past a rest area.  The rest areas are always in such well-kept condition so at this point — considering that I was ahead of schedule — I felt it worth the while to stop for a bit and even treat myself to a nice cold drink.  This time instead of tea, I decided to grab a bottle of Pocari Sweat.  I’m not sure why anyone would refer to a drink as sweat but it is pretty much an energy drink similar to Gatorade that is found in most of North America.  One thing that puzzled me is why there were never any vending machines that dispensed food.

A wonderful rest area -- to celebrate the pace I was able to hike at, I decided to reward myself with a cold drink from the local vending machine.A very cool jizo statue seated within a wooden roof structure.  I wish I were able to read the tablet on the left.A booth selling sculptures.  Leave payment in the collect box.  As much as I was tempted to purchase something, everything is a little too large and heavy for me to carry on my journey.Crossing the small rural road on my way to continue the Kumano Kodo trail.

After passing through a tiny hamlet and taking a brief stop to look over some nifty-looking sculptures, I continued onwards.  The temperature was at its peak by this point and I was attempting to maintain a good pace by being more selective with what I was going to photograph.  This was pretty challenging because the trail itself is very pretty and one could leisurely stroll through and spend an endless amount of time with all the photo opportunities.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I had overcome the three major ascents on this part of the trail, there were still quite a few smaller uphill challenges to tackle.  If it weren’t for my trekking poles, my legs would have been pretty numb!  The other challenging aspect was the fact that once I was out of the woods, I was completely exposed to the sun (I’m glad I didn’t get sunburnt!).  In some cases, I found myself trekking across and over vast fields.

Jizo statues along the pilgrimage trail.I encountered who I believed to be a mother and daughter who were walking around this area of the trail.  I was surprised to see them without water on such a considerably hot day.At this point, I was beginning to feel the effects of hiking at such a fast pace and the distance that I had covered.  Fortunately, I had re-filled on water.

I kept coming upon ascent after ascent which was getting to be extremely tiring — particularly after not having any lunch.  I was really itching for some carbs!  Soon after making my way past a small residential community and a fascinating cemetery, I finally made a lengthy but gradual descent towards Kumano Hongu Taisha on a very beautiful stone path.  Alas, I think I was so focused on making it to the bus on time that I missed out on a side trail that would have taken me to a lookout point.

This path eventually led me to an amusing sight.  An entrance into Kumano Hongu Taisha that was meant for cars.  Pedestrian traffic — ironically — was required to find alternative paths around all the car traffic, rather than the shrine entrance itself.  It was a very busy place!

After a many lengthy ascents I was happy for a friendly descent and was surprised to find people hiking up from what I anticipated to be the Hongu Taisha area.Walking to Kumano Hongu Taisha was amusing.  A shrine entrance just for cars?Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine

The temple and grand shrine were quite a sight and I was felt both relieved and a sense of accomplishment for completing the 27km hike on time.  In fact, I arrived around 15:30 — significantly earlier than I anticipated!  I took the extra time to wander around the Kumano Hongu Taisha site and enjoy the atmosphere.  There was even a visitors centre that was in the midst of construction.  Though I was tempted to purchase a souvenir or two, I was so tired that I sought out a place to sit down and proceeded to walk down a long set of stairs.

The Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine is apparently the centre of the entire Kumano Shugendo faith.  From what I understood, there were three grand shrines and the journey for most pilgrims — which seemed quite elaborate, from ferrying across the river with small boats to trekking over mountains — would start from and end at this grand shrine.  Sounds like quite the pilgrimage.  I think I’m quite relieved at this point that I didn’t have to start from this grand shrine and return.

Since I had arrived so much earlier than the bus, I ended up crossing the street and visiting the large Kumano Kodo Visitor Centre.  Not only was it perfect for history buffs (and those who weren’t literate in Japanese), it had air conditioning!  Even so, I could only bear so much more walking around inside a visitor centre with what seemed by this point as a heavy pack.  I noticed a lot of signs pointing to Oyunohara (a huge shrine gate).  Its location apparently was the original location for the Grand Shrine.

The stairs down from the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.The huge Oyunohara.

I was hoping to see to Steven and Michelle, a couple from New York along the way on this long hike but at no point did I encounter them and even when I arrived at the bus stop, there was no sign of them.  It was definitely a tough hike today and I hope they managed well though I wish I had the opportunity to wish them well as they were to leave Japan for their next destination soon while I would be continuing on the Kumano Kodo trail.

While waiting for the bus, a number of British tourists noticed I had a water bladder and were very vocally curious about it.  The amusing thing is that they all thought that I was Japanese (which was quite common during my experience), even the owner from the Minshuku Chikatsuyu mentioned that he couldn’t tell me apart from local Japanese.  I can only say that it has its pros and cons.

Soon the bus arrived and I hopped on board with a sigh of relief as it took me to the little village of Yunomine Onsen, made up of many inns with access to the hot springs in the area.

