Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned Hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji

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Kumano Kodo Iseji: A Transformative Experience

When I began preparing to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, I had no idea what exactly it was I was signing up for.

You can throw around numbers like “14 days” and “170 kilometres”, but these are abstract concepts that don’t do justice to just how transformative a pilgrimage truly is.

No amount of time going over the Kumano Kodo Iseji website could prepare me for what the reality would be.

Over the course of our journey, Adventures Around Asia and I underwent changes that went far deeper than the weight we lost or the photos that filled our SD cards.

Wandering the mist-shrouded mountain passes, the rain-drenched forests, the sleepy villages, and the windswept beaches of Mie Prefecture changed me profoundly.

It’s only after some time back in the hustle and bustle of civilization that I’m able to reflect on my time there with clarity.

Lesson 1: Mie is Unquestionably Beautiful

The sleep still clings to me like a drowsy lover as I drag myself out of bed in the half-light of pre-dawn.

The tick tick tick of our radiator is the only sound save our shuffling steps as we cram scattered clothes into overfull packs.

It’s only day one of our two-week journey along the Kumano Kodo Iseji, but I’m already having my doubts. Do I really want to wake at dawn every morning so I can walk?

Like the dreams that fled at the sound of my alarm, my doubts leave abruptly as I stand on Futami Beach and witness a sunrise that seems to set fire to the ocean even as it brings the land to life.

kumano kodo iseji futami beach sunrise
The sunrise over Futami Beach is worth the 5.45am wake up.

It is said that the pilgrims attempting the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route would bathe in the chill waters of Futamiura to begin their pilgrimage, but we opt for a less jarring introduction to the route.

The ritual of washing our hands, making a donation, bowing, and clapping to let the gods know we are present is something that will accompany us along the length of the Iseji route.

Bowing at a torii gate is something that will become second nature.

By the time we leave our first shrine, I am energised in a way I didn’t think possible before 7 am.

kumano kodo iseji wedded rocks
Each shrine on the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route offers up something unique. These ‘wedded rocks’ caught my eye.

Lesson #2: Shintoism is Alive in Japan

Growing up in the west, religion is something that has always come with a sort of historical weight to it.

Churches, the towering edifices that stand as a tribute to our piety, come with them a sort of stuffy detachment from the world beyond.

When you cross yourself with holy water and cross the threshold, you are in a world of somber worship whose dusty pews, mournful tunes, and weathered priests speak to a religion apart from the people it purports to represent.

As I catch my first glimpse of the Ise Grand Shrine – our starting point for the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route – I am stunned by the contrast.

Here, the hymns are those sung by the birds above and the river in which we wash our hands before worship.

No moth-eaten carpet lines the aisle we walk towards the shrine. Instead, we are warmed by dapples of sun that dance through the branches of trees who seem to bow at our passing.

kumano kodo iseji ise jingu grand shrine
Visitors to Ise Jingu can wash their hands in the river before making their offerings.

While the bowing and clapping at each shrine wear the same solemnity of church services, there’s a sense of life and youth to this that is immediate.

Children wear traditional attire on their 3rd, 5th, and 7th birthdays as they visit the shrines.

Groups of friends or businessmen alternate between cheerful selfies and stone-faced worship.

While many may not hold with the belief that the gods who created Japan genuinely live in the stones and trees around which these shrines are built, there is a sense of warmth and tradition that shrouds these holy places.

This respect for the old ways is evident in many homes, where personal shrines take pride of place and carefully manicured gardens harken back to this unity with the natural world.

Lesson #3: Rural Japan is Stunning

Our first two days along the Kumano Kodo Iseji saw us walking the fringes of busy highways and the quiet neighbourhoods of Ise and Tamuru.

While there’s undoubtedly a certain beauty to the cities and towns of Japan, it was hard to feel like I was on a pilgrimage when buses, trains, and taxis whizzed by in mockery of our slow pace.

The path to Hayatama Taisha, our ultimate goal, is broken up by a number of toge – mountain passes that tested the endurance and the faith of those making the pilgrimage.

Our first such test came at Meki-toge halfway through our second day on the road.

An unassuming mountain of negligible height, it nonetheless acted as a kind of barrier between worlds.

We entered from a busy highway and emerged, some two hours later, into an idyllic rural paradise so far removed from Ise that it was like we’d stepped back in time.

kumano kodo iseji rural meki-toge
The farms of Mie Prefecture are every bit as eye-catching as the mountains and forests.

