Animals, Japan, Long-Distance Walking, The Backwards 88
Comments 12

The Backwards 88: The End of the Beginning, Beginning at the End

Hey, folks. How’s that for a mouthful of a post heading? But it’s a pretty good summation of where I am right now on this circular pilgrimage journey — one of the very few circular pilgrimages in the world, by the way.

(By the way, I’ve just added a new post category, The Backwards 88, so all forthcoming posts about my Shikoku walk will be accessible from the “Recent Posts” section below.)

It’s barely 6:00am and I’m recovering from one of my worst night’s sleep in the month I’ve been in Japan. Ironically, perhaps, it was here at Ryozenji, Temple #1, in a pavilion provided to pilgrims (wow, say that phrase really fast) where I was the lone guest. Unfortunately the bench I lay on closely faces a country road which, despite its narrow width, seems to funnel every speeding truck in Shikoku past the front gate.

Also, I was a little drunk on the bad wine I shared with the head monk.

Other than that, it was a great kick-off to my Big Walk. In fact it was incredible. I’ll give you the details in a little while — first, let me recap the Kumano Kodo walk and tell you how I ended up here…

*          *          *          *          *

I headed into the woods late in the afternoon…

kumano kodo path

kumano kodo signs

..after knocking off that last post, and started off down the Kohechi quite excited.

It was a shambles of a start — I was carrying a can of beer and a bag of potato chips for dinner, plus approximately (well, exactly) zero litres of water. Figured I’d find some on the way; my pack was heavy enough.

The perfect recipe for a dose of dehydration? Check. I am available for guided tours, by the way…

But at that point it seemed more likely that the local fauna would kill me if anything:

bear warning kumano kodo

mmm

“Vespa” is the genus as well as the common name over here for the Japanese giant hornet, which believe it not kills 30-40 people here per year according to Wikipedia.

Artist's rendition only -- may not depict actual bear.

Artist’s rendition only — may not depict actual bear.

It all worked out. I got an hour and a half of walking in before darkness settled and I stealth-camped next to water — some good fortune that continued for three of the next four nights:

mmm

I often find myself stealthing under or next to bridges in the mountainous backcountry of Japan. I’m always astonished at how good the Japanese are at bridge-building in some pretty tough terrain.

I loved the Kohechi. Apparently the toughest of the network of old trails down there, it was certainly quiet — I only ran into one other walker in three days:

Hirona, was, I believe, a guest at a local hotel -- his actual words were "I am hotel". Like me with Japanese, it seems verbs are his downfall. Well, and his singing. When I heard him approaching, singing along to some godawful J-pop, I thought I'd stumbled upon a bear with a paw caught in a trap...

Hirona, was, I believe, a guest at a local hotel — his actual words were “I am hotel”. Like me with Japanese, it seems verbs are his downfall. Well, and his singing. When I heard him approaching, wailing along to some godawful J-pop, I thought I’d stumbled upon a bear with a paw caught in a trap…

There were two huts provided for overnight stops, but I passed them during the day. The path is well adorned with ancient stone markers, graves, weathered Jizo statues, and the foundations of old teahouses and inns, remnants of a long-gone infrastructure that once served a thriving pilgrim trade:

mmm

You’ll never walk alone.

mmm

Old graves near an ancient teahouse site.

trailside stone carving kumano kodo

But it was the scenery that really impressed me. This was my first trip through Wakayama (and this remote, southern section of Nara) Prefecture — it’s wild and remote even today. Imagine walking here centuries ago:

waterfall kohechi

mmm

Typical mountain scenery along the trail.

spider web kohechi

fly fishermen kumano kodo

mmm

A lone bamboo stands firm against encroaching cedars.

mmm

Old-growth giants within one of the numerous sections taken over by plantation forestry — cedar, cypress — in modern times. That “fog” is actually cloud seeping through the woods! One of my favourite spots on the Kohechi.

old path wakayama

There were numerous short sections of road-walking, which I always enjoy in Japan, and some glimpses of remote old mountain villages. The path leads you through some of them — and even through the “backyards” of some farmhouses:

rice paddies kohechi

tunnel kohechi

Oh, crap. Not again...

Oh, crap. Not again…

mmm

Typical water source for passing pilgrims next to an old farmhouse.

roadside iris kohechi

Remains of rare ridge-top rainfall-irrigated rice paddies, once managed by the owner of a nearby pilgrim teahouse.

Remains of rare ridge-top rainfall-irrigated rice paddies, once managed by the owner of a nearby pilgrim teahouse.

rice paddy kohechi

cosmos & mountain scenery kohechi

There were three or four thousand-metre ascents, but I wouldn’t have found it especially hard going but for my overloaded pack. As it was, my knees are still sore as I type this. One cool thing is that I slept better on this trail than at any other time on this trip.

