Outside Japan, few foreign tourists know of the Kii Peninsula and the Kumano Kodo. The names of small towns and villages like Shingu or Nachi may be well off the usual tourist radar – for now at least. It’s probably a matter of time before more people discover the loveliness of this area although the very remoteness and the solitude this conjures up, is part of the attraction.
The Kii mountain range, linking Yoshino down to the coast at Nachi, and further east to the Ise Peninsula, have long been held to be a sacred site. From Ise to Kumano Hongu Taisha, a string of shrines and temples is linked by paths through forests and hills. Many, including emperors and king-makers with their royal entourages, have walked from ocean to mountain to visit these holy shrines over the centuries. In fact these pilgrimage routes were once so crowded with pilgrims, they were known as the pilgrimage of the ants.
Today, the paths are now less crowded with pilgrims than travelers who value going off the beaten path to discover highly scenic hikes through cedar forests and over mountain passes, paying their respects at checkpoints of tiny standalone Oji shrines along the way. The destination is usually one or all of the three main Kumano shrines – Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha.
When I first researched this trip, I wanted to discover new places that were little known to the general tourist crowd. It was a toss-up between the Iya Valley of Shikoku and the Kumano Kodo. But the more I read of Kumano, the more drawn to it I became.
As if to seal the deal, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage claims as spiritual sister, the Camino pilgrimage route, a network of paths that cross Europe to the city of St James – Santiago de Compostela. Both routes are the only pilgrimage routes in the world to qualify as a World Heritage journey under UNESCO.
Years ago, travelling through Spain and making a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Fatima, I told myself that one day I would walk the Camino route to Santiago. Well, in the serendipitous way of the universe, I would now find myself walking its sister route – the Kumano Kodo.
So bright and early that morning, after a dip in the hotel’s rotemburo facing one of the many islets in the bay, and a lavish buffet breakfast, we left Nakanoshima by boat to visit the first of the three main Kumano shrines – Nachi Taisha. We stored our backpacks in large 600yen lockers at the Kii-Katsuura JR station. From there, it’s an easy 30-minute ride to the temple complex at Nachi Falls (600yen) by local bus.
We decided to start right at the top where the bus route ends at the Nachisan stop. From there, it’s a hot and sweaty climb (for me at least!) up several flights of stairs, passing interesting souvenir shops that sold wooden carvings along the way. But our efforts were rewarded right at the top of the hill with a view that spreads out for miles.
Right at the top is the Kumano Nachi Taisha and the Buddhist temple of Seiganto-ji. Co-existing happily side by side, the two places of worship could not be more of a contrast – Nachi Taisha, with its gaily-coloured vermillion coat of paint and next door, the austere, unvarnished wooden pillars and beams of Seiganto-ji. One full of joie de vivre and the other solemn and stately. It just reflects the happy co-existence of both Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.
From Seiganto-ji where I received another beautiful piece of goshuin calligraphy, we walked down to the iconic vermillion pagoda usually seen in pictures about Nachi falls. This pagoda is not old but it afforded a nice view of the waterfall.
From this point, it was an easy walk downhill to the shrine nearer the falls. The walk down the stone steps is flanked by enormous trunks of cedar. You could actually walk even beyond the shrine grounds towards the foot of the falls but we gave that a miss.
One final look at Nachi falls, among Japan’s tallest, roaring down from a height of 133m:
Right outside the steps leading to the falls is a rest area and also the Taki-mae bus-stop. We boarded the bus again from here to bring us back to Kii-Katsuura station for lunch. You could actually walk down to the main road via the old stone-laid Daimonzaka path in the forest. This is one of the stretches of the ancient pilgrimage route that criss-cross the region. Before the trip, I had entertained fantasies of dressing up a la Heian maiden complete with romantic flowing white veil and walking the Daimonzaka – see how easily I’m sold on touristy antics? But when we actually got there, it was just too hot and we were too pressed for time. Plus whoever heard of a Heian maiden wearing glasses?? And anyway, given the choice between walking and taking a bus – hey, the bus always wins.