A main street running through the area of Yunomine Onsen.  Lots of traditional Ryokans here with access to some really hot water from the hot springs.An awesome private outdoor onsen at the Yoshinoya Ryokan.

This time, I had the fine opportunity to stay at the Yoshinoya Ryokan where they even had a private outdoor onsen (with crazy hot water — I had to keep a cold water tap on to lower the temperature).  It was a beautiful setting nonetheless, there was even a pond next to the onsen itself and I spotted fish and a couple of toads or frogs.  In the ryokan, there was only one other couple and myself who were staying that night.  They were serving dinner a little slow for me so I mistakenly took leave from the dining room a little too soon.  My hosts ended up chasing me down because I had missed out on the dessert (fruit) that they were serving and brought it to my room.

I was definitely going to rest well tonight with all the distance I had covered and all the energy I had used up.  Still, it was rewarding to achieve what I was initially unsure of my own ability to tackle.  One more full day of the Kumano Kodo to go!

Kumano Kodo Day 2: Takahara to Chikatsuyu

Sometimes, following the Kumano Kodo signs is a bit challenging with some signs in English and others in Japanese Kanji.  I’d often find myself going in the wrong direction but eventually I found my way after staring at the handy map I picked up from the visitor center at the start of the pilgrimage trail.

After a solid night’s rest, waking up early was an easy thing to do.  I left before Steven and Michelle, the couple from New York that I met earlier, but I figured I’d probably run into them later in the day.  I felt pretty good and refreshed despite the challenging first day on the Kumano Kodo and was ready to hike up more mountains.  Sometimes, following the Kumano Kodo signs is a bit challenging with some signs in English and others in Japanese Kanji.  I’d often find myself going in the wrong direction but eventually I found my way after staring at the handy map I picked up from the visitor center at the start of the pilgrimage trail.
I really liked the village of Takahara.  I had the opportunity to see more of the village’s quaintness as the trail took me through the village along narrow stone paths, rice fields overlooking the surrounding mountains, and local school grounds.

Starting the next day's hike towards ChikatsuyuA small path leading out of the village of Takahara.Passing by a lush field overlooking the mountains.

I really enjoy the diversity of what I had encountered along the trail.  It eventually took me past the local school and its neighbouring residents.  There were quite a few ‘konnichiwa’s exchanged as I passed by the folks who were already up and working early in the day.  Given the pretty brutal summer heat, I’m not surprised that people would want to get things done before sunrise.

A small stable with a pony (i think) along a small path cutting through the village.An abandoned house along the trail.

I made my way out of the village of Takahara and on to the wooded path.  These parts of the trail are a few of my favourites along the Kumano Kodo.  I figure the dilapidated structures that I’ve encountered along the way must be tied to the damage from past typhoons or storms but I am surprised that these structures are left alone to decay.  Are they not dangerous?  They are nonetheless an impressive sight.

The wooded forest is an entirely different story.  There is something magical about the trail from the tranquil ponds to the stone path laid through the woods despite the fact that there is some trail maintenance that obviously takes place.  A trail can’t be hundreds of years old — let alone a thousand — and not experience overgrowth without folks to maintain it.  I do wonder how old the stones are though.

Fortunately there hasn't been much rain.  The path is slightly slippery but it was a beautiful hike up.A beautiful still pond right next to the trail.More steps to ascend.  I quite enjoyed these sections of the trail.  It was cooler and very pretty.

Today’s hike was not as tough as yesterday’s considering that it was a significantly easier climb.  It also helped a lot that it was an overcast day for the most of the morning and the trail taking us through the mountain exposed us to a very nice consistently cool breeze.

Through out this hike, my mind drifted back and forth and I sometimes a part of me would wonder if it’d be more fun to experience the journey with my friends.  Unfortunately none of them were able to join me for this trek and though I wished that they were able to participate — after a while, I realized that tackling this trail on my own was a part of the mental challenge in this pilgrimage.  Consider it a spiritual journey — sometimes we just need to go through a series of challenges on our own and one of those challenges was traversing through an unknown place alone.

Passing by a small shrine and registration stop.Enjoying the view from the trail.Winding paths are always inspirational.

A part of the reason why I enjoyed the Kumano Kodo so much was the historical nature of the route itself, and along that route there would often be signs explaining the significance of a particular location.  There would very often be signs in Japanese and English and although the signs in English were very brief — I was very grateful that I could at least gain an appreciation of the location’s significance.

I ended up passing by a number of fascinating spots where an old tea house used to exist or where someone’s home used to stand.  Considering that a tea house use to sit in certain places, I wondered how much traffic would actually pass through these routes.

Apparently, this is where the Uwadawa-Jaya teahouse had existed.Taking a short break and being chased down by mosquitoes.As I descend down this part of the trail, the surrounding landscape changes dramatically from typical alpine forest to an almost rain forest-like environment.These waterfalls seem like they are pre-fabricated.  I seemed to encounter a lot of these through out my trek.As the trail follows the stream, I encountered a lot of large spider webs along the trail.  I'd be the one hiker waving my trekking poles in front of me trying to rid the way of webs.

