I often travel alone….I like to go when I wanna go and for as long as possible without constraints! Sure others are invited, but not always. Mostly because I enjoy the time alone, don’t have to worry if my travel companion is having fun, and can come and go as I please.
In an effort to try something new and off the beaten path, I decided to do a multi-day trek in Japan on my own. I’d only been to Japan once before. My ex and I stayed in Tokyo for a few days, several years ago, and loved every minute of it. Tokyo is now my second favorite city outside of New York!
The Planning Phase
I had NO idea where to begin looking, all I knew is I wanted to see the Japanese countryside. After a day or two of reviewing results of a few google searches, I selected the Kumano Kodo “Walk” where you hike from Inn to Inn and visit shrines along the way – honestly, I didn’t read too much about it – thought it was a simple multi-day trip in the country – the pictures looked pretty and saw the words “remote” and “mystical”. The Kumano Kodo is in the Kii Peninsula South of Kyoto and Osaka – that is pretty much all I knew about the trip when I put down my deposit.
As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am in to self-guided hikes these days. I don’t have the time to find lodging and reserve it, or map out the best hiking route. I found Oku Japan to help with the planning – highly recommend as they did a great job with it. They were very responsive, organized, and proactively kept in touch with me throughout the planning and preparation process. They also transported my stuff every day along the route , so I didn’t have to slog around with it on my back. Huge plus!
The trip I booked was a 5 day, 4 night walk on the Nakahechi route. There are various options you can take, this one just happened to match my travel schedule.
Even though I had the whole 5 days planned for me, the time leading up to the departure was extremely stressful due to one word – FEAR. Fear of what, I am not exactly sure, death maybe? Losing a limb? I have never experienced such anxiety in my life. I prepared a will, spent time with all my beloved friends and animals, and got a bunch of repairs done on the house. This kind of anxiety prior to travel has never been an issue. Weird. Maybe this is what happens after age 50?? All of a sudden, mortality becomes a real thing!
The Language Barrier and Train Navigation
Fast forward 6 months and I arrive in Tokyo – it was instant angst and over-stimulation! The selected mode of transportation to Kyoto was the bullet train. Navigating the train station nearly put me over the edge! Signs are in Japanese, very few people speak English (or so I thought), and there are thousands of people everywhere. I went to the wrong platform and had a fear of missing my train….fear, fear, and more fear – that’s all I could feel for weeks/months! ICK.
I finally caught my breath and found a train station attendant. You can’t carry on a conversation with them, but they do speak enough English to help you navigate the train system. Once I figured that out, navigating the trains was a piece of cake. (By the way, the bullet trains are super cool on the outside, but the inside was nothing remarkable.)
The people of Japan are amazing. I asked for help many times, using one or two Japanese phrases (poorly) – they didn’t laugh hysterically (and they could have!) and always helped when they could. I felt incredibly safe and welcome the entire time I was there.
The Walk Starts
After spending the night in Kyoto, I made my way over to the start of the walk in Kii-Tanabe via yet another train. It was quite an adventure getting to the start, however, the instructions from Oku Japan were very detailed. They provided pictures of landmarks, bus schedules, trail maps, contact information, etc. You can’t miss a thing with their guidance! Here’s an example of an itinerary…
From Kii-Tanabe, the walking began. Again, there is that word “walking”. Let me just state that walking in this context means walking straight up for many miles, on mostly stone steps!! There are very few switchbacks. In the end, I ascended about 3,000 feet over the course of 5 days of hiking.
The start time in the morning was either 7:00 or 8:00 every day and finished anywhere from 3:00 to 5:00 depending on the day. The average mileage was about 5 to 7 miles per day, with the exception of the 18 miler – I decided to take the long route which was supposed to be 15….UGH. Breakfast that day was fruit, a hard boiled egg and some toast (see below)….pretty much sweat that out by mile 2!
After a few hours of hiking along a VERY well marked trail, I began to realize this was a special place. So special, that emperors from Kyoto and Osaka used to make this pilgrimage in the 10th Century! Over 1,000 years ago! The Kii Peninsula, is considered sacred in Japan and serves as the entrance to their afterworld. There is a mixture of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples along the way, each with their own story.
It turns out, the Kumano Kodo is the Japanese equivalent of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France. These two trails are the only two in the world with World Heritage status. (Don’t ask me how I missed this part of the research).
The whole experience was surreal as the trail was nearly empty. I literally spent hours and hours by myself in the middle of no-where in Japan. THAT is truly special given the population and number of tourists who visit every year.
The walk itself surfaced every type of emotion you can imagine. The feelings of fear disappeared and I felt totally at peace! Phew. It took a while. I had plenty of time to feel gratitude, mourn relationships past, be present in the moment, and self reflect on my successes and failures.
Over the course of the 5 days, I took 6 trains, 3 buses, 4 taxis, and hiked 35 miles! It sounds like it could have been stressful, but with detailed instructions it was soooo easy. It felt like a true pilgrimage of a modern kind with better shoes. I can’t imagine taking this on in wooden or straw sandals and in a KIMONO. I probably would have tripped on the fabric and cracked my skull! lol.
The inns themselves were all very simple and clean. I slept in an actual bed for one night, the rest were the standard futons on the floor. That could have been the most challenging part of trip after a long day of hiking – lifting myself off the floor in the morning. Oh wait, no, for me it was the bathing situation that got me! I’ll take pain and suffering all day long.
The Bathing Situation
For someone who is incredibly modest, this is the WORST possible situation ever. The image below represents the “shower”. Take a look at those stools. I am a tall woman (5’10”) so when I sat down on them, my knees were in my armpits. I felt like a monkey!! By the end of the trip, I said “screw it”, I’ll never see these people again and let it all hang out.
Some of the best parts of the trip were the onsens or natural hot spring baths that were in every Inn along the way. Nice way to end the day with a hot soak to soothe some tired legs and feet.
The food was excellent if you enjoy sushi and are open to trying things you can’t identify! Only one place had chewy, fishy tasting sushi (not the good tasting fish). UGH. Nothing worse. The image below represents one of the more interesting breakfasts I had – it was fantastic. This particular Inn in Takahara had some amazing views and the best food of the entire trip.
Views Along the Way
The entire trip was sooo beautiful. Every hour on the trail brought forth something to see, be it a tree taller then the last, a white frog, an unexpected vista, or a sacred Shrine. It exceeded all of my expectations and more. Here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!!
All in all, this was truly an unexpected trip of a lifetime. One I am incredibly blessed to have experienced. Perhaps not knowing the details of the trip, allowed me to appreciate it a little more and develop my own spiritual experience without any preconceived ideas.
If you are nervous about taking on a trip like this on your own, don’t be. Japan is one of the best places for females to travel solo. I was fortunate to meet a few cool people along the way too, one who will be a friend for life.
Cheers to those who completed the pilgrimage 1,000 years ago and to those who passed away along the route. May those of you who take on the challenge in the future love it as much as I did.