Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku in Koguchi
After having a big Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku, I was ready for my last hike of the pilgrimage trail. Mr Nakazawa warned me about the first stretch of the hike, which requires a steep climb of 800 metres in elevation over 5km. This section of the trail is called Dogiri–zaka meaning ‘body breaking slope’. Mr Nakazawa smiled and told me that he had done it a few times, as shown in the photos on his wall.
The most challenging section of the trail is Dogirizaka. The famous poet Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) stated in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is”.
Out of all the days, the last day was the day when I encountered the most hikers. Oddly, the supposedly most difficult section seemed to attract more hikers than the rest. Early in the morning, I saw a couple having an argument while hiking up the woods; the husband stormed off (carrying nothing), and his wife (who was carrying a handbag) had to chase after him! It was a bizarre scene. Not long after that, I ran into the couple from San Francisco again and we decided to hike together. We all felt that carrying our own rucksacks while walking the pilgrimage trail was important to us… it would have been much easier to have our rucksacks forwarded to the next destination, but it would completely miss the point and notion of the pilgrimage.
We learned that the Dogirizaka section is tough because the rock staircases appear to be endless, and at times very steep and slippery. Since I have previously suffered from a knee injury, my poles helped me enormously throughout this trail.
At the Jizo-jaya teahouse remains, we met another group of hikers and had lunch here altogether. Since our water supply was low, we were thrilled to see a vending machine here. Normally, vending machines are conspicuous in Japan, but on this trail, they are rare and are considered as precious commodities. Like the one I saw yesterday, the one at the teahouse remains had ran out of water as well, so we had to opt for other drinks. After lunch, we carried on with the awareness that we were at the last stretch of the trail.
When we finally got a glimpse of the Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall while descending from Mount Nachi, and we were all over the moon. Yet the first thing we did when we arrived at the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine was to rush into a shop with an ice-cream sign outside! We felt that we deserved some reward for the hard work, and the delicious plum ice cream did the trick for us.
After our treat, we walked around the Shinto Nachi Taisha Shrine and the Buddhist Seiganto-ji Temple (the two structures used to be connected but were separated in the Meiji era). The temple is reputed to be the oldest structure in Kumano and said to have been founded in the fourth century by an Indian monk who also founded the Fudarakusan Temple .
The location was the Grand shrine offers a fantastic view of Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-Otaki (133 meters high and 13 meters wide), which has long been a site of religious significance in Japan. The worship of the nature and kami (meaning superior to the human condition) is at the heart of Shintoism, hence the waterfall became a place of worship or pilgrimage site.
It felt odd to see tourists roaming around at this site, since I barely saw more than 20 people over the last few days. I spent more time with trees than humans during my pilgrimage trail, and despite the challenges, I found the experience extremely meditative and gratifying. Being able to walk the ancient trails where pilgrims have passed through for over a thousand years was a privilege, and I would never forget this amazing journey.
After wandering around the site of the Shrine, it was time for the American couple and I to say goodbye. We exchanged contacts and then parted our ways. My journey would have been quite different without them, and I was glad that we were able to complete the trail together.
I waited for the last bus that headed towards Nachi-Katsuura, a fishing port where I spent my last night before leaving the region by train. Nachi-Katsuura has the highest catch of tuna in Japan, and its morning tuna market is a local attraction. It is also known for its onsens, and I splashed out on my last night of the trail at Manseiro Ryokan, located right across from the pier.
The seafoof banquet at Manseiro Ryokan
The building of the ryokan is rather old and the decor is modest and dated, but the highlight here is its meals. After three days of hiking, I think the spectacular kaiseki-style seafood dinner was a great way to end my journey. The star of the meal was of course, tuna, and apart from eating it raw, it was also served as sukiyaki (usually beef is used). The food just kept coming, even the waiter was laughing because I looked stunned whenever he brought more dishes over.
After the never-ending meal, I rested a little before taking the free ferry (10 mins ride) across to the neighboring Hotel Urashima, where it is famous for its Bokido onsen cave bath overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Hotel Urashima is a massive and touristy resort with numerous souvenir shops, karaoke bars, and game centers, and I was quite shocked when I arrived in my onsen yukata. Nonetheless, I managed to find my way in the labyrinth of hallways with colour coded lines on the floor.
Unlike the chaotic lobby and hallways, the natural hot spring bath in a cave by the ocean is very tranquil. Not only you can hear the waves beating against the rocks, you can also feel the sea breeze and look up at the moon and stars while soaking in a hot spring bath. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I absolutely loved it. Even though all my aches was melting away, I was also feeling exhausted from my 8-hour hike, so I didn’t stay that long in the cave. All I could think of was ‘bed’ after the soak.
Another big breakfast…
Public foot onsen
After another big but healthy Japanese breakfast the next morning, I ventured over to the tuna market. Although I had missed the early morning auction (I was in need of sleep), I was still curious to see where most of the tuna in Japan originated from. Luckily, there was still some actions to be seen… and I managed to take some photos from the observation deck of auction’s aftermath.
After a short stroll around the quiet town, I bought a fish bento and some seafood snacks for my train ride to kyoto. My five-day journey in the Wakayama region had been sublime and extraordinary, and what struck me most was the largely unspoilt nature along the Kumano Kodo trail. This part of my trip revealed the beauty of Japan that is usually depicted in nature-related documentaries, and I am sure my Shinrin-yoku/forest bathing time was beneficial to my physical and mental health.
The view from the train