Like the fairy rings that once whisked travellers out of our world and into another, Meki-toge marked the point in our journey where we were no longer just people walking along the side of a highway.

We were pilgrims.

While Route 45 (the Kumano Highway) would weave in and out of our lives over the coming weeks, Meiki Toge would mark the beginning of a trek more in line with what we’d imagined.

Sun-drenched tea plantations, sleepy farming communities, bubbling streams, and smiling locals were to be our accompaniment as we finished the last kilometres of our second day on the road.

Lesson #4: Ryokan > Hotels

There were to be many highlights from our two-week journey along the Kumano Kodo Iseji, but our nights in locally run ryokan were a balm to us at the end of each day.

As our days got longer and the hiking grew tougher, our ryokan accommodation came to haunt us in much the same way a wavering mirage might taunt a man lost in the desert.

The transition from wooded mountain trails to brightly lit hotels would have been a jarring one, but removing our shoes, soaking in a hot onsen bath, and sleeping on futons spread over tatami matting felt every bit as natural as the dirt paths we trod.

Each ryokan owner greeted us with enthusiasm, cooked up decadent meals, and welcomed us into their homes as if we were a part of the family.

Whether they were asking us about our hometowns, treating us to local delicacies, doing our laundry by hand, or welcoming us into their living room for a meal with them, this feeling of community was every bit as warming as a hot bath and a good night’s sleep.

kumano kodo iseji ryokan breakfast
Utterly spoiled. Ryokan meals are amazing.

Lesson #5: Rain is the Old Enemy

We’d enjoyed good weather for the first four days of our hike, but our fifth dawned with angry skies and a steady fall of rain that urged us to stay in our warm beds.

Of course, that was not an option.

As we set out for our fifth day on the road, the sparking of flint over our shoulders acted to ward off bad luck and to send us on our way. It was at once both a nice gesture and a grim warning about the day to come.

Wearing a motley wardrobe of convenience store wet weather gear and regular clothing, we must have cut grim figures as we navigated our way through muddy forest tracks that were more stream than solid ground.

If our first four days had tested our fitness and our physical endurance, the constant rain and the bone-chilling cold would test our emotional endurance.

kumano kodo iseji kannon-michi-toge
The kiss of the sun is like manna from heaven after the cold rain.

Nisaka-toge and then Tsuzurato-toge were the first World Heritage-listed sections of our hike, but our appreciation of their ancient stone paths and stunning natural beauty were somewhat diminished by the slippery stones, wild winds, and fast approaching darkness that threatened to strand us on the mountain after dark.

It seems impossible that I could feel afraid in these modern times of constant connectivity, but as the sun began to dip behind the horizon and the trees cast ever-longer shadows, it was easy to imagine how frightened a pilgrim might have been.

There were no wolves or bandits to put our lives at risk, but the forest at sunset seemed plenty ominous.

Lesson #6: Getting Lost is Terrifying

Why were we hiking a mountain pass so close to sunset?

How did we get ourselves into a situation where we’d finish our day using the feeble light of our phones to pick our way through a pitch-dark forest?

Earlier that day, full of confidence with the Iseji navigator at hand, we’d set off down a path we’d thought was the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route.

At first, it all seemed totally normal.

The rain had temporarily let up and we were walking along a wide path surrounded by Japanese cedar and cypress. Pink ribbons, our constant companion for much of the Kumano Kodo Iseji thus far, hung from trees to mark the way.

We were cold and miserable, but we were on our way!

The pink ribbons are a lie.

For the next two hours, we tried first one path and then another.

kumano kodo iseji hopelessly lost
Hopelessly lost.

I clambered up embankments slippery with wet vegetation and half-waded across streams swollen by the day’s rain.

We’d find a bridge or a crumbled ruin and swear that this time, we were on the right track.

I found a dead crab, inexplicably lost in the middle of the wilderness, hours from the ocean.

We’d alternate wildly between relief and worry and outright rage before we finally realized, much to our embarrassment, that we’d taken a wrong turn and wandered into a tract of forest annexed for lumber.

The perils of relying on patchy 4G while hiking through the wilderness.

Despite knowing in our hearts that we weren’t truly lost, there were moments in that undeveloped maze of muddy paths, towering trees, and rain-bejewelled ferns that it was easy to forget that civilization lay just a few kilometres away.