So down we went, all the way back to Kii-Katsuura JR station where we met a bunch of very friendly and helpful ladies at the TI who gave us suggestions for lunch.
Kii-Katsuura is the largest tuna fishing port in Japan. They even have an early morning tuna auction like Tsukiji market in Tokyo. So I was not leaving the place until I had my share of maguro and (rubs hands gleefully) otoro! And this, ladies and gentlemen, was what I had for lunch that day:
If I remember rightly, this bowl of maguro-don, is about 800yen. Came with miso soup, and four side dishes – one of which was pickled tuna innards! On top of that, this was in a simple no-frills restaurant right next to the train station. Which is why I get so incensed when I come across the tiny, sad little slivers of fish on top of rice that some Singaporean restaurants dare to pass off as maguro-don and then have the effrontery to charge so much for!
The waitress explained that this was akami, a leaner cut of maguro and regretfully said that while they had no otoro, they do have some chutoro which she chopped up. How did I glean all that from my non-existent Japanese? Lots of smiles and sign language!
KH had sushi which was also very good. The fish was fresh – none of the sickly oxidated brown you find in some Singaporean restaurants and the cuts were generous. Each slab of fish, whether on the don or as sushi – was THICK – 1cm thick. I kid you not. Here’s proof:
That, hands-down, has to be one of the best sushi meals I’ve ever had. Just writing about this now, months after that memorable lunch, has me craving for a sushi fix – at midnight!
Sadly though, it was apparent that the quiet that enveloped all of Japan after the tsunami is also pervasive here at Kii-Katsuura. Where were the tourists and the visitors? It was lunchtime but the streets were deserted and so was the restaurant we ate in. The two nice ladies running the shop asked us where we came from and nodded when we said Singapore. I just thought it was a pity that they, like every other restaurant, hotel, ryokan out there, might be suffering from the lack of visitors because the food clearly deserved more appreciation!
One last food shot (I promise!) before we move on, here’s KH’s sushi meal:
From Kii-Katsuura, we took another local bus to Shingu which was about half an hour away. The wonderful ladies at the TI helpfully told us to stop at the Gongen-mae stop for Hayatama Taisha which really saved us loads of time. Otherwise it would have meant trundling all the way to Shingu station and then waiting for and catching another bus out. On the bus we saw the same three-generation American family we saw earlier on the bus to Nachi-san. Looks like we were headed in the same general direction.
Shingu is a larger town than Kii-Katsuura. We stopped in a residential area. About 200m down the road is the Hayatama shrine.
Beyond the big torii gate, a long tree-lined path led all the way into the shrine. At 3pm or so, it was almost empty. We convinced a nice shrine maiden to let us park our bags outside the ticket booth to the small museum but she urged us instead to put the bags inside the tiny booth with her!
Free of bags, we walked over to the main shrine building. In the late afternoon light, the vermillion glowed a burnished orange. There were hardly any visitors around. KH as usual, performed the routine actions for a wish to the resident kami.
Near the shrine precincts is a huge rock which is believed to be where three deities descended from heaven. There is a very dramatic matsuri here in February every year as men with torches race up the side of the mountain to the huge sacred rock. Wish I could be here to see this – how spectacular it must be!
I don’t know the actual term for this but I would say I am writing a ‘wish’ on a wooden plaque for a small donation. If this follows the same concept of ema boards, then all these thin wooden plaques will be collected and then burned on a certain day for the wishes and prayers to reach the gates of heaven.
The more I travel in Japan, the more I see some similarities in my Catholic faith. We too like to write ‘petitions’ and ‘thanksgiving’ notes and leave them in churches. Some are read out, some are not. If you ever go to the Novena church in Singapore on a Saturday afternoon, you’d hear so many fascinating stories of life that are read out! And not all are written by Catholics mind you! But all contribute to the feeling that some concrete action was taken in reaching out and that God hears all our prayers, our grateful hearts, our tearful entreaties. It may seem like an inane action to some, but I believe little acts like these comfort us.
Here in Japan, in the Hayatama Taisha, is where I am grateful for the years of tears when I was made to learn Chinese in school! It pays off because now I can read a smattering of Kanji and just guess what I needed to write. I also looked at other plaques and generally made an educated guess.
