Kumano Kodo

Hydrothermal hedonism

“Kimochi ii!” exclaims tour guide Motoko Todo, as she sinks slowly below the steaming waters of the Tsuboyu bathhouse. Japanese for “It feels so great!”, these are two words that adventurous tourists may find themselves using on a daily basis if they frequent some of the numerous onsen or hot-spring bathhouses – of Japan’s Kumano Kodo.

Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004, the Kumano Kodo is a meandering network of ancient pilgrimage routes that runs between a series of important shrines. Extending across the lower half of the Kii Peninsula, south of the city of Osaka, these holy trails are serviced by a multitude of wooden ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and hot-spring facilities, and provide access to an incredibly picturesque land of mountains, forests and fast-flowing rivers.

Nestled in the heart of the Kumano region, Tsuboyu is the only hot spring in the world registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An exclusive 30-minute dip in the naturally hot waters of this bijou pool costs around JPY750 (US$9), a price that most consider well worth paying for such a unique and gloriously relaxing experience.

“Soaking your cares away in an onsen is a great way to round off a bout of strenuous hiking,” says Todo. “It rejuvenates aching muscles and is a great time to reflect on the highlights of the day. I try to visit onsen as often as I can, especially when I’ve had a long day on my feet.”

Abode of the gods

Widely regarded as the birthplace of Japanese culture and spirituality, the Kumano region has been held sacred for centuries. Despite its proximity to Japan’s second city, this is still one of the most mystical areas of the country.

“Even today many Japanese refer to this region as the ‘abode of the gods’,” explains Brad Towle, an amiable Canadian expat working for the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau. “The focus of worship here is the Kumano Kodo’s three grand shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha. Each shrine has its origins in the worship of local nature and natural wonders.”

After years of decline and relative obscurity, the award of UNESCO status reinvigorated the Kumano Kodo. Today its serpentine trail network comprises over 300km of well-signposted paths and moss-clad steps, which transport hikers of all abilities through forest and field, village and town. Reaching the three grand shrines may be the ultimate goal, but stopping by at various oji (subsidiary shrines) and viewpoints, and trekking through the Kumano region’s stunning landscapes, is a soul-enriching experience in itself.

“When people think of Japan, they tend to think of bullet trains, towering skyscrapers and overcrowded subways,” says Matt Malcomson, founder of Oku Japan, a UK-headquartered travel agency offering popular guided and self-guided tours throughout Japan. “The idyllic scenery, tranquil shrines and soothing onsen of Kumano naturally come as something of a surprise.”

Spring break

Hot springs are an integral part of Japan, not only in terms of the country’s geographical make-up, but also in the lifestyle of the Japanese. They have long been linked with the Shinto religion and its respect for nature, with pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo frequently using them for purification purposes.

“Onsen are a pillar of Japanese culture combining pleasure and purity,” explains Philip Beech, the Nagoya-based founder of the popular Japan Visitor website. “You can still see this on the Kumano Kodo today, with many visitors to shrines rinsing their mouths and hands before entering.”

Yunomine Onsen is a quaint collection of guesthouses and hot springs nestling in the small Yunomine valley. In the heart of the Kumano region, this is one of the most tranquil and authentic places to sample onsen culture.

“People come to Yunomine because of the healing powers of the hot water,” says Brad Towle. “They bathe in it and breathe in the vapours. They even cook in it.”

Indeed, just down the creek from Tsuboyu is the Yuzutsu public cooking ‘basin’, where locals boil up spinach and bamboo shoots. Onsen tamago – or hot-spring eggs – are a delicacy, and take about 10 minutes of sulphurous steaming. It’s a memorable, cheap and completely carbon-neutral breakfast.

Time-honoured triumvirate

Probably the most popular section of the Kumano Kodo is an 8km trek along the main Nakahechi route. It begins at the Hosshinmon-oji shrine, one of the most important sites on the trail network. Marking the outermost entrance into the divine precincts of Kumano Hongu Taisha, it once bore witness to poetry parties, traditional gagaku (ancient Imperial Court music) dancing and other religious events designed to entertain local deities.

In the past, pilgrims arriving at Kumano Hongu Taisha would travel by boat down the Kumano-gawa River to reach the next grand shrine, the equally striking Kumano Hayatama Taisha, which sits at the confluence of the river and the Pacific Ocean, near Shingu city. From there it is a short walk to the last of the Kumano Kodo’s triumvirate of grand shrines, the Kumano Nachi Taisha.

“I think it’s pretty clear why the Nachi Taisha is situated here,” says local monk Ryoei Takagi with a smile, as he turns towards the Nachi Falls, a 133m-high cascade that forms a hugely impressive backdrop to the shrine. “Through our worship we express our gratitude to the waterfall, for its life energy. We still worship many waterfalls in this area.”

Back to the future

Legs buried deep in soggy mud, Yukimi Nakamine takes a well-earned break from planting rice seedlings in her front garden, which also happens to be a semi-submerged paddy field. It’s a laborious task, but the energetic young Japanese woman isn’t complaining. In fact, she’s relishing life in the Kumano countryside.

“I carried out what we call a ‘U-turn’ in Japan,” she explains with a shy smile. “I left here to move to Osaka about eight years ago, eventually decided that I’d had enough of urban life, and came back to my birthplace.”

Nakamine needs a bountiful harvest of rice to feed the growing number of people staying at Café Bocu, her recently opened café and guesthouse. One of the trails of the Kumano Kodo passes right by her back door.

“It was the increasing number of tourists hiking past that led me to start my business,” says Nakamine. “It’s funny to think that this old path could change my whole life direction.”

Encouraging a mass ‘U-turn’, the development of tourism along the trails of the Kumano Kodo means more and more young urban Japanese are returning to settle in Kumano, injecting the region with fresh lifeblood. With many Japanese rural areas suffering the effects of rapidly ageing populations, this has been vital in reversing social decline.

Shiba Yasuo, an energetic 90-something hat maker, is certainly feeling the benefits of the Kumano Kodo’s renaissance. Yasuo makes minachi-gasa, or traditional conical hats made of cypress tree shavings. Once worn by pilgrims, they are now proving popular as souvenirs and sunhats for hiking.

Yasuo’s simple yet practical headwear is emblematic of a region where the beauty and bounty of nature has long underpinned culture, commerce and spirituality. Thanks to the revival of the Kumano Kodo, a hike here today still offers a transcendent Japanese experience.