Eventually, I began an extended descent that led me into a section of the trail where the surroundings were dramatically different than what I had experienced before.  It seemed as if this were a temperate zone — almost rain forest-like — and I found myself encountering all sorts of interesting insects I had never seen before, in addition to constantly running into spider webs.  I even spotted some small crabs which puzzled me.  Crabs in the forest?

After making my way through the very diverse and pretty area (and being chased by many mosquitoes), I came across a road station.  This was an excellent place to stop and have lunch so I crossed the road to the road station / rest area and took my place on the benches in the shade.  I had a lot of time to spare before my check-in time for the guesthouse I was staying at in the village of Chikatsuyu so I ended up chilling out for a while.  In fact, I had even tried out a couple of different flavours of iced tea and then ran into Steven and Michelle just as I was about to continue the trek.

Eventually I arrived at a trailhead that was located across the road from a roadside rest area.Stopped by the Michi-no-eki (road station / rest area) to eat lunch and chill out for a while.Gyuba-doji shrine. It's amazing that these sort of statues have remained here for so long.

Once Steven and Michelle finished off their lunch and had their share of rest, we continued towards the village of Chikatsuyu.  On the way, we came across a number of shrines including Gyuba-doji (gyuba means cow and horse).  Apparently, the statue is of the 10th century Emperor Kazan and its location is where a copy of a sutra he had created had been buried.  I imagine the sutra may have been removed for preservation purposes but simply even to imagine the historical significance in terms of the span of time that has passed for the ground below the statue is pretty incredible.

We made our way further on to the trail until it led us out of the forest and into the village of Chikatsuyu.  At this point of the day, the sun was blazing and we were sweating buckets just like yesterday.  Walking into Chikatsuyu, all seemed really quiet, almost desolate in some sense though I guess most people may have been staying indoors.

A beautiful view of the Chikatsuyu along the way down the trail.Rice fields on the way into the village of Chikatsuyu.Crossing over a bridge and entering the village of Chikatsuyu.A pretty run down gas station but it's the only one I saw in the area.Main street Chikatsuyu

There was still plenty of time before I had to check into the guesthouse so I followed Steven and Michelle further up main street until I wished them well and we parted ways.  They still had a few kilometres to hike because they were staying in the next town.  It’s unfortunate I didn’t have a chance to keep in touch with them but we figured that I’d likely run into them during tomorrow’s hike since we would be catching the same bus to the town of Yunomine Onsen.

My map to Minshuku Chikatsuyu was a little puzzling so I was walking back and forth on their “main street” until I finally figured out the right side road to take.  The scenery around the guesthouse was simply brilliant and was located right beside the river that cut through the village.  There were a lot of farms in the area so it made for a very tranquil place to stay.

Finally arriving at Minshuku ChikatsuyuThe beautiful view of the river from the dining area of Minshuku Chikatsuyu.

When I stepped into the Minshuku Chikatsuyu, the owner himself had initially stepped out so it appeared that I was speaking with his wife (or at least trying to).  She took me to my room and indicated to me to wait and eventually a young man showed up to speak with me (I think he was their son) to show me around the guesthouse.  Staying at this guesthouse was one of my most memorable experiences. I was the only person staying there!

The guesthouse was simple but elegant, the food was simply amazing, and the owner was such a kind gentleman.  He offered me all sorts of guidance and advice for tackling tomorrow’s very long hike (27km).  I really appreciated his assistance and his knowledge was quite extensive.

After the excellent meal and some enjoyable conversation, I retired to get to sleep as early as possible because the next day would be a very early start!

Kumano Kodo Day 1: Takijiri to Takahara

This led me to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail, a set of routes through a what is called the Kii mountain range that thousands of people would use as a spiritual journey to a number of temples and spiritual or religious sites dispersed throughout the region. It was a lengthy journey from Mount Koya to Takijiri (the starting point of the trail), full of bus and train rides, as well as chances to get lost along the way.  I was grateful to encounter some very friendly and helpful people. 

When I first planned my trip to Japan, one of the first things I did was seek out places to hike and explore.  In that process, there were an enormous number of options but given I had a very tight window of time to fit in hiking Mount Fuji and spending time with friends, I needed to find something that would provide me a glimpse into Japanese history, culture, whilst allowing me to enjoy the natural environment.  This led me to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail, a set of routes through a what is called the Kii mountain range that thousands of people would use as a spiritual journey to a number of temples and spiritual or religious sites dispersed throughout the region.
It was a lengthy journey from Mount Koya to Takijiri (the starting point of the trail), full of bus and train rides, as well as chances to get lost along the way.  I was grateful to encounter some very friendly and helpful people.  Being pretty much illiterate, I found myself walking on to the wrong platform or waiting for the wrong train but thankfully, the people were very kind to point me in the right direction. Even when there were difficulties communicating, both parties would often persist until we finally arrived at an understanding.

