Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.
Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough.read more
How in God’s Name did I hear about this virtually unknown trail, the Kumano Kodo?
Well, I first stumbled upon this off-the-beaten-path pilgrimage when I worked for the Japanese government and found this photo on a pamphlet:
Something about it captivated me. Maybe it was the bizarre costume/pilgrimage outfit that is so ancient, even my knowledge from four years of Japanese language and culture classes left me in the dark. Perhaps the fact that it was one of only two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world appealed to me, and I was dying to check ‘pilgrimage’ off the bucket list.
Either way, I knew my next trip to Japan would definitely have Kumano Kodo in the itinerary.
Two years later….
I was planning a trip to Japan and the brochure came back to mind. I spent hours, no, perhaps weeks planning Kumano Kodo because it was very hard to find information online. I was hoping I would stumble on some travel blog that would give me advice on how to do Kumano Kodo, but instead all I could find was this Australian travel company that offers Kumano Kodo tours for 8,000 dollars. Madness. (And trust me, you do NOT need 8 grand to do this hike).
After a one-hour train ride from Osaka and a bus ride from the city of Kii-Tanabe, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. Rice fields and mountains as far as the eye can see. No other sign of humanity.
We blindly walked into the forest and, from the look of the trees, I knew I just stumbled into that brochure I picked up two years ago from the sheer amount of cedars in every direction. We definitely made it on the trail.
The Japanese countryside is truly a treasure. Whenever I step into these fairy tail villages nestled in the hillsides, I’m struck with such adoration and envy of the Japanese people. Kumano Kodo is filled with communities speckled into the picturesque countryside alongside rice paddies and filled with houses that probably haven’t changed much since the first pilgrims passed through here in 700 BC. The locals farm, plant rice, drink barley tea in the hot afternoon sun, laugh, gossip and, quite frankly, enjoy life and make me jealous.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just live the simple life? I thought, as I stared out into to the cascade of mountains blanketed in trees. What if I could wake up to this everyday? Forget about getting a job, moving up the corporate ladder and achieving fame—I just need these trees, this fresh air, nature and a small community. Now that’s the life.
A Tough Hike, But With Damn Fine Dining
Kumano Kodo was brutal. Basically, we hiked from the east end of Wakayama Prefecture to the west end of it. This 25 plus mile hike through the Kii Mountain Range is not for the faint of heart! We hiked 8 hours, non-stop, for three days straight… and it hurt. Oh god, did it hurt.
Japanese hospitality and service also didn’t fail to impress me on our humble pilgrimage. Instead of camping we lodged at minshuku, which are small bed and breakfast type joints run by the locals to accommodate pilgrimage hikers. The service blew me away and often times went above and beyond what I receive at many 4-5 star hotels. The old couples running the minshuku asked us what time we wanted breakfast and dinner so they could make it fresh. They provided maps in English and drove us to nearby trailheads. The boisterous grandma sent us out the door with a handful of chocolate and a big smile on her face.
And the food. Oh my god. The local minshuku owners cooked up fresh fish caught the day of, served us vegetables from their own garden and rice harvested from their fields. I ate like a king.
When I reached the end of the pilgrimage and exited the forest of eternal cedars, I felt like I had discovered another part of Japan and, really, a new part of myself. In Shinto tradition, I walked up to the Hongu shrine altar, threw in a coin, bowed, clapped twice and bowed again.
Although I’m not religious (raised Catholic, but I’m a terrible one), there is something about the Shinto religion that makes me feel at peace with the world. To believe in Shinto means to worship nature and the land of Japan itself. Just as monks and emperors had done for thousands of years past, I ventured into Japan’s holy land and stood at the same place they did so long ago to offer my prayers and gratitude. I was keeping the tradition alive.
I visited all three of the holy Kumano Sanzan Shrines that mark the end of the pilgrimage, with Nachi Taisha, the big, red-lacquered one with the jaw-dropping 133-meter tall waterfall backdrop, being my personal favorite.
As I hiked the Kumano Kodo and visited the shrines, I felt a deep respect for the Japanese people. Despite the industrial revolution and the change that modern age brings, the Kumano region and the traditions they practice are still just as intact as they were thousands of years ago. The island on the Kumano River that Amaterasu (the Zeus of Shintoism) supposedly stepped on to create the world, is still so holy no one has been allowed on it EVER. The fire festival, the boat festival, and all festivals in honor of the gods are still performed by the local Kumano community on an annual basis.
I’ve been a lot of places in Japan (Nagano, Niigata, Hiroshima, Takamatsu—I mean, the list goes on and on), but Kumano Kodo really hit me in an unexpected way. Julia Roberts may go to Bali (and hey, maybe my younger self too) for her Eat, Pray, Love moment; but instead, perhaps, those lost souls should go through Kumano Kodo for answers to all of life’s hard questions. Nothing makes you more grounded than walking a silent trail filled with cedars, bubbling brooks, bright green moss, a sea of mountains—and the Japanese gods watching over you.
