Day five. It was nice to listen to the river and rain while sleeping. Adam and I were awakened at 6a by the town fire department’s siren, so I got up, retrieved my dry laundry, packed, and stretched. My back was feeling better every day, but still far from ideal.
Despite the rain, Chris decided to finish out the walk, while everyone else opted for the bus. The group convened in the cafeteria for a quick breakfast before departing for the bus station. Alicia, the Australian solo-hiker who we had run into several times throughout the week, tagged along. The scenic 45-minute ride into town followed the teal-blue river most of the way, making for an entertaining ride.
The group went first to a temple in town, obtaining the obligatory stamp and photos, then made our way to the bus stop. While walking, we agreed on a stop for coffee, which proved harder to find than we expected. We ended up in a mall cafe that Adam most-accurately described as an Applebees meets tiki bar. The coffee was unremarkable, but it paired well with the hot dogs.
Continuing to the train station, we again saw Alicia outside smoking while waiting for the train to Kii-Katsuura. Once there, we boarded the bus to the temples, pagodas, and waterfalls. We climbed the numerous stairs upwards to the ~800 A.D. temples, where we had great views of the pagoda and waterfall. Chris G and I walked down another path with many stairs that led us to the base of the waterfall. Pictures don’t do it justice.
We headed back up to bus stop and enjoyed shopping/tea while waiting for the bus back down to the JR train station. To kill time, we walked around the near-empty town until we came across a noodlery – success! Biero and our first ramen of the trip. We stocked up on snacks at a convenience store on the way to meet up with Chris P at the JR station. We all walked down to the ferry, stopping to see Chibi, a fat cat Dan and Chris had met on their last trip.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Glass
We took a ferry across the harbor crossed over to our accommodations for the night – a very 80s hotel on it’s own island. Once changed into our yukatas, Chris P led us on a short tour of the grounds, along catwalks and paths that were reminiscent of Myst. Afterwards, we gathered at the hotel’s men’s bath that had an outdoor onsen! Hope you enjoyed the view, fisherwomen! It was incredibly relaxing to soak in the warm waters of the outdoor pool while watching the waves crash below and the boats putter out in the harbor.
Once back at the hotel, we gathered up Kumano Kodo beer and snacks for happy hour in Chris’s room while waiting for our luggage to arrive. We re-convened later in a private dining room for Thanksgiving dinner. It was an amazing spread, so much food that we could hardly eat fast enough. After many days of being culinarily adventurous, I was getting tired of fish. Despite this, the meal was filling (Adam and I worked out an arrangement early on where I traded my fish for his beef portions) as was the sake. Afterwards, we all passed out – fat and happy.
This was the last day on the trail and being out in the Japanese countryside, which meant the vacation was nearing it’s end. Soon we’d be in Tokyo, bookending the hike with another busy city.
Day four. I woke up, stretched out, packed up, and joined the others on the floor for breakfast. I was feeling pretty good, all things considered! We left the hotel and walked through town to find the stamp. It was cooler out and the steam created from the world heritage onsen made for a pretty morning scene. We caught the bus to our next starting point, fueled up on coffee at the vending machine, and walked along the road to our first stamp of the day.
From there, it was a moderate uphill climb, though it seemed easier than the day before. We were sore… These were nice, wide trails – mostly level and very enjoyable. We walked to an amazing viewpoint and stopped for photos, then continued up and over the pass. The trail had long stretches of flat sections with some brief uphill legs, but they were tolerable. It was a day of pleasant ridge-walking under the canopy of cedars.
We stopped for tea and a pancake-like muffin at a pavilion in the woods (near a stamp box). I noticed afterwards that we were all hiking in silence, enjoying the day. Shortly after, we took a break for lunch at another old tea stop-turned-gazebo with a view of the upcoming town. The lunch box was outstanding! Minimal fish, tasty rice rolls of beans and herbs, eggs, and a bottle of tea. We relaxed in the shade while our still-wet things dried out in the sun.