There were some funny moments when on the bus ride to Takijiri, a local Japanese commuter thought I had the wrong bus ticket and was so concerned I had to convince her that I was taking the correct bus by showing her my itinerary.  I also had the good fortune of meeting Steven and Michelle from New York who were enjoying the beginning of what I think at the time was a year-long travel plan, and I was pleasantly surprised after chatting with them that they were staying at the same guesthouse for the evening.

A quick look back at the visitor center before starting the trail.

After getting off the bus, we made our way to the visitor centre where they offered free trail maps in English.  This map helps immensely if you are tackling a large chunk of the trail — I highly recommend picking up a copy even though you can download and print it off maps from the Kumano Kodo website.  I picked one up and made my way to the trailhead that was just located across the small road.  The village of Takahara was my destination for today and though it was only 3 or 4 kilometres, I had read that it was going to be a tough and steep hike up the mountain trail.

The destination for day one.Chichiwa RockThe steep climb up from Takijiri.

I was immediately impressed by the challenge of the climb but was definitely feeling the effects of a combination of jet lag and the summer humidity (100% + a minimum 36 degrees Celsius).  Even with the training that I had put myself through earlier that spring and summer, one would definitely feel as if it were an endless climb up the mountain on a hot day like it was in mid-July.  Fortunately I had filled my water bladder and bottles ahead of time so I had plenty of water, and was I ever grateful for the shade that the trees provided!  The landscape was so lush and green and at times one might even feel a brief cool-ish breeze.

These information signs and registration posts were quite common throughout the trail.Along the trail after the steep climb up from Takijiri.

There were a quite a few stops through out the climb up to catch my breath and give my legs a short rest but eventually, I finally made it past the major portion of the climb.  I had read about the experiences from other people who have blogged about their hike up and I can definitely sympathize with how they felt when they cursed the fact that there was yet another climb up.  My mind often drifted to wondering how the pilgrims tackled such a journey thousands of years ago — no way it could have been as easy or straight forward as it is for us now.

Majority of this part of the trail was immersed in the forest so there were very few times when I’d get to see beyond the trees but I eventually arrived at a fork in the trail where one would have the option of climbing up more steps to a lookout point or to simply walk around.  I figured that despite the additional steps, the view would be worth the effort.  I was right — it wasn’t a 360 degree view but it was a nice reward that made the climb worthwhile to maintain some level of motivation.

The view from the lookout point.A shrine along the way towards Takahara.

The trail continued to ascend slowly and there were times when I’d encounter some really interesting small shrines.  These were very interesting and they reminded me of the jizo statues that I had encountered during my stay in Mount Koya.  I wish I was literate so I could better appreciate what the signs were saying but I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience what I could.  These type of shrines were quite common through out the trail and you’ll see some more of them in my other posts about my Kumano Kodo trek.

The trail begins to flatten out and eventually end up on a small country road.Passing by a shrine as I enter the village area of Takahara.

Similar to the Bruce Trail that I’ve been hiking for some time, the trail eventually leads me on to a small country road and towards the village of Takahara.  Though the sun was blazing and I was definitely sweating buckets, I loved this part of the trail.  It was simply so tranquil and pretty — so very different from the cities.  There were times when the heat, humidity, and the climb alone were draining but it was refreshing to get past the climb and stroll through the village.

I eventually arrived at what appeared to be a large rest area.  I think Takahara receives a significant amount of traffic during different times of the year — perhaps when hiking the Kumano Kodo is in season.  Obviously, it didn’t seem like the summer was the ideal time but one just has to make do with their vacation time!  The large rest area was quite impressive with a beautiful vista of the surrounding area and a fairly sizable shelter with dispensing machines offering cold and hot beverages.  I just stood around taking in the beautiful view of the surrounding mountain range and rice fields.

A view of the mountain village.A beautiful view from the rest area in TakaharaStayed the first night at the Organic Hotel Kirinosato in Takahara

The signs to where I was staying was a little challenging to figure out but I eventually found my way after getting lost for a bit and walking back and forth in the village.  I was pretty exhausted and hungry (I hadn’t eaten much for lunch) so I was very glad to have found the Organic Hotel Kiri no Sato.  It’s a very charming little place with beautiful views of the mountains from the dining room as well as the bedroom where I stayed.  After spending some well-deserved time in the onsen (bath), I enjoyed reading some old issues of National Geographic, and enjoyed an excellent dinner in good company with Steven and Michelle whom I had met earlier — before retiring for the evening.  It was going to be an early morning the next day and I intended on getting more rest with my jet lag fading away.

Off to Koya-san!

Eventually I stepped off the bus into the middle of town.  It was quite bit cooler than it was in the city — no wonder why everyone kept thinking ofThe architecture and detailed designs of the temples and small buildings along the main street amazed me.  I think I just stood there looking around for a while before I began walking back and forth along the main street of the town looking for the monastery that I would be staying at for one night before I began the Kumano Kodo trek.