I managed one hot-spring bath, despite the “NO TATTOOS” warning sign, and on my final Kohechi night, I actually cowboy-camped on river pebbles beneath a starry sky and a half-moon hanging over the river:

Doing a spot of photo-editing before breaking camp after a tent-less night on the Kohechi.

Doing a spot of photo-editing before breaking camp after a tent-less night on the Kohechi.

Trail’s end after 40-odd miles was at the ancient and important shrine of Kongu Taisha. It was hot, I was tired, there were people, and the shrine was a bit of a disappointment.

I quickly joined the Nakahechi and aimed at the coast, doing it in reverse order to most of the original (and even current) travellers — it was used a thousand years ago by royalty to head inland to the sacred sites after a long journey down the Wakayama coast.

This trail is often described as the easiest and gentlest. Maybe I was a little tired, but I still found it pretty hard going at times with the heavy pack. Plus there were suddenly a lot more people, mainly non-Japanese and several groups of Italians for some reason.

Although I enjoyed the Kohechi more, the Naka still had its moments:

nakahechi trail

on the nakahechi

nakahechi trail in woods

A small trailside tea plantation near Hongu Taisha.

A small trailside tea plantation near Hongu Taisha.

But again, that fauna. In this area there were several warning signs about the much-feared mamushi, a type of pit viper. Never saw any, sadly:

mmm

You call that a snake?

The Nakahechi is only around 15 miles, but I was glad when it was over. I’d endured a 4km detour due to an old landslide, it was terribly hot, and I was getting tired of the plantation forest sections.

But worst of all, the last few miles were plagued by insane clouds of buzzing eye gnats/eye flies that made the walking hellish. I’ve only ever encountered them in the American North-East, and then it was just two or three at a time.

Here I was tormented by hundreds at a time, buzzing around the eyes and ears, even with sunglasses on and a bandana pulled over the ears. When I met a nice young English couple, I gladly accepted a can of 50% DEET which I sprayed onto my face in a moment of magnificent madness.

It was glorious. For hours I’d actually been praying for a can of the stuff to appear on the path. All I lived to do was kill flies by the millions. That was as spiritual as my pilgrimage walk got that day.

Another anti-climax at trail’s end in Takihiri: my food bag was empty, the place was a ghost-village and I just had time to grab a can of beer, some chips and ice-cream before the sole shop closed for the night.

I slept under another bridge. With the beer, and my feet in the cool river, life felt pretty decent. But I abandoned the idea of walking to Tanabe and up the coast to Wakayama City. My knees needed a rest. I got a crowded school bus, and then a train, and enjoyed laundry, a hot bath and a good breakfast at a hotel, after five nights of sleeping rough.

Alright. Here I am on the Shikoku Henro (pilgrim) path — at last. But not really. You see, I’m doing it in reverse order, #88 to #1 rather than the standard clockwise direction. I didn’t even need to come here to #1 except that I knew there was a shop here selling henro clothing and accessories (!).

I bought myself a white pilgrim oizuru — vest — to identify me as a pilgrim, largely for base, earthly reasons: the custom of O-Settai, where locals give pilgrims food and other kindness as they see them as the earthly incarnations of Kobo Daishi himself.

I was going to talk about Mr Daishi and provide some more background, historical and personal, but yet again I’ve exceeded my planned word limit, and the day is getting on. I have to find my way to Temple #88, a journey I believe of several hours, and the beginning of the walk proper.

Details to follow — and I have an excellent story about what transpired here at the temple with the boss monk and a couple of superstitious lady staff members last night…

The bridge I slept under on my last night on the Nakahechi. That's the shop on the left. The shrine is just to its left.

The bridge I slept under on my last night on the Nakahechi. That’s the shop on the left. The shrine is just to its left.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

 

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12 Comments

    • Thanks very much! Have to put off telling that story for now, I just can’t seem to catch up with the journey highlights the way I wanted to! Hopefully I can include it in the next post, mixed up with a few more pictures.

  1. Thanks for sharing the wonderful photographs. His English kind of resembles that of a student from Bangkok who came to Dhaka university to study, she was desperately trying to know if there was pen-lithe in the kitchen. we were in the dining hall enjoying our food when I noticed the stranger, I looked at her and saw what she was pointing at, I figured out it had something to do with rice, while the others ignored her, I stood up and said, “Do you mean plain rice?”
    It made her day, because someone was paying attention, although I knew what she was looking for I could not help her, because that day the chef only prepared rice mixed with lentil, too bad I thought!

    • Oh, yeah, as a former English teacher, I have to say the Thai accent for English speakers is one of the toughest! I still get a laugh every day at some point in Japan reading Japanese-English on shop signs etc. It’s like they either have no idea it’s completely silly, or they do and don’t care!