Down, down, down – we took our time with the descent. More death rocks! In town, we walked across the bridge to grab refreshments from the vending machine and to get another stamp. Continuing on, we walked along the river and up over where the tunnel is. Once through town we found the stamp, then stopped at the general store for beer restocking before winding up at the schoolhouse-turned hiker hotel, where our bags met us. Bath, laundry, lounge, dinner, sake! It was much cooler out here, which was very nice to sleep in.
Dan, our fantastic chef, Pratt, and Julian, just prior to our departure
Day three. Our first night of Japanese style mattresses… I woke up at 6 and got ready for a 6:30 breakfast, which was incredible. The chef whipped up some very tasty dishes again to prepare us for a long day. Annoyingly, my jacket, rain cover, hat, and rain kilt were still wet from the day before.
We set off, walking along the road for awhile. Eventually the trail went downhill, back through the woods. Then we started our ascent up the first pass – “Sandal” pass – up up up! It wasn’t a horrible ascent, but someone thought it was a good idea to make the trail on the other side out of flat stones. Combined with the leaves and wetness from the rain the night before, it was VERY slippery. In parts it was steep and windy, which made for a strenuous descent – one slip and you could slide right off the edge of the hill!Nevertheless, we all made it safely to the road at the bottom only to find the next section of the trail closed from typhoon damage several years earlier.
We continued walking along road and found the permanent detour. The trail was in good condition and there were a lot of well-placed stairs. At some point on the way up to the second pass, I ran out of water, which made my ascent that much slower. The views were pretty great, though and we forged ahead, walking just under the peak before heading back down – again. On the back side, we connected with another road and found a container collecting and filtering water from a nearby stream, where I refilled the CamelBak. We walked along road until we found the other side of the detour.
Across the road from the detour were more stairs back into woods. We met some twenty-somethings from CA, who were eager to pass us. At a split in the trail, we found stamp box at another shrine. Rejoining the trail, we passed another tea house and more shrines. Up up up! We reached another road at the top where I made a plea to open up our bento boxes at a nearby rest area – I was spent.
Down, down, down the other side. Again, still slippery from the night before. We passed an abandoned settlement being overcome by tree growth. The trail turned into a road, which eventually went alongside a river. Eventually we ventured back up, into the woods and past more shrines. Land crabs stood out amongst the piles of leaves and we stopped a couple times to take photos and rest.
At the top we were fascinated by a giant, blue worm in the middle of the road. We got our stamp and followed the signs down the road into a small town which had several options for vending machines. We found ourselves at a tea house up a hill at the end of town and stopped for in coffee. Exhaustion was creeping in so we shook out the stiffness and kept walking.
This part of the trail was mostly downhill with some small uphill sections. By this time we were swearing every time we had stairs to traverse. We found a path to an overlook of the massive Honshu shrine, which was where the trail ended for the day. The trail reconnected and we made our way down a variety of types of stairs. Wide, short sets, stone, wood, high steps, narrow steps.
Eventually we reached town and had more road to walk along. Prior to entering the temple grounds, we obtained another stamp. We took a few photos of the temple grounds and then walked down another long set of stairs to the main street of town. From there, we found the visitor’s center and walked up to the large gate we had seen off in the distance instance. One more stamp before we caught a bus to the village where we were staying for the night.
We showered, soaked in the outdoor onsen, and enjoyed another many-course dinner – this time directly seated on the floor, which was challenging. Some how I ended up with my own room and despite another Japanese-style bed, I quickly passed out.
Day two. I was expecting to sleep really well, but it was quite warm in the room I shared with Adam. I re-packed, hit the onsen again, scarfed down a quick breakfast, and we were on the trail early. More uphill… Today was the first encounter with the “death stones,” which were very tightly-coupled stones that were considered a primitive type of pavement. Unfortunately, they were often placed on steep slopes, which made traversing quite difficult.