Arriving in Japan this past summer in July, I had already anticipated a very humid and hot experience.  After spending a couple of days in Osaka visiting an old friend, I made my way to Koya-san (Mount Koya).  It was a pleasant break away from the hot and humid city where I felt like I was roasting in an oven.  I was very fortunate to have my friend who was familiar with interpreting the local transit rail lines.  For someone who had learned very basic Hiragana and Katagana — I found that figuring out the right trains to take and their schedules to be quite challenging.  Thankfully despite the obstacles, I met so many friendly local Japanese people who were willing to assist me and point me in the right direction (or on to the right train!).
Though the navigational understanding of the train system is a bit challenging, I was immediately taken with the efficiency.  I never encountered any delays.  The trip to Mount Koya involved a long train ride to Gokurakubashi Station but it was worth having the opportunity to see the landscape evolve from a highly dense urban environment into the lush green country side.  I was surprised to see how untouched much of the mountainous regions were.

Along the way by train to Mount Koya.

After reaching Gokurakubashi Station (it is literally at the end of the line), I ended up hopping on to a cable car that took a handful of visitors up to Koya-san.  It took very little time to climb the mountain and soon afterwards, we would hop on to a bus to reach the town centre of Koya-san.

The buses were also a bit of a challenge for me too given that they primarily identified stops in Japanese and payment for bus fare was also tricky for foreigners.  There is a specific slot for exact fare, and a slot to obtain change — which I often mixed up.  Fortunately the bus drivers were very patient with my inability to follow instructions!

The interior of the cable car.The cable car up Mount Koya.

Eventually I stepped off the bus into the middle of town.  It was quite bit cooler than it was in the city — no wonder why everyone kept thinking of  The architecture and detailed designs of the temples and small buildings along the main street amazed me.  I think I just stood there looking around for a while before I began walking back and forth along the main street of the town looking for the monastery that I would be staying at for one night before I began the Kumano Kodo trek.

After a long train ride from Osaka and my first bus ride in Japan, I arrived in Mount Koya and was greeted with beautiful monasteries.The common vending machines.  Some of them even speak.A map of the town on Mount Koya.

Eventually I saw an opportunity to visit Okuno-in before I made my way to the monastery.  As I approached this ancient cemetery, I saw buses full of tourists.  This was a hauntingly beautiful path that people often used for larger hiking and trekking route.  It was unfortunately also a major breeding ground for mosquitoes and I was immediately gifted with a few itchy bites as I stopped to take some photographs.

The entrance into Okuno-in.  An ancient cemetery / graveyard area.A part of the cemetery in Okuno-in.Many jizo statues lined up to watch over people.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the Okuno-in cemetery are the jizo statues that are lined all along different tombstones or even just the path.  They are supposed to watch over people and people often leave a form of tribute.  I eventually found them throughout the Kumano Kodo trail as well.

I was uncertain about why the jizo statues were decorated in certain situations but it was nonetheless beautiful to see the practice in person.

A jizo statue along the path in Okuno-in.Many beautiful statues in Okuno-in.The path through Okuno-in served as a much larger hiking trail that many people used.  I wish I had the time to walk through all of it but as I was only spending one night in Mount Koya, I wanted to make a visit to and see the other temples in town.

After spending time immersed in Okuno-in, I reluctantly left the ancient grounds to see the temples in the area.  The temples were often filled with visitors, tourists, and people so I would only drop by and take a look around before moving on to the next temple.  Kongōbu-ji in particular was very busy, but I believe it is the main temple in the area.

Eventually I’d make my way ahead of the crowds and enjoy some tranquil moments wandering around the larger structures in the sacred area like Danjo-Garan.  Personally speaking, as much as I was impressed by the size of other structures, I preferred the earth-like nature and feel of Kongōbu-ji.

Arriving at Kongōbu-ji TempleWalking towards Danjogaran Koyasan

Whilst walking around in awe of the natural beauty of the area and the structures built within the environment — heavy rainfall began and I quickly walked to Saizenin where I was staying.  I wasn’t sure where I would be staying but when I first saw the entrance, I questioned whether I was walking into the right place!  Fortunately I was and I was immediately greeted by a very kind woman who offered me shelter from the rain as well as a towel to dry myself off.

This is the monastery in which I stayed at -- Saizenin in Mount Koya.  Beautiful and very tranquil place.  I just needed to locate where it was and then I continued walking around.The monastery I stayed at was beautiful.  I didn't expect it to include television but I never turned on the telebox anyways.Just as I had arrived at the monastery, it was pouring rain.  The woman who welcomed me was very kind and even offered a towel to help dry off.  This is the view from my room.  Even in the rain, it was tranquil and beautiful.