There’s a sort of primal fear that takes over when you’re in a situation like that, and it was only after we’d returned to the highway that it loosed its grip on us.

Lesson #7: Not All Toge Are Created Equal

As we became more accustomed to our daily toge (mountain passes), it became easy to no longer see them as causes for intimidation.

All of them might have been physically taxing sometimes and all of them had their own unique charm, but we’d begun to feel more confident after a week of daily hiking.

Hajikami-toge, Miura-toge, and Magose-toge had passed without event. We felt, dare I say it, invincible.

Then came Binshiyama and Yakiyama, the two mountains that would remind us that for all of our fancy technology, comfortable footwear, and energy supplements, we were still very much human.

kumano kodo iseji bridge
These ancient paths each have their own stories.

Climbing the Elephant’s Back

A side-trek from Magose-toge, Binshiyama isn’t usually a mountain that falls on the Kumano Kodo Iseji route.

What sane pilgrim would take a break from their perilous, two-week pilgrimage to scamper up another mountain and take a few selfies?

Despite the insanity of the decision, we still found ourselves veering right at the top of Magose-toge park so that we could climb a 600m mountain and stand on a stone protrusion known as ‘zo no se’ – the Elephant’s Back.

It was on this long, unseasonably hot uphill slog that I began to feel grateful for all of the Great Wall expeditions Richelle and I had been taking.

The ascent was something like an Escher sketch – staircase after staircase after staircase after staircase. Sweat drenched me and my legs trembled whenever I paused for breath, but there was something exhilerating about a new challenge.

With each toge we’d passed, I’d felt myself tackling them with greater speed and confidence, so to meet a mountain that pushed me was an unexpected thrill.

And that view at the top? Magical.

kumano kodo iseji binshiyama zo no se elephant's back
Sorry, Mum!

Yakiyama – The Proving Grounds

A few days after we’d mounted the elephant’s back, we found ourselves staring up at the ominous form of Yakiyama – the highest and most challenging obstacle that lay between us and Hayatama Taisha.

In the bad old days of the pilgrimage, it was on the perennially shaded slopes of Mount Yaki that countless pilgrims would lose their lives to wolves, bandits, treacherous footing, and harsh weather.

A seemingly neverending ascent up moss-covered old stone, Yakiyama marked an intimidating halfway point on our journey.

If Binshiyama had left us with sore limbs and shaky ankles, it had also left us with a greater understanding of what we were capable of.

We took the Kumano Kodo Iseji’s most dangerous pass with relative ease, and stood atop it to gaze out at the cold steel of the Pacific Ocean and our ‘home stretch’.

Easy as it might have been, it wasn’t hard to imagine just how terrifying that mountain must have been in harder times.

kumano kodo iseji yakiyama
Yakiyama presents an intimidating obstacle on the road to Kumano.

Even at noon on a bright day, it felt as if we never quite left dusk. Save for a few insistent rays of sunlight that broke through to warm solitary patches of earth, we walked for hours in a fey twilight.

When the wind picked up, great trees would sway and groan in unison – a haunting chorus that could only have been worsened by the distant howl of wolves or the crunch of approaching footfalls.

Grave markers and tiny shrines line the ascent up Yakiyama, reminding you that forgotten bones and discarded good luck charms doubtless rot in the leaf litter that carpets the ground in autumn.

Even today, safe as modern Japan is, the tusk marks of roaming boars and bright signs warning about bears remind you that this is very much the wilderness.

We were invigorated and more than a little relieved to come down off the mountain.

Lesson #8: Hiking Is Painful

Obviously, I’d always been aware that hiking can be painful and comes with inherent risks.

And, despite the rigours of the Kumano Kodo Iseji, I managed to emerge unscathed out the other side.

Sadly, Richelle – who also wrote about her experience hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route – was not as lucky as I was. A twisted ankle on Binshiyama meant more than a few days of sharp pain, leaning on walking sticks, and even having to miss a few passes.

Her warring desire to finish the Kumano Kodo Iseji in its entirety and to avoid serious injury formed a heart-breaking backdrop to the last few days of hiking.

While it’s true that I did have to press on through some toge alone while she remained behind with one of our guides, I can’t begin to fully express how proud I was to have her by my side for the majority of this trek.

Despite her own misgivings about hiking the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, she soldiered on through the same tough uphills, the same bitterly cold days, and the same long stretches of highway as I did.

