“You’re going alone?” a friend asked me.
We were hiking in the hills of Berkeley, California, something I do several times a week (OK, try to do several times a week), usually with a few girlfriends and our dogs, or at least with my phone, so I can listen to music or an audiobook or chat with my sister-in-law in Minnesota. I had been talking about a five-day trek on Japan’s Kumano Kodo, a 10th-century network of trails roughly 100 miles south of Kyoto that was named one of two 2004 UNESCO World Heritage spiritual pilgrimage sites. (The other is the Camino de Santiago in Spain.) My 42-mile route, dotted with more than 100 Shinto and Buddhist shrines, would traverse the secluded Kii peninsula through sleepy farm towns and forests of cedar, cypress, and bamboo, over mountain passes, across rivers, and past waterfalls.
And yes, I was going alone.
I wasn’t pulling a Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I have no personal demons to exorcise. If I were to write a book about my life struggles, it would have to be called Tame-ish. Nor, although the eating sounded good, was I seeking to “pray” or “love.” But I do suffer from a modern malaise: a highly contagious computer-communicated virus whose symptoms are information glut, monkey mind, and the compulsion to watch just one more episode of Billions. A break from our hyped-up world was the only cure, yet I’d found it impossible to enforce one. Kumano was a chance to go back a millennium, but also back to, say, 1994⎯the first time I traveled to Japan, when leaving home meant being truly out of touch. Back then, I spent a month in Hiroshima with my husband, a Japanese American documentary filmmaker, researching the atomic bombings. I’ve visited many times since then: Marriage (and eventually motherhood) unexpectedly made Japan part of my cultural fiber. Most of my time, though, has been spent in urban centers. Even my Japanese friends raised an eyebrow when I told them about my latest plans. “That’s . . . remote,” one said, tactfully. Which is exactly the point.
Kumano was a chance to go back a millennium, but also back to, say, 1994⎯the first time I traveled to Japan, when leaving home meant being truly out of touch.
Kumano is in the heart of Japan’s holiest region, the cradle of its creation myth. This is where the country’s first emperor, the child of the sun goddess from whom all emperors are believed to descend, is said to have launched his battle to conquer the nation. The section I’d chosen to travel, called the Nakahechi or “imperial” route, passes two of the region’s three grand shrines. (The third is accessible only by water.) Each is home to various animist spirits (rocks, rivers, trees, waterfalls) as well as both a Shinto and a Buddhist deity. Those religions coexist peacefully, almost interchangeably, in Kumano despite an attempt, during the 19th century, to weaken Buddhism and promote emperor worship by forcibly separating them. (Today’s Japanese aren’t particular about religion, going with whatever best suits an occasion; friends there have often quoted the adage “Born Shinto; marry Christian; die Buddhist.”)
The first day started easy: just 2.3 miles, beginning near a river said to cure all ills. At least it sounded easy. Ancient Japanese, it turned out, didn’t believe in switchbacks. One of the basic precepts of Japanese Buddhism (and of the country’s culture itself) is gaman: enduring the seemingly unendurable with patience and stoicism. So when you climb a mountain, you go straight up—none of this namby-pamby zigzagging across the ridge that whiny Westerners expect. What’s more, thick traceries of tree roots and randomly sprinkled boulders cover the trail. I had read that two-thirds of Japan was forest, but I was used to Shinjuku’s neon, Harajuku’s cosplay, maybe a meticulously cultivated temple garden in Kyoto. Such wild nature was a surprise.
After 15 minutes of climbing, I hit a shoulder-width passage between two boulders called Tainai Kuguri. Squeezing through is both a symbolic rebirth and a test of faith (presumably because it seems fully possible to get stuck). Nearby, another boulder marks the spot where an ancient pilgrim gave birth. She and her husband left the infant to be suckled by wolves until they returned. Call me a helicopter mom, but I had to wonder: Who does that? Why not just strap the kid onto your back and take him with you?
Ancient Japanese, it turned out, didn’t believe in switchbacks.
Ancient pilgrims were supposed to suffer to achieve purification. They would not only make the arduous journey over the mountains shod in straw sandals, but also would perform ablutions in icy streams, becoming ever purer with each plunge, until their sins were washed away. Me? I’m cool with a few sins, so jumping naked into frigid water was a non-starter. I gladly, however, sank into a traditional Japanese bath after a long day on the road. At the Organic Hotel Kiri no Sato Takahara, I headed for the women’s bath, as I would every evening before dinner, first changing into a yukata (a kimono-like robe appropriate in all public spaces, including the dining room), making sure to cross the left side over the right, as the reverse is only for corpses. I sat on a low stool in front of a shower spigot, lathering my hair and scrubbing every inch of my body before rinsing off. Then, squeaky clean, I slid into a steaming communal pool. Gazing over a serene vista as I soaked, my tiny “modesty towel” balanced on my head, I felt every muscle in my body, along with any noise in my head, instantly ease.