After signing into the monastery, I was led to my room and wow, I was impressed.  I thought it would be rather tranquil but plain.  Instead it turned out to be elegantly designed but minimalist room with tatami flooring.  I was informed when dinner would take place and at what times the baths would be open so I decided to rest a little given I was still a little jet lagged from just arriving in Japan two days prior.  When the rain stopped, I decided to step out before dinner time to see a bit more of the area nearby.  This led me towards the Daimon Gate and some of the bluest flowers I’ve ever encountered.

The details of this temple are intricate and beautiful.I have never seen such blue flowers in my life.  They seemed to be everywhere in Japan.Thought this was a fitting shot for the Daimon Gate (literally translates to Big Gate).

Moments later, a monk arrived and arranged my dinner and indicated to me that it was best to be seated towards the window and enjoying the view when eating dinner.  As anticipated, this was a vegetarian meal and there was interesting mix of dishes composed of vegetables, broth, rice, tofu, as well as some fruit.

After dinner, they removed the dishes and tray and immediately set up the traditional futon (kakebuton) which was very comfortable.  More comfortable than my standard camping mat, I was grateful to have the opportunity to have a restful sleep in the cool environment before making my way to Takijiri where I would begin my Kumano Kodo trek.

I was informed to sit facing the garden looking out the window whilst eating.  FYI the tempura was amazing.The bed prepared right after dinner.

The next morning, I woke up early to join the other folks staying overnight at the monastery to partake in the morning chant ceremony.  I didn’t fully understand what was taking place but the room was beautiful and the ceremony and the rhythms of the chant very fascinating.  At a certain point, the folks including myself — one by one — were invited to participate (which I believe may be to perform a small ritual involving our own prayers).

After the morning chant, we were served a traditional breakfast and then I proceeded to pack up and make my way to begin my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trek.  More on this later!

Hiking Mount Fuji

According to the official guide for climbing Mount Fuji, hiking Mount Fuji apparently for majority of people is only an option during the months of July and August when weather is a little more stable and the huts are in operation.  The trails up the mountain are considered closed for the remainder of the year.  This meant my travel plan had to coincide with July or August but unfortunately, they are also the hottest months to spend in Japan.  Every day involved 100% humidity and a temperature of typically 35 or 36 degrees Celsius.

Looking up at Mt. Fuji with clear skies.

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to tackle Mount Fuji (aka. Fuji-san) and when my friend moved to Japan a few years ago, I told him that when I visited, we would do this hike! So when I finally had the opportunity visit Japan and my friends just this past July — I made sure that Fuji-san was a priority.  As typical with my travels, hiking is always one of the top priorities!

According to the official guide for climbing Mount Fuji, hiking Mount Fuji apparently for majority of people is only an option during the months of July and August when weather is a little more stable and the huts are in operation.  The trails up the mountain are considered closed for the remainder of the year.  This meant my travel plan had to coincide with July or August but unfortunately, they are also the hottest months to spend in Japan.  Every day involved 100% humidity and a temperature of typically 35 or 36 degrees Celsius.

As you might imagine, this meant hiking is pretty tough in general, but I did end up trekking the Kumano Kodo (which I will post about later!). The only time I felt cool or even remotely cold in Japan was on Mount Fuji!

Getting to Mount Fuji Having been staying in Osaka, my friend and I had to make our way to Tokyo via night bus (a very long ride) and then once in Tokyo, catch another bus to Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station (this one experienced a lot of traffic jams during the day).  The night bus is something to experience in itself if one hasn’t done so before!

If we had chosen to take the bullet train (Shinkansen), it would cost each of us about $300. I wasn’t really willing to dish out that much so I opted to go for a more spacious night bus experience (I prefer the deluxe ones in Chile, but who wouldn’t?!).  The Japanese night bus isn’t bad with curtain dividers and space between every seat but it was still cramped in my opinion and if you are sitting in the middle, you don’t get much air conditioning so it gets rather warm at times.

The Plan I had heard that there was a primary route or trail that everyone used so I figured that rather than trying to find some off-the-beaten path approach, I wanted to experience what would eventually resemble a massive pilgrimage.

To do so, I decided that we would take the popular Yoshida trail which starts at the Fuji-Subaru 5th station.

The Trail Experience As soon as we arrived at 5th station, I was amazed at how much of a tourist attraction Mount Fuji was.  Of course, I had already anticipated this in my mind but seeing so many people was still surprising to me.  I imagine that since Mount Fuji was declared a World Heritage site, the volume of tourists must have increased dramatically.

Mt Fuji 5th Station was crazy busy.  Tourist central.

My friend and I hadn’t really had much to eat and we were attempting to save money (as you probably noticed earlier by our mode of transportation) so we quickly purchased some meat buns from a food vendor, scarfed them down and made our way to the trailhead.  The trailhead was more of a lengthy dirt road that passed all the buildings.

The beginning of the Yoshida trail up Mt. Fuji.

