Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine
Since I missed the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine yesterday, I decided to visit the shrine before starting my walk today as it is one of the most three important shrines on the pilgrimage route, as well as the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan.
Originally located at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers, a severe flood destroyed many of the shrine buildings in 1889. The salvaged remains of three pavilions (out of five) were rebuilt at their present site. The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide). It is a formalized gateway that designates the entrance to a sacred area, and signifies the division of the secular and the spiritual worlds.
After a brief visit, I took the bus to Ukegawa where the second day of the journey began.
Unlike the day before the route from Ukegawa to Koguchi is shorter and less strenuous, and the distance is about 13km. After a hike up Mt. Nyohozan, there is a rewarding panoramic view of the 3600 peaks in Kumano at the impressive Hyakken-gura look out.
Hyakken-gura look out
Here, I bumped into a couple I met continuously since yesterday and we started chatting for the first time. I found out that they were from San Francisco, and they had flown over for a week just to do this trail. Interestingly, we all thought the previous day’s hike was extremely challenging; they also couldn’t complete it on time and ended up getting a lift from a French couple. Since we were all heading towards Koguchi, I ended up running into them throughout the day at various spots.
A solar-powered toilet
It was another clear and rather hot day, but the trail was gentler with less steep climbs and descends, and so I was able to take a more relaxing pace today.
When traveling in rural Japan, I would often come across a carved stone statue of a person wearing a red apron/bib. The couple from the US and I were curious and wanted to know more because they are conspicuous along the pilgrimage route.
It turns out that this is the statue of Jizo Bosatsu (or Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Sanskrit), also known as the earth bearer, and he is full of awesomeness, compassion and fortitude. He is the protector of travelers and children, which explains his presence along the route. Jizo also takes care of the souls of unborn children and those who die at a young age. Red bibs were said to have been worn by children in earlier times, hence Jizo is often seen wearing a red bib.
Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains and my special pre-ordered bento
Aside from the statue of Jizo, teahouse remains are common sights along the pilgrimage route. When the trail was in its heyday, there were abundant teahouses providing tea and resting places (some even offered lodgings) for pilgrims.
At the Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains, I was looking forward to the special bento that I had pre-ordered online. After reading all the rave reviews, I splashed out and paid 1150 yen (just under £8) for this beautifully arranged and packaged bento. And it didn’t disappoint – it tasted as good as it looked. (N.B. the bentos I had yesterday was only 300 yen, so 1150 yen is considerably higher than the average).
Arriving at Koguchi… Bottom: Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie, a hostel/campsite converted from an old school
For some time, I had read news and accounts on the issue of depopulation in rural Japan, but it didn’t hit me until I came to this region. After spending one night at the sleepy Chikatsuyu, I spent another night at the even ‘sleepier’ Koguchi, where there are only two lodgings available for hikers. One of them is a hostel converted from an old school that offers 11 rooms, and the other one is Minshuku Momofuku, a small guesthouse with two rooms.
Like Chikatsuyu, I didn’t see a soul as I walked through the slightly eerie village. I came across a average-sized shop, so I went in… it seems to be the only shop in the village which sells food (mostly dry or frozen), drinks, clothing and accessories, stationery, hardware, etc. It is like a convenient store that is stuck in a time warp.
I arrived at Minshuku Momofuku at around four, and was greeted by Mr. Nakazawa, who speaks sufficient English to communicate. I was told that I was the only guest at their house, so I got to enjoy the place to myself. I was quite blown away by the amount of food at dinner – it was the best dinner I have had since Saizen-in at Koyasan. Apparently, the most challenging hike was yet to come, so I felt justified to indulge before the hardship began.