We walked to a bus stop and stopped for rest, tea and snacks. The rain started while we were waiting for everyone to arrive. Nevertheless, we donned our rain gear and continued walking, though slowly getting wetter. We passed more shrines, collected more stamps, and encountered numerous slippery wet stones; Dan even spotted a snake. It didn’t dawn on me until now that this was a region that might have poisonous snakes to contend with, but thankfully it was cooler and the snakes didn’t want anything to do with us.
We continued down the valley into town. Sadly, the foot bath was closed but it was a dry spot to have our packed lunch. Adam had opted for the bus earlier and while Pratt, Glass, Julian, and Dan went to the museum, I rested my back and waited for them, listening to the rain and struggled to find wifi. After a short wait, we all continued walking along the road, which continued to get steeper until we found ourselves above town, the rain beginning to permeate our gear as the temperature began dropping. A few miles and a couple stamps later, we arrived at the next ryokan.
Really the only thing keeping me going the last couple miles was the thought of stripping off all the soaked layers, putting on a dry yukata, and enjoying the warm onsen. We sat and had tea, beer, and snacks before an outstanding multi-course meal was served to us and the other guests. We quickly passed out after a long day.
Day one. I began each morning by stretching and doing sit-ups, hoping to strengthen my core slowly each day to help heal my back and resulting sciatica. We met for breakfast, got our IC cards re-upped, and caught the Shinkansen to Tanabe where we caught a bus that brought us to the start of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. After dropping off our suitcases at the luggage shuttle, we enjoyed our bento boxes at the Kumano Kodo visitor center, where we learned about the UNESCO World Heritage sites and basked in the wifi, not knowing when we would have Internet access again. We washed our hands at the impurity fountain at the nearby shrine, posed for a photo, and began our ascent of the Nakahechi trail.
The trail was a fair amount of steps and uphill for the first mile or so, but once we were on top of the ridge, it was mostly level. We passed only 3 fellow hikers, one woman who laughed and said “Up, up, up!” After awhile, we found ourselves walking through the small town of Takahara, stopping at the various shrines and other sites to get the stamps in our books.
We arrived at the Kiri no Sato Takahara ryokan shortly before dinner. I changed out of my wet hiking clothes into the provided yukata (casual robe) and visited the 0nsen (hot springs bath) before enjoying drinks and an amazing dinner.
The 10-hour 787 flight left Denver around noon and was smooth the entire way. I started getting a cold a few days before the trip and my ears refused to pop on the descent, causing a fair amount of discomfort that carried over to the next few days. I managed to make it to Narita, get through customs, retrieve my bag from the baggage claim, track down an ATM, get back through security, check my bag again, get on a short domestic flight to Fukuoka, take a subway to the right station, pick up my 14-day Japan Rail (JR) pass, and find the hotel on minimal sleep. As I was about to head to the nearby 7-11 for some food, I caught (Chris) Pratt, Adam, and Julian in hallway. Success! (Chris) Glass arrived shortly after I did and our trip was underway.
Pratt had planned a low-key first day, so in the morning we met for breakfast, re-packed our backpacks for an overnight, checked out of the hotel, and made our way to the steam train to Hitoyoshi (SL-Hitoyoshi), leaving our luggage in lockers at the train station. All of us were sleepy and it was raining, so we enjoyed winding through the Japanese countryside. After a couple stops, rainy, arrived in Hitoyoshi, where we walked around town while waiting for next train. We grabbed our first bento box on the station platform then took the Isaburo 3 train to Yoshimatsu, where we transferred to Hayato-no-Kaze 3 train. We stayed overnight in Kagoshima.
