Lone Pilgrim On The Kumano Kodo
On my second day in Kumano Kodo, I came across an unsettling sight nestled into the mountain ridge: a moss-choked shrine to Jizo, the guardian of travelers. This spot in Kumano Kodo marked the place where, in 1854, locals had come across the corpse of a lone pilgrim.
The mossy Jizo reminded me just how alone I was. I’m not easily spooked but the day had been against me from the start, with the torrential downpour that kept every other sensible hiker indoors except for myself.
I’d spent about an hour and a half trudging alone before I came across the Jizo. The Kumano Kodo is lined with shrines, from the simple to the ornate, but this was the first I’d seen that marked someone’s passing. On top of that, the Jizo appeared to block one of the trail’s painfully narrow passes, just about a foot wide. One wrong step would drop me 1,000 feet down the slope of a forest canopy. One of the guidebooks I’d read at the guesthouse in Tanabe had warned that the trail becomes dangerously narrow in parts and tricky to navigate in wet conditions. Check and check.
Unlike this unnamed man, memorialized in stone, I wasn’t a pilgrim in the traditional sense. I was just a hiker who had been drawn to Kumano because of its beauty. The pilgrim route is located in the Kii Peninsula south of Kyoto, a wild and rugged mountain wilderness that for centuries had drawn mystics, aesthetics and pilgrims looking to escape the material world.
Today, the “wild” and “rugged” of the peninsula are synonymous with natural splendor. The Kumano is a land of quiet trails, hidden shrines and lovely waterfalls. It’s one of the rare places where humans have left an imprint on nature that is harmonious rather than intrusive. Shrine temples blend with the forest while Jizos carved from mountain rock wait patiently to be reclaimed by wilderness.
But the peninsula’s beauty wasn’t what had drawn early mystics and pilgrims. For them, the wilderness had been a place of constant danger.
Kumano refers to a network of trails connecting three Grand Shrines important to Japan’s syncretic Shinto/Buddhist tradition. All trails traverse heavy forest and steep mountain ridges, and many early pilgrims would have set out on foot for a round-trip journey from Kyoto, Ise or Koyasan. The journey would have taken weeks, if not months. Aristocrats and royals looking to earn karma points for their next lives would have made the journey with the aid of guides and perhaps an entourage. For the not-so-affluent, the journey would have been far more lonely. How easy it would be to lose the trail and get swept up in a sudden shower or fog.
For me, the hike was far less treacherous and much shorter. Only two of the Grand Shrines — at Hongu and Nachi — are still accessible on foot, for a total journey of about 40 miles. Hikers begin the journey in Tanabe where they catch a bus to the trailhead at Takijiri-oji shrine for what is at most a 5-day trek along the Nakahechi Route, or “royal road”, made popular by long-ago nobles. Hikers reach Hongu by the end of the third day and Nachi at the end of the fifth. The trail is maintained by the local Kumano Tourism Bureau, and a network of guesthouses interspersed in the peninsula’s mountain villages provide home-cooked meals and shelter to hikers.
But the dangers are still very real. Although I could be reasonably sure I wouldn’t die, serious injury wasn’t out of the question. I started that morning from the village of Takahara, and I’d been warned by just about everyone at the guesthouse that hiking in the rain was “Not good.” I met only one other hiker there, a Kyoto-born woman named Azusa, who had briefly considered hiking out with me that morning until we stepped outside. Azusa had decided to catch a bus to the next village. I continued alone.
I regretted the decision almost immediately, with the trail starting out as a steep climb out of Takahara over a mountain ridge. Because of the rain, the trail had turned into a tiny, swirling torrent of mud that soaked right through the running shoes I’d foolishly chosen instead of more sturdy hiking boots. I could feel the water sloshing through my socks with each step, while the trash bag I’d shrouded my pack in did little to keep it dry.