Every night would be like this, whether in hotels, historic hot-spring inns, or family-run guesthouses: a blissful soak—once from a sulfurous source hot enough to cook an egg⎯followed by a feast featuring local ingredients. (I was particularly pleased that umeboshi, a tart, pickled plum eaten with rice, was a specialty of the region.) Breakfasts were equally extravagant, though decidedly Japanese, usually including broiled fish, tofu, pickles, rice, and miso soup. The two-tiered “Kumano bento” boxes packed for my lunch held rice balls wrapped in pickled mustard leaves with a variety of side dishes. I reluctantly left some of that midday meal uneaten each day, to carry along in case I needed it later to ward off daru: invisible serpent-witches who, if you become too fatigued or hungry on the trail, can infiltrate your body and, according to one guidebook, inflict “painful torments.”
Back in my room in Kiri no Sato that first night, my futon was rolled out and the lights of the village twinkled below. I pulled a book from my suitcase, taking a moment to appreciate the tactile sensation of paper, the smell of the page. I had brought detective stories featuring an Edo-era sleuth named Inspector Hanshichi and Japanese ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn. But that night, I was drawn to Michael Finkel’s Stranger in the Woods, about a young man who disappeared into Maine’s forest and didn’t come out for 27 years. Retreating from modern society, living in nature’s serenity, was starting to sound unusually appealing. That is, as long as I was fed this well and had a hot bath ready for me at the end of every day.
Absent distractions, I was more aware of texture and color: the curl of cypress bark, the magenta azaleas and frilled, lavender edges of wild irises, the innumerable shades of fecund green. In early summer, everything teemed with life. Ferns sprouted in the cracks of wood-plank bridges, the stones behind waterfalls were covered in miniature leaves, boulders and tree stumps were carpeted with moss. Even a van abandoned at the edge of a town had become a trellis.
More than two-thirds of Japan’s population now lives in cities. Villages such as the ones along Kumano are fading away. Deep in the woods, I passed a group of decaying, abandoned houses, their roofs collapsed, the remnant of a settlement whose last residents were relocated in the 1970s as part of a government “initiative for relief of depopulated areas.” Their descendants still come back sometimes to remember their home.
Even so, there were signs of vitality. My trip fell shortly after Children’s Day, which celebrates the healthy growth and happiness of youth; bright-colored carp streamers flew from some homes indicating that young boys (and often, these days, girls) lived within. Other roadside displays were more eccentric: One afternoon, as I was daydreaming about walking in the steps of the ancients, I passed a life-size hand-carved wooden Pinocchio holding his penis with one hand (“peeing” real water into a trough) while waving with the other. A sign next to him read, in English, WELCOME TO KUMANO KODO. HAVE A NICE TRIP.
. . . the traditional keepers of Kumano were a sect of nuns who actively marketed the trek as a source of salvation for women.
Only a limited number of pilgrims can trek the Nakahechi route on any given day—there are just a handful of rooms at some stops, and if they’re full, you are out of luck. That means the trails are relatively empty, a luxury when you consider that, say, if you scaled Mount Fuji, you’d be in the company of thousands of other climbers. When I did bump into people (usually Australians, who, aside from Japanese, were the most numerous), they would invite me to walk with them, but I begged off, committed to my solo status. Then, after my third time running into a British woman, also traveling alone, she commented, “You know, part of the traditional pilgrimage was meeting and getting to know other pilgrims.” She had a point. Plus, we were staying at the same hotel that night, which involved calling from a pay phone in the tiny village of Koguchi and waiting 30 minutes for a pickup. So I threw in with her, and we shared our life stories while striding through a sun-dappled forest. No question: That made the day’s route go faster (though, at eight miles, it was fairly easy anyway). I hardly noticed the pain in my knees walking downhill, but I also paid less attention to the sights and sounds around me. By the time we began debating the merits of The Wire vs. Breaking Bad, I knew I was backsliding fast. I needed to ditch her.
That night, having already broken my vow of solitude, I was tempted to check my email, tempted to watch just one episode of Game of Thrones, tempted to text my husband to be sure he remembered our daughter’s orthodontist appointment.
I picked up my phone, thumbs at the ready, and then paused. Five days, I thought. Five measly days. Was I really so weak, so dependent on obsessive connection? I put the phone down. I picked up my book. I did not give in to temptation.
A few hours later, I emerged from a cypress grove to see Nachi falls cascading down a mountain behind a three-story vermilion pagoda. Nachi Taisha, the last grand shrine, is another feminine site, home to Izanami no Mikoto, the Shinto goddess of creation and death, and Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It’s a popular spot, even in the off-season, with schoolchildren buying amulets; young women giggling in rented replicas of the colorful garments of Japan’s Heian era; a photographer offering to snap portraits at a scenic point for 10,000 yen. (It hadn’t occurred to me until then that, since I had prepaid for food and lodging, I hadn’t bought anything in five days.)
I continued down the stone steps, through a wood torii gate, and finally to the roaring falls themselves. A light spray, supposed to confer longevity, hit my face. I filled my bottle with healing water from a dragon-head fountain and took a long swig. My pilgrimage was over. I was dead on my feet, but I felt clear of mind⎯and maybe, in my own way, just a little bit reborn.