A quiet night but a chilly morning. The sun is up but, shining on the front of the building we are behind. We set off in search of a coin laundry and find one conveniently located next to a supermarket, where we buy food. Heading deep into the mountains finding supplies is always a problem. The choice is limited but, I am not feeling my best, so my interest in food is scarce.
Kumano Kodo Nakahechi
After picking up the washing we head to Kumano Kodo michi no eki Nakahechi where we have lunch. This is a small road station but it has a restaurant and other services.
After lunch we head off on foot up the Kumano Kodo. This is steep in places but quite flat in others, altogether much easier going than the other two sections (Magose toge and Daimonzaka) that we have walked. We travel just over 5 kilometres round trip. The route is mostly through sugi/cypress plantations but there is the occasional ancient statue or stupa.
In fact, not much of the original Kodo remains and, at times, we find ourselves walking along regular tarmac roads for short distances. At the end of our route we visit a small, non-descript shrine (Chikatsuyu Oji) and turn back.
At this point, we miss our way. Talking about the Heian era, we walk past the sign that indicates the Kumano Kodo and the sign that states unequivocally “Not the Kumano Kodo” without noticing either. After a few hundred meters, we begin to get the feeling all is not well. We don’t remember passing so many houses or walking for so long along a tarmac road. After adding at least half a kilometre to our trip, we turn back and discover the entrance to the kodo we had missed.
On our way back to the car, which we make without further mishap, we meet various other ‘pilgrims’. Most are dabblers, like us, but some are serious hikers – perhaps doing the whole trail and, if we disregard the bus tour groups, compete with guides and conical hats who do not go far, the majority of hikers are not Japanese.
Kumano Hongu Taisha 熊野本宮大社
Next, we head for Kumano Hongu Taisha which lies some twenty kilos down the valley. The huge empty car park, on the pebbles of the vast river bed, is awash, one assumes, in times of flood.
We discover later, that the shrine, which we find located at the top of a long flight of steps, was originally on an island in the river but was washed away in a typhoon.
The shrine itself is a mixture of the solemn, the commercial and the kitsch. The long flight of steps is bordered on both sides with white flags bearing black lettering, quite impressive until you realize each flag is sponsored by a company or wealthy individual. The three legged crow is much in evidence as are the football shirts and balls of the national team. There are large flags with cartoon like characters on them and a black post box with a three legged crow on top. It is possible to send a postcard from here with a special stamp – Please enquire at the Gift Shop.
D. has her Goshuin inscribed and we leave to take a look at the tallest Torii in Japan. This lies at the bottom of the steps, across the road, behind the garage in the rice fields. This, it transpires, is the original site of the Taisha. We also make a point of visiting the shrine of the goddess who protects women. We find it tucked away behind some concrete structures and construction materials for flood control.
World Heritage Museum
We make a brief visit to the huge World Heritage Museum which has no historical artefacts but some nice pictures and a lot of English explanation. This is more helpful than usual but, by no means very clear.
As I remark to D. I am not sure anyone has a clear idea of everything – the connections between ancient Shinto, early Buddhism, Yamabushi, folk myth, Meiji/ Shinto official folk myth, nationalism and the football team are all mixed up here.
Oku Kumano Kodo Hongu michi-no-eki
As we head for our michi-no-eki, it is getting cold. Oku-Kumano Kodo Hongu michi-no-eki is, again, in an obscure location. At first, it gives the impression of being small but there is a second larger car park down by the river. The michi-no-eki building is larger that it appears and has a regular supermarket. We are actually in a small village and it would seem that the A Co-op has moved from across the street into the michi-no-eki. There is also a small restaurant with solid wood tables, 10 cm. thick with knots and cracks, just lovely. A lot of local people are shopping here. D. buys shiso to augment her dinner.
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.