After about 45 minutes in which I’d somehow ascended 3 1/2 miles, I came to the first bright spot, metaphorically speaking. I arrived at the first landmark on my map, the Jyuten-oji shrine, where a nearby sign informed me that the court writer, Fujiwara Munetada, had stopped here on a rainy day in 1109. I knew nothing about Fujiwara Munetada, but the fact that he had hiked this route in the rain suddenly made him feel like a kindred spirit.
But Fujiwara Munetada had been a court writer, not some anonymous pilgrim like the one whose passing was marked by the Jizo I came to only 20 minutes after passing Jyuten-oji. According to a sign the Kumano Tourism Bureau had placed near the shrine, the man had likely died of starvation, a common way for the lone pilgrim to go.
Kumano is steeped in legend and in tragedy. In Japanese mythology, it’s the land of death. The Japanese creator god, Izanami, was buried here after dying in childbirth. Her lover, Izanagi, traveled Orpheus-style to the Kii Peninsula in order to retrieve her. However, upon seeing her animated but putrefied corpse he fled in terror.
Life and death are rarely separated easily, as the still-animated Izanami can attest to. The notion of pilgrimage is rooted symbolically in death, with the pilgrim removing herself from the physical world in order to journey spiritually to the next. As Buddhism evolved in Japan, Kumano became associated with the Pure Land, the equivalent of paradise that one reaches after achieving some level of enlightenment. Pilgrims who journeyed to the shrines at Kumano would symbolically die, only to be symbolically reborn.
The need for symbolic rebirth outweighed the fear of actual death. Physical death couldn’t be all that tragic if one’s spirit lived on. And in Kumano, spirits lived on in the creepiest ways possible.
Many of these tales are chronicled by the Heian-era monk, Kyokai. His Miraculous Tales of the Japanese Buddhist Tradition includes legends of monks and other aesthetics lost to the forests of Kumano. Pilgrims would report hearing sutra-chanting voices that, despite thorough searching, always proved disembodied. In a grisly twist, those recovered were found in the skeletal state, all bone except for still-fresh tongues, endlessly chanting the devote monks’ sutras.
There are happier legends too, ones that don’t involve the demise of lone pilgrims. In some instances, lost pilgrims have reported spirit guides, usually in the form of animals, who see them safely to their destination. The most famous example is the Yatagarasu, a three-legged crow who according to legend guided the first emperor, Jimmu, through the forests of Kumano. But even this pleasing story has a tragic element: After guiding the emperor safely, the Yatagarasu died at Hongu. (The “happier” version has the little crow turn to stone.)
Perhaps more than hiking in the rain, what I regretted on the narrow Jizo pass was that I’d read these miraculous tales. Certainly, the rain didn’t help matters. It made the forest both more striking, but also more lonely and sinister. I heard only my own footsteps and the persistent splatter of rain on leaves. In the rain, it was easy to imagine Kumano as a place not controlled by our physical reality but by a spiritual one instead, where animal guides materialized and corpses sang.
Matters got more spooky when I reached the highest point on the day’s hike, the remains of the Udawawa-jaya Teahouse. At one time, teahouses were popular throughout Kumano, providing food and shelter for weary pilgrims. Most have been reduced to scattered stones but Uwadawa-jaya hadn’t even retained this much.
All that remained was the flattened patch of dirt where the teahouse had once stood and a sign informing hikers of its existence. Additionally, according to the sign, a grave site was somewhere nearby, a final resting place for those “without direct descendants.” In a culture like Japan’s, which places a high value on family, I took this as code for people who were pretty much on their own.
I rested for a bit at the former teahouse, taking pictures and wondering if it would be silly to try and locate the grave site, if it was even marked. By this time, the rain-heavy clouds had dropped into the forest canopy, reducing visibility to the immediate tree line.
For a terrible moment, I lost the trail. It could have been toward that cluster of barely visible trees, or maybe it was toward this cluster, instead. If I’d been in a movie, I was pretty sure this was where the long-haired yurei would come out of the fog and drag me into some hell dimension. No Pure Land for cynics like me.