I couldn’t have wished for a better companion for the hike.

kumano kodo iseji uomachi
Richelle being awesome.

Hiking Alone

It felt strange to hike Nigishima-toge and Okamizaka-toge on my own. Like I’d left some important part of myself behind.

It felt like something akin to betrayal.

Richelle had set out on this adventure with me and here I was enjoying the cool mountain air and the quiet beauty of the forest while she was in pain.

Still, we’d both agreed that I should finish what we had started and she’d join me when she could.

For two hours I experienced the Kumano Kodo Iseji from a different perspective.

Gone was my conversational companion and the comforting presence of shared achievement – replaced instead with time for self-reflection and, I’m not ashamed to admit, a greater awareness of just how fucking sore my legs were.

When I came down from the mountain and got service back, it was funny to see we’d both texted to say we’d missed the other.

kumano kodo iseji choushi river
The autumn colours bring Mie to life.

Lesson #9: The Kumano Kodo is off-the-beaten-track

We’d always known that the Kumano Kodo Iseji route was a developing attraction that lay well away from Japan’s sometimes well-trod tourist trail.

Even the more well-known three-day Nakahechi Kumano Kodo is a bit of a rising star, and the longer Iseji route is still very much in the process of transitioning from a forgotten pilgrimage into something that can help support Mie Prefecture.

kumano kodo iseji towering trees
Wandering through unspoiled forest never gets old.

An Aging Problem

Our journey along the Kumano Kodo Iseji allowed us to see corners of Japan that you’d usually skip over on your high-speed train or in a short-haul flight.

We walked through villages whose glory days lay years before my own birth. Where smiling old faces welcomed us and perhaps remembered a time where their sleepy little town had been something more than a collection of quiet houses and boarded up businesses.

A day didn’t go by where we weren’t cheerfully greeted by a wizened local asking if we were on the Kumano Kodo Iseji.

The tours we took and the ryokan in which we slept were, almost universally, owned and staffed by people who are older than my own parents.

If they had one point of commonality, it was their enduring love for the Mie Prefecture and their hope that someday the Kumano Kodo Iseji could help play a part in restoring it.

Meeting and interacting with these passionate, kind people – it’s hard not to want to help with that.

Maintaining the Route

At 170kms in length – only parts of which are World Heritage listed – the Iseji Kumano Kodo requires a lot of ongoing maintenance.

While the local government takes care of the World Heritage listed toge, there are mountain passes and stretches of forest trail that endure thanks to the efforts of locals.

These tireless locals – many of them retired – trek up into the mountains to trim back encroaching forest and sweep leaf litter off old stone paths.

On several occasions, we found our path abruptly interrupted by fallen trees or washed away by the angry sea.

At Misesaka-toge, we clambered over fallen trees and underneath wind-flattened stands of bamboo.

Along the windswept beaches of Hadasu-no-michi, our path simply dropped where flooding had chewed away the sand and uprooted trees.

kumano kodo iseji oni castle
Richelle braves the Oni Castle.

There were points along the route – sometimes entire days – where we didn’t see a single sign marking the trail. Without the Iseji navigator app or the help of locals, we’d have had a hard time finding the route.

That’s to be expected along a trail of such length and varied terrain.

In time, as more people come and the trail becomes more viable, it is my hope that these problems will become a thing of the past.

Even with them, the challenge was never insurmountable. If anything, it was exhilarating to feel like we were discovering something new – however old it might actually be.

kumano kodo iseji kumano river
Next stop: Kumano Hongu Taisha!

Lesson #10: I Can Do Anything I Set My Mind To

In the last few days of our hike along the Kumano Kodo Iseji, it didn’t quite feel real.

Like those halcyon days in the lead-up to graduating from high school, it seemed impossible to fathom a life after something that had so defined our existence.

While fourteen days is nothing in the grand scale of our lives, the Kumano Kodo Iseji had occupied our every waking moment.

Whether we were hiking a toge or turning in for the night, we were fully immersed in the experience.

I may have come into the trek with doubts over whether I could do it, but as that last mile marker fell behind us and we approached Hayatama Taisha, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride.

kumano kodo iseji almost there
Unbelievably excited to be 168kms down and 2km to go.

And then the tears came…

We stopped for the obligatory photo opportunity at the entrance to Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

I doubt the pilgrims would have been so self-indulgent, but I can’t help but think there would have been plenty of cause for celebration having survived the arduous journey.