Boyfriend and I voted Kumano Kodo the best destination of our Japan trip. It’s peaceful, genuine, filled with stunning nature and almost void of tourists—what more can you ask for?
The Kumano Board of Tourism does an EXCELLENT job of giving advice to prospective travelers, as well as assists foreigners in booking local minshuku accommodations (filling in for that language barrier, god bless!). Even with their help, though, I had a difficult time planning the trip and will write a ‘how-to’ post later for the very small sliver of people that plan on doing this epic hike.
Also, if you’re keen to learn more about Shintoism, check out Buri-chan’s original manga adaptation of the Kojiki! It’s AMAZING! The Kojiki is the oldest text in Japanese history, supposedly written in 600 BC, and is the creation story of Japan itself—Greek god style.
Ah, March. The prelude to Spring. The light at the end of a long winter tunnel.
Or in Japan, it’s the start of one of the most prized occasions of the year:
Cherry Blossom Season.
Whatever high expectation you have for watching cherry blossoms in Japan (or better known as ‘hanami,‘ which literally means ‘watch flowers’ 花見), Japan will not disappoint on this front. It’s a magical experience.
While many tourists envision their hanami experience like an anime opening (think wind blowing in your hair as sakura petals brush past your skin), the reality may differ somewhat. To get the kind of hanami experience you’re dreaming of, it involves more than hopping on a plane and finding a sakura tree–it will take a whole ‘lotta planning.
For optimal hanami-ing, make sure you plan and prepare well.
Time Your Hanami Accordingly
As the famous Japanese poet Basho said:
“Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.
From among the peach trees
the first cherry blossoms.”
While it’s a beautiful haiku, we have to remember the key words in here: very brief.
The sakura only bloom for 1-2 weeks. This means that you only have a 2 week window to fly into Japan and view these fleeting beauties. It’s no surprise that the sakura are always alluded to in Japanese poetry as a symbol of transience–because these flowers disappear, and they do it fast.
The sakura bloom at different times across the country, starting from the bottom (Kyushu and Kyoto blooms as early as the first week of March) and ending at the top (blooms are sighted in the first week of May in Hokkaido).
Lucky for us, the Japanese prepare a Sakura bloom forecast every year to help better plan our hanami activities. The forecast for 2016 is already up and you can find it here on Japan’s official travel homepage.
2. Choose a Cherry Tree Park
There’s a bazillion Cherry Blossom viewing spots across Japan, (really, look at this long list), but most people will usually flock to Tokyo and Kyoto to hanami.
One of the most popular destinations in Tokyo is Ueno Park near Ueno Station, which has long walkways of over 1,200 sakura trees as well as food stalls and other activities going on throughout the day.
One of them is in my home prefecture of Niigata at Takeda castle. I wrote a post last year about how seeing the cherry blossoms in Niigata isn’t only less crowded and more beautiful, but it can save you money on expensive lodgings and help introduce travelers to the “real” Japan hidden beneath Tokyo and Kyoto.
Didn’t think you could view sakura at night, did you? Did you know that there’s even a word for this activity?
Yozakura, or viewing the cherry blossoms at night, is a must. I didn’t even know this was a thing until I moved to Japan and realized that sakura night viewing is just as beautiful, or in some cases even more enchanting, than the daytime counterpart.
One of the up-sides to yozakura is the drop in crowds and the serenity of the evening. The cool night breeze, the moonlight draping over the fresh cherry blossoms and the stars shining in the sky will give you the ultimate Japan experience (plus, the food stalls aren’t as crowded, woo-hoo!).
Space is limited under those sakura trees, and punches will be thrown for that prime real estate.
To snag a rare patch of grass (or better yet, send a friend to go and hold your spot) head out early with a large tarp and a few foldable chairs. Whatever area your tarp (and chairs) cover is yours for the day, so as long as one person is out there with a tarp in hand, you should be safe.
Finding a quiet patch of grass near a sakura tree in Tokyo and Kyoto are extra difficult to secure, so plan accordingly to make your picnic under the blossoms a reality.
5. Sit, Eat and Get Drunk
The first time I viewed the cherry blossoms, I wasn’t blown away by the pure beauty of the flowers alone.
No, my culture shock came with just how piss drunk all the Japanese people around me were.
When you walk through a seemingly serene park of cherry blossoms, be aware of the drunks underneath the trees. Teenagers, salarymen, family members–you name it, and they’re probably knocking a few shots of sake back while enjoying the sakura. Whether the Japanese are excited about the cherry blossoms, elated at the return of Spring or just looking for an excuse to get hammered, they really know how to get sloshed and have a good time when they hanami.
The Japanese love to picnic underneath the sakura. In addition to drinking copious amounts of alcohol, they will also bring bento boxes and snacks to last the entire day while they gaze at the flowers. It’s a fun-filled day to bring friends, get some food (sometimes even set up BBQ), crack open a beer and enjoy perfect weather with the perfect flower. And who knows, maybe if you’re lucky enough a drunk hanami group might invite you into their group for some free food (and booze!).
If you’re in Japan and looking to hanami, follow the five steps above and you’re sure to have an unforgettable sakura experience!