Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 2)





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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.


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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.



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Sainokawara Jizo


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.



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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).



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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.



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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.





Minshuku Momofuku


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.


From Koyasan to Kumano Kodo

When I was planning my Japan trip, I came across an article about the ancient pilgrimage trail, Kumano Kodo, in the Wakayama region. Despite numerous visits to Japan over the years, I have never heard of this trail before. I became interested and started researching about the trail. Unlike the famous pilgramge route, Camino de Santiago in Spain, Kumano Kodo comprises several routes and walkers can be flexible with the days and distances. The most popular route is the Nakahechi route which starts from Kii-Tanabe on the western coast of the Kii Peninsula and traverses east into the mountains towards the other side of the Peninsula. Since the 10th century, the Nakahechi route had been extensively used by the imperial family on pilgrimage from Kyoto. Since this was my first multi-day trail, I thought I should stick with the more popular route.


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Although there are some sample itineraries on the official Kumano Kodo tourism website, I decided to make some alterations; meanwhile, I still used their free reservation services for accommodations and bento boxes. Instead of using the rather pricey daily luggage transfer service, I forwarded my luggage in Osaka to my next desination after the pilgrimage trail.

Before my trip, I bought a pair of foldable walking sticks and a foldable rucksack big enough to carry essentials and clothing for 5 nights. Like the protagonist in the film ‘Wild’, I was constantly packing and repacking to make sure that I wasn’t carrying too much. Yet later I acknowledge that I had still taken too much unnecessary stuff, like a book that I never got to read (too exhausted), accessories such as scarf and hat (too warm), and a heavy camera… minimalising is never as easy as we think.




Due to the traveling period (low season), the route from Koyasan to Kii-Tanabe (the beginning of the trail) was a not a straight-forward one despite that they are not that far apart by distance. I ended up taking 3 buses and 2 trains, which took over 6 hours of traveling time! Luckily, the stunning scenery along the coast made the journey more interesting.

When I arrived at Kii-Tanabe, I had to rush over to the Tourist office to get a copy of the route maps as I would have to depend on it a lot over the next few days. Since I spent almost 1/2 day traveling, it meant that I didn’t have time to walk to my destination, hence I took a bus and headed to my lodging at Chikatsuyu village.



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The starting point of the trail: Kii-Tanabe


My original plan was to stay in Takahara village, a ridge-top village that offers a panoramic view of the mountains in the surrounding area, but all the lodgings there were full when I tried to book, so I had to skip the first part of the trail and start from Chikatsuyu village. With only a few choices in the village, I decided to rent a cottage owned by a lovely Ms. Muya (according to the official reservation website) who named the cottage: Happiness Chikatsuyu.





Chikatsuyu village


Not only I was the only person who got off the bus at Chikatsuyu, I did not encounter anyone during my 15 minutes’ walk towards the cottage. I went to pick up the keys from the neighbour and he kindly showed me around the cottage and suggested that I take a bus up the hill tomorrow and start the trail at the top of the hill.


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The cottage is way better than the photos on the website. In fact, I understood immediately why it has been named ‘Happiness’. Honestly, I could feel the love and positive energy at this cottage. The spacious and bright cottage is not over-furnished, and has three exquisite kimonos hanging around the house. Yet more ‘happiness’ could be found outside in the garden.





The cottage is located on the top of a hillock overlooking the Hiki-gawa River. I felt incredibly blissful sitting inside the gazebo surrounded by the beautiful and tranquil environment.

Since there are no restaurants nearby, I had to pre-order dinner, which was delivered by a friendly lady who runs a small cafe in the village. It was a simple bento dinner, but enjoyable nonetheless especially because I was able to savour it in the garden.



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After dinner (which was only around 7pm), I decided to stroll into the village to see if there is a grocery shop or convenient store for my lunch tomorrow. Again, I did not see anyone along the route, nor did I see any food shop nor convenient store. There is a derelict petrol station and surprisingly, a wonderful bric-a-brac shop that sells vintage items and ceramics. I went into the shop but again, I didn’t see anyone… suddenly, I felt like I was in a surreal film where everyone in the village has vanished! Where is everyone?








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Although I have read a lot about the issues of urbanisation and rural depopulation in Japan, I have never seen it in real life until this trip. Chikatsuyu is only one of many. Walking back, I felt a bit sad that people would rather live in congested, polluted, expensive and high density concrete jungles than villages surrounded by natural beauty. And yet Japan is not alone – this is happening all over the world.

After I got back, I had to prepare for the big day ahead and was slightly anxious because the first day would be the longest day out of the three, with approx. 8 hours of walking time. I would need to reach my destination before sunset, but I could save some time and energy by taking a bus up the hill from the village in the morning.