Fortunately, weather on the peninsula changes quickly and the fog soon dispersed. I scurried toward the path and flew down the ridge as quickly as my rain-soaked sneakers would let me. I didn’t stop again until I reached the village of Chikatsuyu. I ate a quick lunch of banana and granola under the shelter of a rest stop before slipping back into my rain gear for the final hour’s hike to the Nonaka natural springs, where I’d booked a guesthouse for the night.
The trail to Nonaka followed the main road where I frequently passed through villages. I no longer had to contend with sad and lonely stretches but I was oddly less comfortable than I’d been in the forest. I wasn’t alone, exactly, but I was now exposed to the full force of the rain. I no longer had to worry about fog, or broken ankles, or even ghost monks but I was so close to the end of the day’s trek that I just wanted it to be over. In comparison, the fear of speeding cars seemed rather pedestrian.
I was the only American — in fact, the only foreign guest — at the Minshuku Tsugizakura guesthouse, which was run by the amicable Mr. And Mrs. Yuba. Staying there too were seven friends from Tanabe who had escaped the city for a weekend in the country.
We were to dine together for the evening’s meal, even if all the other guests knew each other and none of them knew me. We enjoyed an eight-course feast prepared by Mr. Yuba: bamboo tempura, pumpkin tofu, fresh cod, smoked salmon, sashimi and creamy au gratin. The seven friends had selected Minshuka Tsugizajura specifically because of Mr. Yuba’s cooking; he trained as a professional chef both in Japan and abroad.
Now, he and his wife ran their home as a guesthouse for travelers, although at that time of year I was the only guest hiking Kumano. The friends were there specifically for a country weekend of rest and relaxation. Because I was an American, I was something of a novelty. Throughout the meal, I was frequently a topic of conversation.
Which state was I from? one asked.
“Boston! Lobsters!” The man who asked mimed pincers with his chopsticks.
Since only a few of my fellow diners spoke limited English, and I didn’t speak Japanese, this was about the extent of our exchanges. The woman to my immediate left tried showing me, unsuccessfully, how to properly use chopsticks. If she caught me looking out the window at the fog-strewn mountains, she would smile.
Or, if we were both sampling the same food, “Delicious!”
When she noticed I was the only one not drinking sake, she asked me if I would like a glass. “Do you like sak-ay?”
“I love sake,” I said, although I pronounced it “sak-ee”.
This caused the group to erupt in laughter. “Sak-ay!” the woman repeated. Echoes of “sak-ee!” bounced down the table.
Near the end of the meal, one of the guests asked me what had brought me to Japan. “I’m walking the Kumano Kodo.”
They all were surprised. The women’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “Alone?” one asked.
“You feel safe, alone?”
I hadn’t felt safe that day, and having them ask that question made me wonder just how reckless my adventure was. Yet in spite of the slippery rocks, the ghost trees, long-dead pilgrims and bouts of anxiety, I had made the full day’s trek without incident. The next day, I’d reach Hongu, also without incident, under clear skies and high humidity. Two days later, I’d reach Nachi after another morning’s hike through heavy rain.
No, I wasn’t a pilgrim in the traditional sense. I was just a hiker out for a walk in a beautiful place.
But I’d like to think I can understand the purpose those lone pilgrims faced when they set into the same wilderness centuries before. Perhaps they went not because they weren’t afraid; perhaps they went, alone and exposed, in spite of their fears, ready to accept whatever came their way. No questions to answer, no questions to ask. When alone, we only have to answer to ourselves.
Robin Kish is a freelance writer and avid traveler whose work has appeared in GoNomad, The Smart Set, and various literary journals. When not hiking ancient pilgrimage trails, she can be found in Quincy, Massachusetts, planning her next adventure. You can visit her website at Robin J Kish, Writer.