Our Asia Specialist Pete tells us about one of the highlights of his recent trip to Japan. Having already ticked off the country’s main highlights on a previous visit, he was eager to escape the usual tourist spots and venture to a lesser-visited part of the country.
Returning to Japan for the second time, I was keen to try and escape the country’s numerous cities as much as possible, and a visit to Mount Koya, along with a couple of days of self-guided walking along the Kumano Kodo Trail, presented me the perfect opportunity to do this. My journey to the region started from the centre of Osaka. After just over a couple of hours on the train and a short cable car ride, I found myself at Koyasan Station and a world away from the bright lights and hustle & bustle of Osaka! After arriving and checking into my shukubo (an authentic temple lodging), I was free to spend the afternoon exploring the area. The choice was fairly straight forward, either explore on foot or hire a bike from the central information centre. I decided on the former. Armed with a guide on the local area, I headed off to Okuno-in, which is an enormous cemetery housing Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re feeling brave there are organised tours arranged through the cemetery at night – I thought this might be a bit eerie, so stuck to a daylight walk.
Beyond Okuno-in, Mount Koya has various other places of interest. The chances are if you have just one afternoon here you may need to decide on where to head. I chose to visit the Garan, which is Mount Koya’s central temple complex, and the Daimon, which is a large gateway that marks the main route into Mount Koya. After exploring it was time to head back to my shukubo – a new accommodation experience awaited. Shukubos are similar to traditional ryokans with their sleeping arrangements and hot springs, but the main difference is that the accommodation is attached to a functioning temple and is run by monks. Food in a shukubo is always vegetarian – shojin ryori – and is very tasty!
Early the next day, before breakfast, I had the chance to head to the temple and witness the monks’ early morning chanting ceremony. Despite the early start, this is a real highlight of the stay in Mount Koya and well worth getting up for. It was then time for me to move on, and as promised, my pre-booked taxi arrived exactly on time ready to transfer me to Kii-Tanabe, the gateway to the Kumano Kodo region. On arrival, I was given a briefing on the trail and came away armed with detailed maps, bus timetables, a booklet to fill with stamps along the way, and a clearer picture of what was to come. First things first, I jumped on the bus to Kawayu Onsen to spend the night ahead of my first day of walking. I stayed in the Fujiya Ryokan, which is in a lovely spot overlooking the river. In winter, the river is transformed into a huge open-air hot spring that can fit up to 1,000 people. If you’re here at this time of year, you will be provided with a bucket and spade to dig your own hot spring!
My adventure on the Kumano Kodo trail began early the next day from Hoshinmon-Oji. One of only two UNESCO-listed pilgrimage routes in the world, the ancient hiking trails of Kumano Kodo have snaked through the Kii Mountain range in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture (around an hour south of Osaka by train) for over 1,000 years. While Japanese pilgrims have walked these trails for centuries, the region has remained largely undiscovered by international visitors, and I was excited to explore an area very much off the tourist trail. The morning’s walk took about three hours, passing through beautiful forests and taking in some of Japan’s most impressive rural scenery. Day one on the trail officially finishes at Kumano Hongu Taisha, which is one of the three most famous shrines on the trail (along with Hayatama and Nachi). However, it’s worth continuing just a short walk further on to Oyu no Hara, home to the largest torii gate in the world, which stands 33 metres tall and dwarfs walkers who pass beneath it. In the afternoon I also managed to tick off Kumano Hayatama Taisha (another of Kumano’s top three shrines), before continuing to Kii-Katsuura to spend the night. This small, sleepy fishing town was my first real glimpse of how impressive Japan’s coastline is. I spent the night at the Nakanoshima Hotel, which is situated on a small island accessed by ferry from the mainland (a journey of just a couple of minutes). Staying in a room with a sea view is quite a novelty in Japan!
The next day was another early start, as I set off to reach the iconic Nachi Falls, Japan’s tallest waterfall. The walk starts with 267 steps through the forest to Kumano Nachi Taisha. Despite being only 8am, it was already over 30 degrees, so I was feeling the effects of this when I reached the shrine, but it was an impressive sight and I was pleased to have now ticked off all three of Kumano Kodo’s most famous shrines. From here it was a short walk round to Nachisan Seiganto-ji, and my first glimpse of the Nachi Falls (this is an iconic photo opportunity as you can see both the shrine and the falls themselves). A further 15 minutes walking brought me to the base of the falls, where I arrived hot and bothered but with a sense of achievement, especially given that many local tourists had bypassed the walk and driven straight to the falls. At an impressive 133 metres, they were certainly a sight to behold.
The time had come to bid farewell to the Kumano Kodo trail, but even the train journey back to Osaka was a treat, as I could admire the rugged coastline the whole way. Despite numerous train
journeys around Japan, nothing had ever taken me this close to the coast!