So this is what I wrote (reading from top to bottom, left of the plaque): Wishing for the whole family to be safe, happy and healthy. Followed by our Chinese names. On the right I wrote the name of the country we came from and the date. Not bad huh?
All quiet at the Hayatama Taisha with the 800-year-old tree, Nagi-no-ki on the extreme right. This is believed to be a sacred tree.
It was late afternoon by the time we left the shrine and headed back to the Gongen-mae bus-stop. The good ladies at the Kii-Katsuura TI had also told us that this was where we could also take the local bus for the next leg of our journey to Yunomine Onsen.
The bus came precisely at 15.59pm on the dot – punctual as everything else in Japan. We shared the bus with local aunties and uncles returning home after a day’s work and high school students as it wended through dark tunnels which burst into panoramas of pebbly rivers, green hills and a sun turning more golden by the minute. The ride took slightly more than an hour to reach Yunomine Onsen but what a highly scenic 60 minutes!
Yunomine Onsen is a tiny village made famous by an even tinier pool of water that is the world’s first World Heritage hot spring onsen bath – Tsubo-yu! Straddling a thin stream of water in a rustic wooden hut, this was the reason why I chose Yunomine Onsen. The onsen’s healing waters are said to change colour seven times a day and is also said to be one of Japan’s oldest onsens, having been discovered more than 1,800 years ago.
But it was getting late and we were not going to bathe in Tsubo-yu that day, having decided we’d treat ourselves to the bath the next day after our hike.
Meanwhile, there were other fun things to do – after all, when in Rome do as the Romans do. So when in Yunomine Onsen, do as the locals do and cook in the open! Eggs can be easily bought from tiny provision shops just across the road and then gingerly lowered into the hot spring water and allowed to cook. A tiny opening is cordoned off for this purpose. The residents of Yunomine Onsen were cooking vegetables and bamboo shoots in that water!
On both sides of the village’s single road are inns, both the high-end ryokan and the humble minshuku. We had a reservation at Minshuku Teruteya, a small minshuku in a back lane with only a few rooms. The room was spotless, comfortable and best of all, it was a corner room with two windows so we had a great view!
Dinner was not bad – we had shika sashimi – raw deer meat. It came semi-frozen and a little bloody half-thawed, but it was interesting. Tasted a bit like maguro and certainly different from the shika sashimi I had at the Honke Bankyu Bankyu ryokan in Yunishigawa onsen.
Dinner took place in a small room with a TV and we ate while watching the news in Japanese – which showed footage of the devastation up north. Once in a while, they’d flash images of the crippled reactor at the ill-fated Daiichi Fukushima nuclear plant. We didn’t understand what we heard but could roughly guess from the footage shown. It was sad to see the destruction and the work still going on in the north to clear the debris. But on the bright side, we also saw celebrities (presumably entertainers and sports celebrities) visit the shelters to cheer up the refugees. It was heartwarming to see children and teenagers squealing with barely contained glee to see their idols and grab a photo op. At least for that moment, life returned to a tiny semblance of normal.
Cynically speaking though, these celebrities do leave and go back to their world of comfort and ease while those left in the shelters still face unimaginable loss and a highly uncertain future. Still, I guess every gesture of solidarity helps.
The next day’s work – a hike along the Kumano Kodo!
I am writing this account in Sept when Typhoon Talas just swept through south and central Japan, devastating large swathes of Wakayama prefecture. Nachi, Kii-Katsuura, Shingu etc were all badly hit. It is the worst storm to hit Japan in many years and the death toll is slowly rising. Pictures of wooden debris strewn like matchsticks, roads broken in places, cars piled up after being swept by floods – all bear an eerie resemblance to the destruction in Tohoku earlier this year. My heart goes out to all those who live in the affected areas. I hope the wonderful people I met are alright, I hope they will stay strong. The same can-do spirit that the world marveled at in Tohoku, I’m sure can also be found in these communities further south. My thoughts and prayers for recovery are with them.