Kumano Kodo – The Bus Day

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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.

japan2016-261The 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.

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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.

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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.

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Kumano Kodo: The Easy Day

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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.

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japan2016-224We 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.

Kumano Kodo – The Long Day

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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.

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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.

japan2016-165Across 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.

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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.

Kumano Kodo: The Wet Day

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japan2016-126Day 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.

Kumano Kodo: The Short Day

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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.

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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.