The Kumano Kodo Trail - Day 1 - Takijiri to Takahara

On January 13, 2018, when Walt and I returned from our morning walk, our cell phone started buzzing. I thought it was some kind of weather alert which was a bit puzzling because it was a bright, sunny day. When we checked, the message was much more alarming, "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL".

It was a very long 38 minutes until a second message appeared on our phone announcing that the first message had been sent in error. During those 38 minutes, I thought about the things I've done and the things I still want to do, and one of the things I felt sad about was that if a missle hit Hawaii I would probably never get to walk on the Kumano Kodo Trail.

The Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage trails that once linked the sacred areas of the Kii Peninsula. Walt learned about it one night when he was watching the local Japanese television channel, and he somewhat foolishly told me. Little did he know that I had long had a desire to strap on a backpack and take a long walk in the woods. Although this would have perhaps been an activity best undertaken 10 or 20 years ago, the urge was undeniable.

We arranged a self-guided tour through a company called Oku Japan and began walking more seriously to prepare ourselves. We bought rain gear and better hiking boots and pondered the guides Oku Japan sent to us. I dreamed of the pleasant evenings we would spend at the little inns along the way.

The trip began with a 2 hour train ride from Osaka to Kii-Tanabe. Tiny birds nested in the eaves of the station.

After a 45 minute bus ride, we disembarked in the tiny town of Takijiri where our hike would begin.

We paused in front of Takijiri-oji, one of Kumano's five most important oji shrines, to take pictures of each other. There are many oji shrines along the Nakahechi Route, which we were following. In the days when the Imperial Family would travel the Kumano Kodo, they would stop at the shrines to purify themselves and rest before continuing on their way. Sacred dances, Sumo demonstrations, and poetry readings were also held at the shrines.

The time had come to begin climbing the steep path behind the shrine which looked deceptively easy at the start.

We climbed up and up and up to a spot called Tainai Kuguri. A sign told us that local people come here in the spring and autumn to pray to a turtle shaped monolith. Tanai kuguri means "passing through the womb", and passing through the cave is considered a test of faith. We opted to go around rather than squeeze through.

The walking directions provided say that the distance to be covered for Day 1 is 2.8 miles with an elevation gain of 1,214 feet and the estimated completion time is 2 hours. I had read descriptions of the hike written by older travelers on various web pages that said it always took them twice as long to complete a hike as Oku Japan said it would. It took us about 5 hours, and it seemed to me like 90% of the trail was uphill.

Although my legs and shoulders were aching, the weather was pleasant and we passed many interesting little shrines along the way.

We were exhausted but very happy when we finally emerged from the forest into the litle town of Takahara. The view was amazing - just as I had imagined it.

Sadly, our joy dimished somewhat when we realized our inn - Organic Hotel Kiri-no-sato - was on the other side of town. We trudged along until we reached the last steep, but thankfully short, incline and staggered into the check-in area. The man at the desk offered water. "Beer?" Walt said hopefully. I thought things might get ugly when the man replied, "Water now. Beer at dinner." but Walt showed a remarkable level of restraint.

We were shown to our delightful little room and I headed straight for the screen door intent on collapsing into one of the lawn chairs on the deck. The door promptly fell out when I tried to open it because it wasn't mounted properly. Honestly, no beer until dinner - a flaky door - this hadn't been part of my dream. The only thing to do was laugh it off.

Walt fixed the door and we changed out of our sweaty clothes and waited impatiently until it was time for us to eat.

Dinner was a parade of delicacies. Our guidebook told us that the small inns where we would stay put a lot of thought and effort into their meal presentations. Unfortunately, our appetites were surprisingly small. The beer, on the other hand, was savored. Shortly afterwards we collapsed on our futons, too tired to figure out the etiquette required to use the Japanese communal bathing room.