  2. “Remains of rare ridge-top rainfall-irrigated rice paddies, once managed by the owner of a nearby pilgrim teahouse.”

    Wow! The strong clear sunlight in the photos in this section is astonishing. That is the light I remember seeing in my childhood and only a few times since, most memorably on the Lost Coast in Northern California and in Big Sur.

    I’m reminded of this story of a family who knew that strong sunlight in the mountains of Japan:

    • Wow, some beautiful pictures in that story. It still amazes me how much of the old farmland remains. Maybe there are electrical pylons and suburbs around or through it, but they still squeeze in paddies everywhere!

    • That was a beautiful spot, made even better by the spooky cloud. I really took my time with that one and a few others there as you don’t get that opportunity very often.

  3. cybermaai says

    Good stuff man. I walked the whole Kumano Kodo and Shikoku pilgrimage back to back over 10 weeks back in 2009. My feet are finally recovered…

    I’m currently based in Kyoto, so if you pass this way do get in touch.

    tedtaylor (at) hotmail

    • Sounds awesome, it would be great to share some henro tales if I have some time at the end of this. Should work. I’d like to spend another day or two in Kyoto, time permitting (if I’m not sick of temples by then!).

  4. Jacob says

    Hey! I very much enjoyed your post. I am hoping to do the Kohechi trail this September! I plan to bring a tent and camp (i think i have the same one as you!). I am wondering what you ended up doing about food? Did any of the villages you pass have opportunities to buy food? Was there enough of those water wells along the way? Also would it be possible to find shelter or accommodation to stay in if there was a storm/monsoon?

    I would appreciate any help as there is not alot of information online about the Kohechi route!

    Cheers

    • Jacob, thanks for the enquiry and comment, and I hope the Kohechi works out well for you. September should be gorgeous, weather-wise.

      I loved the Kohechi and am thinking of doing some other parts of the old pilgrimage network when next in that part of the world. What route did you have in mind — the same one as me? I don’t have my (sparse) notes with me though I do have extensive photo documentation to jog my memory.

      I went from Koya-San to the terminus at Kongu-Taisha. Three days or so from memory. If that’s what you have in mind, I can give some advice. You’ll probably come down via Hashimoto from Osaka/Kyoto, almost certainly by train. You can stay the night there — there are a few hotels — and there’s a supermarket there. I would not leave it till Koya-San to stock up — there are a few souvenir-type shops as I recall where you could get snacks but not a lot more. You get a local train the next morning (if you do stay the night in Hashimoto) and finally a bus up the mountain to Koya.

      Make sure you check out Okunoin, the old cemetery, in Koya-San. Fantastic place. Also, you have a wide choice of temples you can stay (and eat) at in Koya-San — I never did that but researched and they looked quite expensive ($100 or so) but undoubtedly a great experience, and some have onsen. You will need a tourist map of the trail to find its starting point, tucked away on a narrow side-street between temples. Don’t do what I did and start out just before dark with a can of beer and a bag of potato chips for dinner! Very dehydrating.

      Camping in a tent should prove no problem. I don’t think it’s officially encouraged but nor is it (to my knowledge) proscribed. Just be subtle. River banks are a good bet. There are at least two shelters along the way, and one of them is magnificent. I just stopped for a short rest at the first one, the magnificent one. It was clearly a labour of love by local volunteers. You could sleep there in great comfort. I think I came to that one on my second day, but you would reach it on your first day if you left Koya in the morning, not late afternoon. The other one is more basic but still dry.

      Water will not be a problem. Also, probably on your second day, there’s a road you reach where a side-road leads to a village with an onsen (hot spring). I assume you know what the symbol is for hotspring; it’ll be on the road sign and maybe map. Sorry, don’t remember its name right now. I took a half-hour detour to walk to that place and have a bath, which was superb. Just hide your tattoos if you have any when you’re buying a ticket! There’s at least one small mart there for snacks etc.

      You will also pass a michi-no-eki (“road station” — basically a highway rest stop with restaurant etc) not long before reaching Kongu-Taisha. I got there on a hot afternoon and beer never tasted so good. Basically if you’re planning on 3-4 days for that journey, I would carry enough food for main meals at least, and grab a few snacks as necessary in the places described above. I would fill a water bottle when I came to a source but not worry about carrying too much more. Also, there are definitely paid-accommodation options along the way: minshuku (family-run inns). The owners see the trail as a source of revenue and thus even though they are very unlikely to speak English, they will not be freaked out by a westerner turning up on their door. Every traveller I met whom I spoke to said they were staying in those places, which are in little villages along the route. There’s a company over there which organises the accommodation for you in advance. Don’t know the name but you could google it; I met a few people on the Kohechi or maybe Nakahechi who used this same company, they do all the unpleasant phone bookings in Japanese in advance and help you with maps and itineraries.

      Hope this helps, let me know if you have any more questions!

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