I confess, I am spontaneous. Some might say “Sally is impulsive” but that has a more negative tone than “spontaneous.” Whatever adjective you use, I have to admit that sometimes I really should be more careful about what I sign up for!
A few months ago I was reading an article about the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trail in southern Japan. It sounded intriguing, somewhat romantic and certainly “out of the ordinary.” (magazine photo of couple in traditional Heian dress)
Walking the Kumano Pilgrim trail
Without much further investigation or research, I impulsively purchased a ticket to Osaka. Three hours train ride and a bus trip later, I was at the beginning of the trail.
The Kii Peninsula has been associated with nature worship since prehistoric times and there are three main shrines in this region which have been pilgrimage destinations for the imperial family and aristocrats since the 10th century. The Kumano Kodo trail is one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimage routes. The other being the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain.
Green indicates the major Shrines. I was on the trail to lower shrine.
Walking those 500 plus miles on the Santiago trail a few years ago, was a highlight of my life. I thought I would enjoy the Kumano as much as the Camino trail. After all, it is only ninety six miles! I looked forward to seeing old villages, farms, open fields, wonderful vistas and interesting insights into local life. However, it turned out to be quite a different experience.
The entire five days are in the mountains among forests with occasional vistas over more forested mountains. Had I studied topographical maps before I committed to this trip, I would have quickly realized that this just was not the trip for me, not someone with a bad knee that objects strongly to stairs. I was warned that this was a Level 4 hike. Is that a 4 out of 10? I was soon to find out that is 4 out of 5 and that I probably need a Level 1 on my next trip!
The first day was a killer. Most everyone I met agreed it was indeed one of the hardest days. We climbed a mere 2.8 miles but with 1214 feet ascent with boulders as high as 30 inches. The path was entirely in the trees and never seemed to end. Every time you thought surely you had reached the top, higher and higher went the trail.
While the book claimed it was a quick two hour hike, most everyone took at least 3 ½ hours. One young man did it in just under two hours but two days later, had to give up entirely because his knee had gone out. It took me five hours to reach the small village where I was staying the night. Already it was dusk, the sky darkening with storm clouds which had been gathering most of the afternoon. What had started as a pleasant sunny day was now dark, ominous and I was lost. I had walked past the little trail that led to my inn for the night. Thankfully a farmer, took pity on me, flagged down a neighbor who made a call to my ryokan to verify that I was their missing guest and then took me in his car to the inn just as the rains came down.
My first night wearing a yakata. Note traditional open fire pit behind me.
Ryokans are quaint at first, but the four inch pad on the tatami mat is not the same as a mattress. There is a nice puffy duvet but the pillow takes some getting used to. It is hard and filled with rice husks.
Then in the night, if you have to get up, you fish around for the flashlight, open the sliding shoji screens, put on slippers, pad down the hall to the toilet, (which is low on the floor and you crouch over it) slip out of the slippers and then into special bathroom slippers, repeating the process back to the futon pad (about four inches thickness) and by then, you are wide awake. Don’t even mention the sixteen hours jet lag.
When I arrived at my ryokan on that first night exhausted and utterly at the end of my endurance, I was given a room within the kitchen. A platform and paper Shoji screens separated my space from the stove. I had to lie there recovering from my five hour hike (remember it was supposed to take just two hours…) listening to slicing, chopping, sizzling, fridge door opening and closing, kettle boiling, dishes, splashing water… After the meal, it was more noise as clean-up progressed. To top it all off, at 5.45 the next morning, the whole process began again as they owner prepared breakfast for myself and the other single guest.
There was a fearful storm in the night. I lay there (between my trips down the hall) listening to the storm rage around the home and point the roof above me. Suffering from jet lag, I lay wide awake, thinking about the day ahead and anxious about climbing those rocks which would be slippery, my poncho flapping around me, my poles sticking in the mud. I decided that henceforth I would forget about pushing myself to do something that was not enjoyable and instead, I would take a bus to each nightly destination. I was glad to learn on the fifth day, that no one I met had hiked every day. All agreed it was extremely difficult and frankly, just not rewarding. The path is entirely in forest with few vistas and apart from a few simple shrines (usually rocks with inscriptions) en route, there is little to see on the hike. However, the main Shinto shrines are grand, imposing, spiritual destinations and fortunately, accessible by frequent bus service!
Shrine at Nachi-Taisha in the Kumano route
I prescribe to the tortoise and the hare method of climbing. Very slow, plodding ever upwards. A blog I had read said (i) it was easy to get lost on the trail. Wrong. There are little blue tiles along the path whenever there might be a question as to where the trail went. (ii) The same writer said you could go a whole day and not see anyone. Wrong again. I was passed up by at least two dozen people, all looking as if they were out for a Sunday stroll while I lay splayed across a rock, trying to catch my breath. Admittedly, I was carrying 24 lbs on my back and they were wearing just day packs. (iii) This same blog writer said that sending your luggage ahead was risky and it takes two days. Poppycock to that. Admittedly it does cost $25 a day per back, but the service is very reliable.
It was precisely 7pm on our final night and by now, after six days staying in small Japanese inns (Ryokan) we knew not to be late to arrive for dinner. Everything would be laid out at each place setting, meticulously arranged and worthy of yet another photo to post on Facebook to make our friends totally envious.
One place setting for our final night dinner.
There was a bustle of noise as shoji doors were slid open, murmur of voices and the padding of slippered feet along the hallway. We were all dressed in identical yakata (printed cotton robes secured with a belt tied in a bow.) I couldn’t but help thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids from School are we….”
Some of the folks gathering in the dining room I already had met on the trail or at ryokans on previous evenings. This was our last night since we had reached the end of the trail and tomorrow we would be moving on with our Japan adventures or traveling home. I was looking forward to spending my last night with some delightful travelers from Australia whom I had come to know during the week. But it was not to be. The ladies of the house had decided where we were to sit based on our room number and I was placed across from a man with a strong Australian accent who introduced himself as Dan. In less than a minute, before I had even stirred my miso, Dan asked, “So, did you experience any spiritual enlightenment on the trail?” For once, I found myself without knowing quite what to say. At first I thought “Goodness, that’s the kind of question I myself would ask of a stranger!” Then, realizing he was being serious and not joking , I thought “that’s a pretty heavy question to ask someone you have just met.”
I squirmed around a bit, stretching my legs out on the tatami mat under the Japanese style table that was about sixteen inches off the ground. I hoped I wouldn’t poke Dan in some awkward spot. Except for one guest, everyone one of us chose not to sit in the traditional Japanese style where you place your knees on the floor and then sit back on the top of your feet with the tops of the feet flat on the floor. We were all sitting, legs stretched out under the table, trying to avoid hitting the person across the table. Sitting for a long time in this fashion, with no back support, can be tiring.
Getting back to Dan’s question about having a spiritual awakening, I would have to say, on greater reflection, that I did have an awakening of sorts. I had to come to terms with my own physical limitations. I hate to admit that I cannot do all those things that I once could do. That includes heavy uphill hikes. Next time I see a hike labeled LEVEL FOUR, I know to steer clear! Perhaps I have also learned to be a bit more careful about what I sign up for – read the fine print and don’t believe other people’s blogs!