Animals, Hiking, Japan, Long-Distance Walking
Comments 12

Pilgrim Country!

I, KUKAI, WAS FOND OF WANDERING OVER MOUNTAINS IN MY YOUTH. WENT HIKING TO THE SOUTH FROM YOSHINO FOR ONE DAY AND THROUGH TO THE WEST FOR TWO DAYS. CAME ACROSS A SECRET ELEVATED PLAIN CALLED KOYA…from a very fortuitously situated poster (a copy of which I immediately bought to send home), here in the tourist information centre in Koya where I am tapping out this post — and tapping into some free wifi & electricity — before hitting the pilgrim trail.

*          *          *          *          *

Hey there, folks. There’s an old monk tapping sporadically at the free PC here in the info centre. Things have changed a tad since Kukai (or Kobo Daishi as he was posthumously renamed) founded the place in the ninth century. Another example: there are a lot more foreigners on the streets these days, including this one. And my pilgrim staff is made of aluminium…

I could go on, but I have to find the start of the UNESCO-protected old trail and burn a few miles before dark. I have absolutely no idea where I’ll end up and where I’ll throw down. Stealth-camping in all likelihood.

I do know I’ll be eating a lot of bars and bread, which in Japan is like cake minus the frosting, for the next few days. I sent my stove to my friend Andrew to mind till I finish the big walk. Where I’m going finding stove alcohol would be too stressful and the stove would be dead weight (even though its titanium and a few scraps of beer can).

So this is a quick catch-up post to let you know I’m alive and share the highlights of the last week or two. I left Sapporo for the last time…


..and got off the train in northern Tohoku, where I climbed two volcanoes in as many days.

Hakkoda-San was first. It had intrigued me since reading a translation of a famous Japanese novella about a tragedy that occurred there in 1902, when 199 soldiers on a training exercise froze to death.

I was there in balmier conditions…




..and celebrated my summit hike with a hot-spring bath in one of the few remaining mixed-bathing onsen in Japan…


..though the thought of all those elderly ladies naked in the same bath was too intimidating for me, and I opted for the tiny men-only tub.

Next was sacred Iwaki-San…


View from the train window.

..the base of which I hiked to late one afternoon, via the shrine honouring the mountain…


..before climbing up through steamy, cicada- and dragonfly-rich forest the next morning:



The downward leg brought me to Dake Onsen, where a friendly proprietress soon had a tall, cold bottle of beer in front of me, and a young teacher I met…


..who by chance came from Kichijoji, invited me to share a bath.

I knew it would be the beginning of a very special relationship. This tub was really tiny, primitive and pungently sulphurous — and very hot.

It was incredible.

After that it was back to Tokyo for a bit of rest before the big guys: the South Alps. I planned about five days, a traverse deep into the rugged backcountry, but bailed after three days when bad weather moved in, dampened my sleeping bag, and looked like hanging around:



I come to the mountains for the peace & calm. My tent is third from left.





The summit of Kita-Dake, 2nd-highest point in Japan, with stunning views of #1 across the “unkai” — Sea of Clouds.


My campsite at Kuma-no-Daira, as far as I travelled on my first trip here back in 2001.


Sunrise, Kuma-no-Daira.


Coffee stop, Sth Alps.




First light, Sanpuku Pass.

That was a tough trip, but spectacular. One beautiful thing happened along the way: I finally worked out, after years of intermittent back trouble, that the hip belt of my pack was aggravating the problem, rather than saving the back as the prevalent hiking orthodoxy has it.

Once I stopped buckling up, the pain and stiffness disappeared. As soon as I got back to Tokyo I threw the whole hip belt in the trash, and now hike with all that weight supported only by my shoulders. This was revolutionary for me.

After some rest…


An awesome busker in Inokashira Park with some rabid fans. He did “Unchain My Heart”, “Jambalaya” & “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (my theme song on this trip) while I was there.

..I headed out to Yatsu-ga-Take but encountered more bad weather — nothing lethal, but near-total white-outs that meant the much-lauded views of craggy peaks were mostly absent:



A rare glimpse of Yatsu as the cloud briefly cleared on my descent.

Still, I’m glad I did it.

Then at last I got the shinkansen down to Kyoto, had a blast wandering the famous bamboo forest and Arashiyama district despite the crowds…


Bamboo Forest Selfies #1.


Bamboo Forest Selfies #2.

..then made my way to the southern shores of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake…

mmm pay homage at the grave of one of my heroes, the great haiku master and traveller Basho, who died here in 1694 and rests (as the expression goes) at a tiny shrine near the water:


Basho was his pen name and refers to a banana plant he grew while living in Edo (Tokyo) — so it was a very nice touch that the shrine is one of only two (the other one was in Korea) I’ve visited where banana trees grow:


Then I had a day or so in Nara, the original capital, where I had time for a wonderful rural ramble…


Friendly/hungry cats in a shopping arcade I had to walk down to begin my walk.


Roosters are protected or perhaps revered at this shrine on the walk. They had plenty to crow about and never freakin’ stopped.


Walking the Scarecrow Gauntlet, Nara.



A gorgeous gaggle of strays, a couple of which were really affectionate…


..especially Ma.



