Animist, buddhist and shintoist confluence of peaceful coexistence is awakened on the Kii peninsula of Japan. For more than a millennium, ancient pilgrimage routes have, like ropes of hope, connected the moist and verdant mountain peaks in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park. The most famous from the ‘lucky’ seven Kumano trails that originated in the 10th century are the Buddhist Koyasan and the Shinto Kumano Kodo, of which the Nakahechi trail is the most sacred. The later is also more visited by the Japanese due to its higher cultural value today.

Reverence of nature in Japanese culture

Here, in the southernmost crest of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s islands, the spirit of the forest has for countless generations attracted not just nobility, but all social levels, religious sects, and also including women. The rigidity of Japanese rules contradict the spiritual flexibility in the quest for worship. The first imperial capital, Nara, sealed the proximity of the mundane beauty of the forests appreciated by the entire society in Japan. The second and longest imperial seat – Kyoto, remains within a walkable distance (months) to he grand shrines of Kumano. NATURE is GOD in the shinto belief system. Shinrin Yoku or bathing in the forest is a spiritual retreat in solitude. Walking mindfully has been considered therapeutical even by the Japanese Government since the early 1980s. As much as two thirds of the islands are covered with dense, mossy, tourmaline forests.

hiking JapanKumano Kodo

Staying at ryokans is the ultimate weekend escape for the Japanese city dwellers. Like maternal love, nature has umbilically nourished humanity, and the Japanese appreciate this nurturing relationship. The humble, traditional inns nest in their natural environment almost invisibly – as if their habitable wooden skeletons were not to disrupt the organic waves of solitude. Alongside the Kumano Kodo there are hundreds of ryokans and onsens (hot springs), some public so you can jump in for a small fee even when not staying overnight.

I lodged hours away at the contemporary luxurious magnification of the discreet ryokan. Northeast from Kumano Kodo the Amanemu opened recently on the Ise Shima National Park grounds by the meta-sensual Aman group. The distance allowed for only a full day trip, so with a generous bento box I embarked on the locally most revered pilgrimage, the so-called Kumano Sanzan. This most visited route on the Nakahechi trail is abundantly scenic as all of the three grand shrines nest in these valleys nearing the Pacific. My guide Kimi, born in Kumano, took me through a less frequented section at first – snooping into the rural dwellings, tea gardens, persimmon and ume plum orchards, my kind of a hike! I’m a spy of an authentic local life when I travel, therefore connecting the spirit of the beastly forest with the frugal life of the mountain people stirred a nirvana in my childishly curious mind. What a learned though was sad, the by the city magnetised youth became disenchanted by the slow but longevity promising life of the countryside so increasingly many of the charming dwellings were abandoned.

Japanese tea gardens

Japanese tea garden

Named after the mighty Kumano River, once flooding the mountainous valley with its spring swell of melted snow, a namesake city by the seaside rose up with the pilgrims pouring in. Like in my native Czech Republic, the river’s name changes as it curves through the different valleys and villages. We curved along and then towards the Yuya-gawa River swelling away from the Hongu Taisha. About four to seven hours curvy coastal drive from Kyoto, ages past only horses and your feet could trot the sacred mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Kodo means pilgrimage or a spiritual trail, and today the unmotorised passage is in some way the leftover of the ages long gone. There are countless “kodos” in Japan, with an overstretched history reaching past thousands of years, but Kumano Kodo is the essence of Japanism. All the grand emperors wandered up, around and down the ghastly mountain passes, some trumping their fit predecessors crossing with their comfort ensuring suite the entire trail dozen times. Their phenomenal accomplishments, battered with frequent rain spells, were engraved in the honourable stone tablet facing the colourfully restored trio of buildings at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine. Three milestones mark the end of the weeks lasting pilgrimage – the three Shinto shrines:  Kumano Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha (known for the tallest waterfall in Japan – Nachi-no-Otaki drops down from 133 meters). I have explored two of them, one deep inland, the other near the Pacific ocean, keeping the more easily accessible waterfall in the shroud of mystery to motivate me coming back.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Split in two, our seven kilometres long walk embarked from a verdant hamlet to the Kumano Kodo Hongu Taisha, then a car cut our journey to the Pacific side Hayatama Taisha where we just reverently wandered around the colourful shrines. It was late April, Wednesday, yet the midweek pilgrims mushroomed on the trails. The foreigners (mostly Australians) were hiking in the forest, while the Japanese on buses and in cars parked themselves right in front of the saintly shrines, bowing, clapping and bowing again, purchasing good luck amulets and taking group photos. More than the usual shrine traffic, the forest rewarded the mind with a spiritual boost, caressing your thoughts with a flow of gentle strokes, allowing thus for a deeper insight into one’s life. I began to identify with the ‘nature is God’ religion of the Japanese. Trotting through the bamboo groves and the spring spikes of their young shoots, the refreshing and sturdy sugi cedar forests, spotting the lower than me fiddlehead ferns, seahorse curled zenmai and the fens of the ostrich fern kogomi, mugwort known locally as yomogi, the unfamiliar cute nomenclature of the Japanese flora that sounds so exotic in restaurants (especially in the laborious kaiseki meal) softened up on me, settling like a butterfly friendly in my memory as the origin met the product served to me by nature.