I bowed at my final torii gate and couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

Not in the experience or in the shrine, but that I didn’t feel more.

I had walked 170kms, tackled mountain passes I’d never have contemplated previously, and survived it all unscathed.

Why didn’t I feel more?

kumano kodo iseji hayatama taisha
The face of a disappointed man.

We rounded the last corner and saw a banner unfurled ahead of us. The team who’d acted as our support for the trip – every one of them – stood waiting.

Effervescent Matsu and her insta-fabulous Shiba Dog Rin, the ever-smiling Inoue, laughing Yamaguchi, affable Genki, the ever-patient Himi, and kind-hearted Murase all waited to congratulate us on what we’d done.

I cried.

Richelle cried.

There was something about having somebody else acknowledge what we’d done that made it more real. I’d known on some intellectual level that I’d done it, but I don’t think it had quite sunk in yet.

Seeing these people – each of whom had accompanied us at some point along the way – flooded me with memories of the hike.

Of sharing sake with Genki in a fancy hotel while my feet bled.

Of Yamaguchi-san playing ‘stalker’ as he followed in his car for day one of our trip.

Of Inoue’s sounds of surprise when we found our way barred by a bamboo grove flattened by a typhoon.

Of Himi quietly watching us struggle along the track between Obuki-toge and Kannon-michi-toge with all the confidence of somebody who tackled the 88 Shrines of Shikoku at the age of 28.

Of Matsu’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of a traditional folk song as we dined on mochi atop our final toge, Matsumoto-toge.

Of Murase playing doctor to Richelle’s poor foot in some forgotten fishing village.

kumano kodo iseji finish line
The gang together one last time.

Of walking along rain-drenched streets, sun-baked mountain passes, wind-blasted beaches, and cloud-darkened village roads.

Of serene shrines, picturesque tea plantations, steaming onsen baths, delicious ryokan meals, and stretches of unspoiled wilderness.

Of aching legs, bleary eyes, rumbling stomachs, and bloody feet.

Of setting out to do something and doing it.

kumano kodo iseji river view
Oddly, it was quiet moments on our own that stand out the most for me.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha might not have held the same spiritual significance to me as it did to the pilgrims who risked their lives to reach it, but I doubt everybody who walks the Camino feels any strong connection to Christianity, either.

In these days of instant gratification and easily accessible adventure, there’s something to be said for getting out there and earning that feeling of accomplishment.

And that’s as close to a spiritual experience as I think an agnostic is capable of coming.

kumano kodo iseji lion's head rock
From another angle, Lion’s Head Rock looks suspiciously like Donald Trump…

Lesson #11: Gratitude

It would be easy to let this devolve into a hackneyed outpouring of syrupy sentiment with a #blessed at the conclusion.

Still, it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge how lucky I felt to have the opportunity to not only hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji Route, but to play some small part in introducing more of the world to what is a criminally underrated experience.

Over the course of the next few months, Adventures Around Asia and I will be publishing itineraries, packing lists, ryokan booking guides, and more.

We want more people to experience what we experienced, not only so they can feel that same sense of accomplishment, but also so that the people who made our Mie experience so unforgettable can continue their great work on maintaining and restoring the pilgrimage route.

kumano kodo iseji binshiyama magose-toge
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of photographing the path to Kumano.

Obligatory Thank Yous

Thank you to the people from Toppan, Past Present Future, and Mie Prefecture who invited us to participate in the experience, assisted us in arranging everything, and made sure we were never too tired, too hungry, or too wet.

A special thank you to Yamaguchi-san for being the best stalker/support driver in history, Genki for enduring all of the highs and lows alongside us (even if it was from a heated car), Inoue and Himi for being enjoyable hiking buddies, and Matsu for making us laugh and cry in the space of twelve hours.

And lastly, thank you to Murase, who hiked the toughest stretches with us and saw the lowest lows. For going out of your way to make sure Richelle wasn’t hurt and for being a good friend across the entire trip.

There’ll be beers when your travels take you to Australia, mate.

kumano kodo iseji pilgrimage
I’m glad we didn’t have to hike the entire route in this.

A Disclaimer

We completed this hike in conjunction with the Mie Prefecture Tourism Ministry. We worked closely with Mie Prefecture to publicize the Kumano Kodo Iseji route and help bring more international travellers to Mie.

It’s our goal to make sure that you can do this route yourself without outside help or the ability to speak fluent Japanese. 

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