Benighted in a graveyard — again. One of the most beautiful I’ve seen (the sunset setting helped).

..and the ancient temple Todaiji, which houses a monumental Buddha I visited about 14 years back, in what was at construction the largest wooden structure in the world.

Nara is equally famous for its deer, which are protected and roam at will right down the city streets, harassing tourists for the approved sembei crackersat last, an appropriate use for this most overrated Japanese “delicacy”:


I get the feeling he’s done this before.

Finally, yesterday I took a long trip south into the Kii Peninsula, as far as Hashimoto, where I decided to stay in a hotel to get an early start here at Koya today.

Rambling around Hashimoto was fun, except for these wretched monkeys I came upon locked in a bleak cage in a deserted park:


By chance I had bananas in my pack, and intended to share one or two with the group of five or six wretches, including a couple of tiny babies.

Sadly, the boss male snatched a whole specimen from my hand — and he didn’t like sharing. Guess that’s how he became boss. I was immensely saddened at this reminder of the poor lot endured by apes and many other animals in this part of the world.

I’ll talk about more of these adventures in detail when time permits, and share some history and details about pilgrimages here and on Shikoku, hopefully before the big one begins. My plan, such as it is, is to hike for a few days down the Kohechi path, one of several used since ancient times for travellers making religious journeys from Kyoto and further afield.

Koya is central to the school of Buddhism founded by Kobo Daishi, the man around whom the 88-Temple pilgrimage evolved in the centuries following his death. I visited his tomb this morning, at the far end of the most fascinating and enjoyable graveyard I’ve ever explored. As I left, a group of Japanese pilgrims, some in their white garments, arrived to visit the place where Kukai “rests in eternal meditation” (ie, lies dead).

It’s customary for many Shikoku pilgrims to start and end their journey by visiting the tomb. Not sure if this bunch was starting or ending, but I suspect the former, as they appeared a bit fresh and clean and energetic. (Could well be tour-bus pilgrims as well!). As they passed, a few looked me over and muttered “Sugoi!” — presumably assuming from my overloaded pack that I was one of their kind (except for the bus part).

“O-Henro? (pilgrims)” I asked.

“Hai,” they replied, hurrying on towards the tomb (as we all are, let’s face it).

I expect to reach the western coast of the Kii peninsula in a few days, then I’m thinking of walking northward to Wakayama City, from where I’ll get a ferry across the Inland Sea to Shikoku and the beginning proper of the 88-Temple walk.

If you find all of this geographically or historically confusing, try living in my head for a few hours. I need some fresh air, some clarity and quiet, to get myself grounded again.

Perhaps a nice walk is in order…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Utterly enthralling stuff Goat, what truly incredible travels. Feel like I’ve shared a small part of the journey through this post. Really enjoy reading these, and your photographs are always those of someone with a wonderful eye. Cheers and safe wanderings!

    • Thanks for the beautiful comment, Robert! I just wish I could keep up with my experiences — it always seems like I’m trying to catch up!

  2. I am always amazed to read your wonderful posts and at the same time wonder, how you can remember the minutest detail while you walk around. Do you keep a notebook?
    Thank you it’s always a pleasure to read about your travels. 🙂

    • Thanks, Ranu. I carry a notebook in my pocket for names etc to remember, and a bigger one in my pack which I haven’t used but in which I plan to record a lot more details from this, the main walk. But I’m usually too tired at night to write. Luckily my pictures are a good substitute for a real journal! (Plus there’s this blog!).

  3. Seeing the coffee stop photo, I am reminded of John Muir who was most himself when walking in the mountains. Am thoroughly enjoying your photos and your writing from this particular journey. Great photo of the busker with the children. Bob Dylan once asked, “What’s so terrible about being misunderstood?”

    • Yeah, good old Mr Muir! Last night the monk lapsed a few times into natural Japanese. I think he was testing me to take some of the load off his shoulders. Seeing my blankness, he shrugged and reverted to English, and things got a lot easier for me at least!

  4. Sandy Duncan says

    Any chance of a few comments on the onsens in northern Japan? I sent you an Email with a couple of questions, which I hope you received. Thanks for sharing your amazing journey!

    • Sandy, finally replied to that email. I’m far from an onsen expert and sometimes I’m as perplexed as the next hapless gaijin. There are a couple of English-language guides out there, one’s called Japan’s Hidden Hot Springs if memory serves. They truly are a treasure, one of the finest things this country has to offer.

  5. David L says

    Wonderful write up, and your photography really captures the quintessence of hiking in Japan. The Southern Alps are notorious for fickle weather though nice to see Mt. Fuji made a timely appearance from the summit of Kitadake. Great to find your blog Goat and already a huge fan 😉

    • Thanks, David, great to find another reader! And a fellow Minami Alps fan! I love that place, and I’m hoping to return to the Kita Alps as well after my Shikoku journey if visa time, spirits, funds and knees permit!

      Yeah, that weather: beautiful mornings, cloudy by lunchtime, rain by sundown! No wonder the Japanese hikers like an early start (and then some)!

  6. Great pics, man. Have hit the halfway-wall of the semester and am wishing I was somewhere roaming in the mountains. The colour is green. As green as the fields in the photos..

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