Japanese cultureHonesty stands

Yet the Japanese today have a love hate relationship with the oldest sugi tree survivor. Cryptomeria japonica, often called Japanese cedar in English, triggers an annual allergy epidemic throughout the country. In spring, the pollen tickles the sinuses of a fifth of the population. As my first visit of spring Japan revealed, sneezing and watery eyes penetrate the densely populated cities. The hay fever, known as kafunshō, troubles the new generations so much that new pollen-free species replant the predecessors. In 2007, Toyama Prefecture’s Forestry Research Institute christened the first of the engineered species Haruyokoi, which means welcome, spring. The over two millennia old (some scientist believe as much as 5000 years old!) jomon sugi on Kyushu are designated as UNESCO World Heritage together with the younger, millennials only, yaku sugi. Trees, the lungs of the green Planet, like the cedar forests in Lebanon, they survived wars, centuries, and now the changing climate commiserated by our convenient activities, are not having their greatest moment on Earth. In his best-selling book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohllleben (his surname means “living entirely, wholesomely”) suggests the communication and the feelings shared between trees in a native, wild forest, trekking the Kumano Kodo offers to any sensitive human an opportunity to listen, to participate in this talk of trees. Then, perhaps, your relationship with them and the entire cycle of nature will change for ever.

sugi Japanese Cedar trees

Japanese Cedar trees knows as sugi

The ethereal spirit in the Japanese forest offers itself freely with each straddle of your urbanised feet. The sacred is found in nature, and shintoism is a folklore, the core of the Japanese culture. The divine “kami” gushes through the veins of / surrounds you in trees, rivers, waterfalls, boulders, animals and certain holy places. Kumano Kodo hives countless kami in its vast precinct, and you recognise them by shimenawa, a rope twisted around their usually vast circumference. Jizo, a stone carved boddhisatva dressed in a mossy coat, often with a red bib, guards your journey. You do not just get lost, but if you pray or leave him some gift (5 yen secures good relationships), it protects children and travellers, and is tended mostly by women who lost their child. There are treacherous pests in the nature here to be shielded from. Venomous snakes like the Mamushi or the aggressive Suzumebachi hornet like demons can usurp your life. The smart wiki warns that it is more painful to humans than typical wasp stings because hornet venom contains a large amount (5%) of acetylcholine”. For some their sting can be deadly, so checking the first aid instructions ahead and call 119 for multi-lingual assistance in the case of emergency.

Kumano KodoShinto cleanliness

As a symbolic act of inner purification in the Shinto philosophy, all sacred places are heralded with an addendum of a washing basin or a well. Wooden or tin ladles gather the living essence of nature to clean one’s mouth, then both hands (left first) ending with the rinse of the holder with respect to others. Japanese ceramic cups as a courtesy to fellow trekkers nest nearby the wells with drinking water. Alongside the Kumano Kodo hundreds of such washing rituals take place as you wander past the soon familiar statuettes of Jizo. Goohoin, an evil warding amulet also known as Goshimu that keeps you safe, you hope. The shrines and historically significant spots like the Fushiogami-oji view that rewards the pilgrim with the first glimpse of Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine. Here, pilgrims fall on their knees and pray, well they did, as now it is more photographing and posting online by the foreign visitors who boost their achievements in an instant. This verdant hilltop is where a legendary female poet, Izumi Shikibu, who walked the Kumano Kodo trail, got her period prior to entering the shrine, distressed she wrote a poem about her curse of impurity.