Our primary form of transportation
In the morning, we rode the Shinkansen (bullet train) back up to Shin-Tosu station and transferred to the Kamome 5 train over to Nagasaki. We wandered around town, stopping to wander through Dejima, a Dutch trading post and nationally designated historical site. From there we grabbed lunch, our first Japanese-style meal. Afterwards, we grabbed a trolley to another part of town and walked to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was interesting, but very crowded and hot – we walked through quickly and then visited the park created where the bomb landed.
We walked across town to the Mt. Inasa ropeway, which took us up to the observation deck. Over drinks, we rested in the restaurant as sunset approached and after taking photos, we walked back to the JR station. The Shinkansen took us back to Hakata Station, where we picked up our bags before catching another train to Hiroshima for the night. Our JR passes allowed us unlimited first class travel on any JR train (and some others) based on availability, which meant we traveled very comfortably.
In the morning, the group talked about ideas of what to do for the day. Pratt, Adam, and Julian opted for a sake day while Dan, Glass, and I chose to visit Itsukushima and the floating torii gate. The three of us took a light rail train and then ferry to the island. We walked around with all the other tourists, looking at pagodas and shrines and commingling with the local deer population, who didn’t seem at all fazed. After a quick coffee and pastry puff break, we continued wandering around the grounds. We ventured into the woods to walk the trails to the ropeway, but found it was too busy to attempt, so we walked the back way to the ferry along the road. Once across, we trained back downtown and walked to a pizza place before visiting the A-bomb dome park. Tired, we bussed back to train station to meet up with the others before our train to Okayama for the night.
In the morning, we again left our big bags at the train station and carried our backpacks on the ferry to Naoshima. Upon our arrival, we took a small bus to the Benesse House hotel. It was too early to check in, so we left our packs and walked around the island to see some of the art exhibits. While wandering around town looking for the art houses, we stumbled upon a cafe for lunch. Restored, we continued the art house walk, visiting a handful of houses that had been abandoned and turned into art installations.
From there, we took the bus back to the port for a visit at our first public bath, which we had to ourselves. We had been walking close to 10 miles per day, so it was a great relief to stop and soak for awhile. Afterwards, we headed back up to the Benesse House to check-in, enjoying champagne on the gift shop patio before moving to wine on our own balconies as the sun was setting. Later on, we walked down the hill to another Benesse building for dinner. Amazing! There were a number of courses, each better than the last. It was here I decided to be adventurous and try the fish being served. Butterfish was delicious, however the texture of abalone was less than ideal. Once finished, we got a ride back up the hill to the hotel and rode the 6-person monorail up to the top of the hill to visit Oval, the hotel’s bar, for a nightcap.
The hotel was mostly concrete and it was hot, so most of us didn’t sleep very well. We had a buffet breakfast then headed back to the port. We took the ferry to Inushima, a nearby island that is part of the Benesse Art Site. The group split up and wandered through various art houses and a former copper refinery-turned-art installation. We regrouped at a small restaurant for a delicious curry lunch and local beer. Again, we boarded the ferry, which took us to Teshima. Most exhibits were closed or closing for the day, but we did manage to see one exhibit, the heartbeat exhibit, at the end of a long walk near the beach. Because we were visiting off-season, we decided to change our plans and head back to Okayama early, where we picked up our stashed bags and got new tickets and bento boxes for an earlier Shinkansen to Osaka. At this point I had exhausted my limited clothing selection, so I washed my clothes in the hotel room sink.
The next day was a down-day for Adam and I. We relaxed in the morning, doing our own things, while the rest of the group got up early to go see the Fushimi Inari shrine and it’s world famous torii gates. My back had been hurting since the first day in Japan, so I needed to lay low and rest. I found breakfast and took a local train up to nearby Kyoto, finding an ATM and snacks while killing time before meeting up with everyone. We took the train to Tenryu-ji zen temple, wandering the grounds and taking pictures. Pratt had arranged for us a lunch at Shigetsu, a Japanese-style vegetarian restaurant. Most everything was delicious, though we were all having trouble sitting on the floor for so long.
