Japan’s Kii Peninsula: Walking with the Emperors

An inn in Yunomine Onsen – a hot spring resort on the route to Koguchi. The hot springs were discovered in the 4th century, making it the oldest onsen (hot spring) town in Japan
Photographer: Jonathan Stokes

Pilgrims have sought spiritual renewal on the sacred paths of Japan’s Kii Peninsula for over a millennium. Walk in their footsteps along the Kumano Kodo

Words OLIVER BERRY
Photographs JONATHAN STOKES

IN THE FOOTHILLS OF THE KII PENINSULA, it’s raining – hard. Fat raindrops clatter through the trees, hitting the ground with a sound like marbles being dropped on slate. Rivulets of water tumble over the trail and a film of white cloud curls over the treetops, casting the forest in a gauzy, silver glow. The scent of damp earth hangs in the air. Ahead, a path tapers into the mist and three walkers trudge past giant cedars a hundred feet high. None of the hikers appear downtrodden by the rain; they seem positively cheery, chatting merrily as they tramp the leaf-strewn path, pointing out birds swooping and darting among the trees. Like all good pilgrims on the Kumano Kodō, they know that endurance and enlightenment are two experiences that often go hand in hand.

“The Kumano Kodō was conceived as a test of mind, body and spirit,” explains hiking guide Kennis Wong, a veteran of Japan’s most famous long-distance trail. “The difficulty, the isolation and the hardship were important parts of the pilgrimage. The belief was that by overcoming them, you purified yourself and improved your inner spirit.” She jogs ahead to catch up with her group and a moment later the clouds split, sending white sunbeams rippling over the forest floor.

For 1,000 years, pilgrims have travelled to this corner of Japan in search of spiritual salvation. According to legend, the Kii Peninsula – now part of Wakayama Prefecture – was home to primal nature spirits that dwelt in the rocks, caves, rivers, trees and mountains. They were worshipped by followers of Shugendō, an ancient animist faith, who built shrines to honour them deep in the forest, hidden along riverbanks, buried among tree roots or raised on wind-scoured hilltops. The paths that connected them — collectively known as the Kumano Kodō (Old Roads of Kumano) – offered a kind of roadmap towards rebirth and redemption, and pilgrims travelled from far and wide to walk them; monks and merchants, noblemen and samurai, peasants and emperors. They did so in reverence and awe.

Today, however, if you tell a Japanese person you’re travelling to the Kii Peninsula, their first thought will likely be to hand you an umbrella. Jutting into the Philippine Sea, it’s the wettest place in Japan, regularly rocked by landslides and drenched by seasonal typhoons. But, since 2004, when the Kumano Kodō trails were named a World Heritage site – the only walking routes to receive the honour apart from Spain’s Camino de Santiago – the paths have been rediscovered by a new generation of pilgrims in search of their own mystical adventure.

Of the seven Kumano routes, the most prestigious is the Nakahechi, also dubbed the Imperial Route as it was favoured by Japanese emperors. It passes the Kumano Sanzan: three of the most sacred sites in Japan – the grand shrines of Hongū Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Paying homage at all three is said to ensure a happy, auspicious and productive life, but, like all good things, salvation doesn’t come easy. And, if you want to get to heaven, first you have to climb.

The village in the clouds

MY JOURNEY ALONG THE NAKAHECHI begins at Takijiri-ōji, a little woodland shrine set at the foot of a hulking, cedar-cloaked mountain. Traditionally, pilgrims would have begun their journey with a purifying dip in the icy waters of the nearby Tonda River, but today most hikers seem content with a quick prayer at the shrine before stepping onto the trail. It’s five days and 80km from Takijiri to the other side at Shingū – and no one is quite sure what the trail ahead holds in store.

One thing they can be sure of is hills. Like much of Japan, the Kii Peninsula is studded by scores of long-dead volcanoes, steeply pitched, thickly wooded and densely clustered. While the climb from Takijiri-ōji isn’t the hardest on the Nakahechi, for legs unaccustomed to the terrain it’s a gruelling introduction, switch backing steeply through forest before cresting a ridge framed by green, rumpled mountains.

It’s late afternoon by the time the village of Takahara materialises from the clouds, teetering above a valley hatched with cornfields and rice terraces. In the timber-frame hallway of Kirinosato Inn, the village’s minshuku, or travellers’ hostel, hikers take off their packs and sip green tea, as innkeeper Jian Shanto welcomes them and shows them along the tatami hallways to their rooms.

“To be an innkeeper is an honourable position,” he says, as he lays out a dinner of onigiri (riceballs), pickles, foraged vegetables, smoked fish and beef stew, served in hand-painted chinaware. “To look after pilgrims and share their journeys is a most important task.” He pours freshly-brewed tea from an earthenware pot, greeting his guests as they filter into the dining room in traditional yukata robes and soft-soled slippers. “Walking the Kumano Kodō is a journey, just like life,” he explains after dinner. “It has many ups and downs. There are hard days and easier days, but one thing is certain: you will discover much about yourself along the way.”

He pads down the corridor to lay out futons for the night as guests soothe their muscles in the volcanic waters of the inn’s onsen. Outside, mist spools over the valley and stars spot the darkening night sky.

To go on a pilgrimage to Japan’s Kii Peninsula NOW to seek spiritual renewal, check out LPMI’s April 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.