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.
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 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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.