The group walked back to main road of the temple to Arashiyama Station and took the train to where we could walk to the Ryōan-ji temple and Zen rock garden, followed by the Golden Temple. Later we caught buses to the Higashiyama District (old Kyoto) as the sun was setting. We walked to one temple, but found a line around the block, so we walked to another only to find another massive line. There were people everywhere and we were all tired and overwhelmed, so we ducked down an alley to get out of the crowds. Wandered down a side street and found a perfect spot for beer, horse jerky, and meat buns. We caught another bus t0 Kyoto station to take an express train back to Osaka. After a quick dinner, I fell fast asleep. We had done so much walking and the humidity that day was remarkable – Pratt even asked if I was okay because I was sweating through my clothes and onto the backpack.
The next morning we were to begin hiking, the reason for the trip, so I had to re-work what I was carrying in my suitcase and backpack, saving some for a bag Dan set aside for overflow items.
In the days leading up to my departure, it seemed like I had more and more to get done. More things to procure, more errands to run – somehow I ended up with three different banks in the span of a month – but I finally pulled it all together.
I rode the RTD SkyRide from Union Station to DIA, checked my bag, made my way through security, and arrived at the gate just as people were starting to board. Shortly after, gate agents announced a mechanical delay of 25 minutes, so I took the opportunity to charge my phone. Sitting on the floor next to an outlet, I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger, sharing travel anecdotes and plans. After another delay, we decided to grab a beer at the bar next door, but 3 sips in and they announced boarding again. Thirst only partially quenched, we parted ways and made our way to our seats.
I was seated in the 3x3x3 economy, grateful to aboard. Despite my preference for aisle seats (especially on longer flights), I was surprised by the amount of shoulder and leg room I had at the window. Each seat had a power outlet under the chair and an audio auxiliary and USB port coming from the the 6-inch LCD panel on the facing seatback.
Takeoff was surprisingly turbulence-free; the plane has a very lofty feel. The inevitable bumps we did encounter going over the Front Range were fairly disconcerting, as the cabin seemed to rock opposite the wings. Almost immediately, the windows dimmed and changed colors. Despite it being a sunny afternoon, it was almost impossible to tell inside the cabin. Eventually, it was as dark as if it were the middle of the night. The changes in atmosphere were slow enough not to be jarring. The seatbelt announcements were not, however. Each time the captain illuminated to the sign, a loud, sudden ding accompanied by a computer voice politely, but sternly, asked passengers to sit down. When awakened by it during a sound sleep, it was fairly unnerving!
I watched 3 movies and enjoyed 2 meals and a snack, sporadic naps, plenty of water, and occasional walks around the cabin. Around hour 9 I started getting antsy and had a hard time staying seated. Overall, the Dreamliner was a pleasant and refreshing flying experience.
We arrived in Narita around 5pm and it was already dark. Taxiing to the gate seemed to take almost as long as the flight itself. I collected my things and made my way to the arrivals area, quickly getting through customs and finding the baggage claim. After grabbing my bag, I visited the Air China ticket counter to inquire about a 72-hour Chinese visa, though it was determined I didn’t need one. I quickly found a Citi ATM, struggling to interpret the prompts. Sheer luck got me the money I wanted and I made my way outside to wait for the hotel shuttle.
On the way there, I reflected on my brief impression of Japan so far. Everyone is very helpful and polite; it seems like a happy place. Many signs are accompanied by English translations, so it’s fairly Westernized and makes a nice introduction to this Asian excursion.
The hotel room is… efficient. There’s hardly enough room to turn around and I kind of like its coziness. I showered and collapsed in bed around 8pm.
It’s been over 15 years since I last left the continent and I was initially very anxious about traveling alone to a foreign country, but even moreso about navigating my way to the hotel 20 minutes from the airport. I’m so grateful for Chris’ planning and advice; I look forward to seeing Chris, Dan, and Adam in Beijing tomorrow.