I thought I had planned everything quite well, but as we all know, life rarely turns out the way we plan it…



Let the journey begin… in Japan

kyoto petals


When I decided to take a sabbatical for 6 months, I wanted to switch off from running a business and focus more on myself. For years, I have been doing various part time courses on textiles esp. indigo dyeing and shibori (Japanese resist dyeing), and so the sabbatical was a good opportunity for me to learn more about this craft. Where is the best place to learn indigo dyeing? In my mind, this place has to be Japan. Although I had visited Japan numerous time over the years, I had never spent much time in the rural areas or lesser-known cities. The research and planning of my trip took a rather long time, and it was almost as exciting as the journey itself (not quite). Determining the duration was a challenging task, and I settled for 5 weeks due to pragmatic reasons. I wanted the trip to revolve around my passion-textiles and paper-and had originally hoped to do a paper-making course as well. Nonetheless, I had to abandon the idea because of the costs and extra traveling time. I guess this has given me another excuse to return again in the future.



A farmer in Kanagawa


It has taken me months to contemplate on this inspirational journey, and to sort out the 5000+ photos! The trip was beyond all my expectations, and I loved every minute of it – including the mishaps. I have decided to share the highlights of the journey, since it is impossible to record the entire trip. If you want to understand more about the Japanese culture, here is a list of alternative books (beyond the travel guides) that I think would help visitors before their visits:

  1. Lost Japan by Alex Kerr
  2. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
  3. The Narrow Road to Oku by Matsuo Basho
  4. Wabi-sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren
  5. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
  6. Japanese zen gardens by Yoko Kawaguchi
  7. Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan by Kazuaki Tanahashi
  8. The book of tea by Kakuzō Okakura
  9. A Brief History of Manga by Helen McCarthy
  10. The way of zen by Alan Watts
  11. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
  12. All books by Haruki Murakami


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Asanogawa River in Kanazawa


My 5-week journey began in the Kansai region, then Chubu and ended in Kanto. It felt quite rushed because I underestimated the traveling time across 10 prefectures! With the aid of Yamato Transport, a delivery and luggage forwarding company (their black cat logo is ubiquitous in Japan), I was able to forward my luggage to the next destination which saved me much time and hassle. I only wish that more countries could provide this service.



The iconic Japanese manga character, Doraemon


For me, the most memorable part of journey was not the sights, but the people I encountered throughout the trip and the hospitality I received esp. outside of the cities. I was blown away by the unspoiled nature (in rural Japan); the intricate craftsmanship that has been passed on for generations; and the passion and pride of the local artisans. However, I also witnessed the problematic side: urbanisation and the disparity between urban and rural Japan; the negative impact of mass tourism and consumerism; and the dying of some traditional art and craft… The Japan that I saw and experienced this time was unlike any of my previous trips, and it was quite eye-opening. Instead of seeing Japan through rose-tinted glasses, I am able to see it in a more realistic way, though it doesn’t diminish my appreciation for this unique and beautiful country – it just makes it more real.


Everyone needs a break now and again…



I am finally ready to write again after three months of ‘work-detox’ period. This is the first entry since I went on my sabbatical, and I am writing solely because I feel like it, rather than seeing it as some kind of obligation.

After running the business for over six years (plus a year of preparation beforehand), I made a rather risky decision to close the e-shop and take six months off work. I did not take this decision lightly, and I even asked a few good friends for their advice. Why? The reasons were quite straight forward: I was losing my enthusiasm, passion, and I was getting bored. This is not a good sign when you are running your own business! I felt like I have devoted the last seven years to this business, and I felt stuck/ trapped… work became a drag, and I was quite unhappy for the last two years. I felt like I needed an adventure rather than routines. And I simply couldn’t carry on as usual anymore.

The word ‘sabbatical’ originates from the Greek word sabatikos, which means “of the Sabbath” – the day of rest that happens every seventh day. According to Oxford dictionary, it means: “A period of paid leave granted to a university teacher or other worker for study or travel, traditionally one year for every seven years worked.” However, mine is neither one year nor paid; well, whatever you name it, it is a long break nonetheless.

In recent years, the word ‘sabbatical’ has become more ubiquitous because it is regarded as a positive act for both the worker/teacher and the company/university in the long run. Well-known designer Stefan Sagmeister is a forerunner in encouraging workers to take sabbaticals. Every seven years, he closes his NYC design studio for a one-year of ‘creative rejuvenation’, and he has been promoting this idea for years.




Of course not everyone is lucky enough to have a boss like him, or financially secured to do this. Nevertheless, I still believe that even if you can’t take six months or a year off, it would be beneficial to take short breaks now and again to revitalise yourself. We are living in a world that is obsessed with speed and productivity, and it is only by slowing down or stopping that we can feel what is missing and gain insights about our lives as well as the world around us. We are not robots, so don’t treat yourself as one.

I can safely say that after three months of traveling, learning new skills, and spending time with family and friends, I am already feeling more enthusiastic about returning to work, and have some new ideas for the future. I feel more relaxed, open, and most importantly – happier. Taking the sabbatical is not a step backwards, it is in fact, a step-or several steps- forward.