Beneath unclear skies,

my body obscured by drifting clouds,

I am saddened that

my monthly obstruction has begun.

The tale ends happily as the Kumano deity appeared and allowed her entering “impure”, in replying: How could the god who mingles with the dust suffer because of your monthly obstruction?

Kumano KodoJapanese forest

There is a legend about almost any boulder, notable tree or view point. Kumano Kodo is welcoming to any open soul as well as to the plainly curious traveler. Honesty stands offer food for a small fee, shaded from the sun and the frequent rain spells. Replenish your bodily energy with local honey, oranges, tangerines, nuts, pickled umeboshi plums, and other seasonal bounty. I wondered how anyone can make money from this, and my guide responded with a chuckle, widening her narrow eyes. This is Japan, hardly anyone would steal or not pay the exact amount. In contrast, high moral values do not necessarily apply to eco-consciousness since almost every edible item for sale was sealed in plastic, the environmental plague that has haunted the overtly sanitary Japan for decades.

equalitysugi Japanese Cedar trees

Compact tea plantations surround the inhabited settlements. Most of the green and whitish tips are for family use only, but some of these precious high mountain teas are commercially sold and offered at the tea houses along the route. We lingered with an elderly lady vendor selling wild asparagus that my guide Kimi loves so she purchased some, her backpack being large enough for souvenirs. I was offered to sample her various pickled concoctions with the ume plum, a local specialty, pickled with vinegar into pinkish umeboshi. Sealed tightly, they survive any journey. Mine grappled with the inflight altitude multiple times on my way back to Europe.

wild asparagusumeboshi

Our walk was nearing the end. Once more, I was struck with a renewed wonder, even joy from witnessing the human devotion to the spirit of nature that found its ambiguous shelter enveloped in massive, ancient camphor trees. Entering to the Hongu shinto shrine through a Torii gate, that like a door into one’s house separates the common, ordinary space from the sacred, clean, lovingly tended shrine of intimacy, we left the wild for the human world. For a small sum you can purchase a wish plaque called Ema to bribe the deities. Compared to the original offering of horses in the past, the picturesque objects sold conveniently in the vicinity of each of the grand shrines were indeed just nickels. Superstition is an Eastern toy, so Omamori, yet another evil-sparing amulet can be customised to your needed area of protection, but I did not buy into trinkets. After washing my sweaty hands, I am bowing twice, deeply, ringing the bell, again twice, offering coins, clap, clap, and bow once more. Humility and worship (a bounce of the dangling bell, incense lit and prayer recited) is mandatory at each shrine, so respect the believers and play along, arigato!

Kumano KodoKumano Hongu Taisha

Ever since the UNESCO recognition, Kumano Kodo ceased to be the gateway to a thoroughly undisturbed solitude as it once was. It is more social today. The meditative spirit of the forest is being wrestled out through the abounding human presence as the loud voices in groups enter the sacred land it still is for the Japanese. Still, some days you may be alone.

Traveling to new destinations enlightens us, but there are some journeys that inspire deeper, mind-changing thoughts. They are the wells of contemplation. In the Japanese forest you will explore silence and the charm of simplicity, that allows for happiness to settle in your life. And not last, abide by the pilgrimage etiquette, which besides the cleanliness and respect instructs you to “greet others with a smile and warm heart”. A happy trail.

UNESCO World Heritagebamboo forest

Practical advice: It rains a lot on the region, therefore a waterproof jacket, shoes and a foldable umbrella will comfort any weary hiker. An English speaking guide can cost as much as 48,000 JPY (I booked through my hotel AMANEMU that is about four hours drive from the nearest hiking spot). The signage is bilingual in English and Japanese. Like along the Camino de Santiago, the Christian pilgrimage and the only other UNESCO protected trail, the frequent stamp stands along the Kumano Kodo validate your presence in your pilgrimage “passport”. Further, the walkways of Kumano Kodo are well tended, and approachable to any level of fitness. The water in the natural sources along the route has not been tested, and is inadvisable for thirsty human mouths, so hydrate well at the numerous inns and refreshment stands.