The initial part of the hike wasn’t too interesting to be honest.  I was glad that for once in my time spent in Japan, the temperature was rather cool and I was in a situation where I was sweating profusely — but I wasn’t very keen on hiking up the loose gravel path all the way up, especially if all I could see was cloud or fog in front of me!  Nevertheless, the end goal was set in my mind.

The early part of the hike up was steep and pretty cloudy.

Thankfully, after hiking past a lot of tourist groups of all kinds (some chanting, some singing) — all of which were very slow because they were hiking in single file and often at the speed of its slowest party member.  This is an excellent thing, unless you are not a member of the group and you are forced to speed up the path of loose gravel to pass the entire group.  This meant my friend and I were constantly passing groups — taking breathers — and sometimes getting passed by the groups we just sped past.  Most of the time though, the groups ended up taking breathers with us which was fun.

Clouds dissipating as notice the long line of hikers.

As we continued our ascent, we finally began to see the clouds dissipate.  It was exciting to find that we were hiking above the fog and much of the lower lying clouds.

What wasn’t so exciting was the fact that we were faced with an extremely long and slow moving line all the way up the mountain.  No joke, sometimes it was 5 minutes just to take a couple of steps.

That is the crazy line up of hikers up Mt. Fuji.  Unfortunately it is incredibly slow paced.

Unfortunately, sometimes what made the pace of the hike up Mt. Fuji even slower is the actual impatience of others.  This applied to a lot of foreigners but also some local Japanese people as well.  While standing in line, they will notice that they can get past a group by creating their own trail up the mountain — only to end up creating a bottleneck further in the line because there is no other real path.  I’m guessing that some people are on some tight timelines!

Lesson to learn:  Don’t hike Mt. Fuji on a tight schedule!

Above the clouds

As we continued to make our way up Mt. Fuji — passing station after station — we began to see the sunset.  It’s the first time I’ve seen a sunset from near the top of a mountain and it is quite awe inspiring, just imagining how everything becomes so dark once daylight is removed.

Accommodation

We eventually donned our headlamps and continued up the trail (slowly), working our way to Fuji-san Hotel located on 8th station along the way up to the summit.  I didn’t book any accommodation because I anticipated that it was pricey, and that it would be pretty bare bones when it came to sleeping quarters — however my friend really needed a rest so I agreed to to stay.

I’ve experienced a variety of mountain huts before and along the way up Fuji, I noticed that a number of the mountain huts we passed had bunk beds.  This was pretty standard so when my friend and I finally arrived at Fuji-san Hotel, I was pretty surprised to find that I would be sleeping side-by-side next to strangers (take a look at this photo – via Summer of Blake’s post on Climbing Fuji).  Imagine a giant bunk bed — two levels with many sleeping bags lined up next to one another.  We were on the lower bunk.

While I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about sleeping literally right next to my friend and some random stranger — I was really not a happy camper when I realized the person next to me was making all sorts of weird noises!  My friend apparently had some guy next to him who kept rolling into him so he decided to turn around facing me.  So what that resulted in was some person to my left — who kept making weird noises (to the amusement of all the Japanese people giggling and chuckling softly, but not softly enough) — and to my right, was my friend who was sleeping on his side facing me directly.

Facing the fact that I wouldn’t get any sort of peace and quiet, I decided to just sleep on my back, staring towards top bunk while listening to some form of meditation guide on my iPod.  This didn’t do much good either because eventually the stranger to my left began kicking and elbowing me.  I merely counted the hours until we would wake up at 2:30am to continue the hike up to the summit in time for sunrise.

Sunset on the way up Mt. Fuji

Finally out of Fuji-san Hotel, we re-joined the slow-moving line up to the summit.  Though I wasn’t able to capture in a photo what was experienced, one of the most stunning and beautiful sights along the way was the vibrant line of headlamps leading all the way up and down the mountain in the dark.

I saw families with children as well as elderly sitting to the side in the cold, as tourists and travellers like myself trudged past them, eager to get to the summit in time for sunrise.  We may have been close to the summit but it took us 2 hours or so to get there.  We finally arrived at some time between 4 and 4:30am.

My friend speaking with a local about their travels.

When we arrived, it was nuts — there were so many people at the summit that trying to navigate to the real peak was like trying to weave my way through a traffic jam.  Barely any movement at times while at other times, I felt like people were shoving and pushing unnecessarily.  It was like mini town on the summit, with a small temple, souvenir shops, restaurants, etc.

The crazy busy summit of Mt. Fuji.  It was like a small town!Enjoying the beautiful sunrise at the summit of Mt. Fuji.

Finally we made it to the top and got away from the massive crowds huddling around the edge — eager to observe the sunrise.  Instead we pushed even further towards the peak where we noticed a shrine and fewer people sitting around.  It was a tough last push with the winds quite powerful and us being so tired but there was something so sweet about finally making it and just watching as the sun gradually and then rapidly rise to light up the sky … something so tranquil and peaceful.

The moment was so brief yet priceless.

Take a closer look and you can see hundreds of people gathered here on the summit of Mt. Fuji.Looking towards the crater of the volcano.

Once the magic of the sunrise had worn off and we were beginning to really feel the cold, it was time to descend.  There was an opportunity to hike around the crater but we had two buses to catch and were concerned about whether we would make it on time.  These buses aren’t exactly inexpensive so we really needed to keep an eye on the time.

The slippery and dusty way down from Mount Fuji.

Now fully lit in daylight, the descent was a little different than the ascent. One thing to take note of is that the descent is very very dusty.  In fact it is so dusty that I would recommend covering yourself as much as possible.  Everything from my ears to my bare arms were layered with red dust and on occasion the wind blew the dust into my eyes as well.

It was just as beautiful, possibly even more so with the feeling of success.  For me, I had achieved what I had intended on doing when I decided to visit Japan.  Meet up with an old friend and successfully hike Mt. Fuji to enjoy a sunrise.

Enjoying the descent with wonderful views of the clouds.My friend's walking stick.  At each station, he had the folks burn engravings into the wooden stick.  Pretty cool and quite the accomplishment!

Would I do this trek again?  I don’t know.  Many folks say that you wouldn’t likely want to do something like this twice.  I guess I would like to ideally see the sunrise or sunset elsewhere but it’d depend on the company I was with.  I figured my friend and I — despite the now hilarious mountain hut story, as told above — were pretty fortunate.  I’ve heard so many stories of people intending on hiking Fuji-san to view the sunrise only to be turned back because of weather or to only see cloud when arriving on to the summit.

I will however say that it is possible to not join a tour company, save money, and make it to the summit.  My friend and I made it happen with just a little bit of planning.  Sure, we got a little lost here and there but it made the journey that much more memorable.

While stuffing myself with onigiri…

Enjoying the beautiful sunrise at the summit of Mt. Fuji.

Back from Japan with a few tales to share but there’s a few bit of catching up I have to do so here’s a brief set of highlights.   Despite having arrived in Osaka right at the tail end of the supertyphoon, it was a crazy hot and humid adventure.  Apparently, hiking is an activity the Japanese primarily partake in during the spring and autumn season so most folks thought I was pretty crazy.  Mt. Fuji was the only place I visited in Japan that was actually cool (thank you elevation).  It made enjoying the sunrise from Mt. Fuji’s summit that much better.

Nonetheless, what can a typical gaijin (foreigner) do?  I only have so much vacation time from work and I was restricted to visiting within the months when hiking up Mt. Fuji was possible.  One of the first and most memorable things that I discovered while spending time in the cities is that streets weren’t nearly as popular as covered arcades.  These were pretty much streets running through buildings or pedestrian pathways that incorporated some sort of cover from precipitation.

Forget the streets!  The covered arcade intersects with many streets and is the preferred route.

Aside from doing a lot of walking, I had the opportunity to fully experience the train system.  The train system was — to say the least — overwhelming for someone like me.  In Toronto, directions provided are usually bundled up with one or two recommended routes.  My experience in Japan is that there are likely 6 or 7 ways to get somewhere but it’s a challenge to figure out which one is the 6 hour route vs. the 10 minute route.  Nonetheless, it was one of the defining experiences of spending time in Japan.

Waiting for the train in Kyoto

While many folks enjoy time in the city, I much preferred life outside the urban centres.  Koya-san (aka. Mt. Koya) was one of the first places I visited on my trip.  I found that it was immediately cooler than other areas up on Koya-san.  With Okuno-in and many ancient temples in the area, there was much to see and learn.  In addition, I had the opportunity to stay at Saizen-in, a local monastery which also had guestrooms to for travellers to stay the night.

Visiting an old temple in Mount Koya

The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail was by far my most ambitious objective for my trip to Japan.  I decided to tackle 5 days worth of this ancient pilgrimage trail system.  I soon discovered why the local Japanese thought I was crazy to hike at this time of year.  With some days of the trek involving up to or over 20km and sometimes three or four ascents or descents of 800m — I was pretty tired to say the least at the end of each day.  That said, the ryokans and minshukus that I stayed in along the way were wonderful in the sense that you would feel refreshed the next day and with a full stomach!

The Kumano Kodo climb from the town of Koguchi is tough but it is beautiful to look at.A great view overlooking the rice fields and mountains from a rest area along the Kumano Kodo trail.

The Kumano Kodo ancient trail was by far one of the most memorable hikes or treks that I have attempted and one of my favourite parts of visiting Japan.  I had the opportunity to trek through small mountain villages and enjoy the very diverse natural environment that the ancient trail took me through.  I will post the days on this trek in more detail in the near future once I get organized again.

Signs along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail

In case you don’t know what onigiri is — it’s a type of rice ball, often made in many varieties of shapes and flavours.  Simply delicious.  My trip to Japan was not just about hiking, it was also about eating!  That I did … as well as visiting an old friend.