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“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.
A Kumano pilgrim’s task is to rid the body and spirit of impurities from both past and present lives, to be ritually reborn and rejuvenated by the powers of the deities. I’m not an especially spiritual person, nor much of an ascetic. I don’t expect “rebirth.” I will don sturdy hiking shoes instead of straw sandals and have my luggage forwarded each day for a nominal fee rather than carry it on my back. But my own quest feels no less sacred: retreating from an incessantly reactive, whack-a-mole world to seek solitude in nature, to reflect, find calm, and reconnect to my deeper self.
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?
I continued through the trees past a sutra mound—a pile of rocks where sacred texts were once buried—and the first of dozens of statues along the route depicting Jizo, a bodhisattva who declined entry to paradise in order to help the rest of us get there. What a guy, right? Jizo also protects travelers (explaining his presence on the trail) and small children, especially dead infants, whom he shepherds on to their next lives. I had my own brush with him years ago after suffering a miscarriage in Tokyo. Back then, I made an offering of toys and candy, acknowledging the loss in a way that Western culture does not; doing so brought such comfort that when I returned home from that trip, I bought a Jizo statue for my garden, where he still stands today. On Kumano, I’d see Jizos—often wearing cheerful red bibs—who had been left bottles of Pocari Sweat (a drink similar to Gatorade) or teddy bears, whether by travelers or by women healing from miscarriage, abortion, or child loss I couldn’t say. One Jizo could heal dental pain. Another cured backaches—and although it’s customary to offer a mere 5 yen in prayer (the number symbolizing good relationships, especially with God), I slipped that one an extra 100, wanting to stay on his good side. As I said, Japanese are pragmatic about religion—might as well hedge your bets.
The forest thinned out, replaced by houses, as I arrived in Takahara, also called Kiri no Sato⎯“Village in the Mist.” The local shrine, dating back to at least the 15th century, was surrounded by 1,000-year-old camphor trees, heavy-scented and majestic, draped with the small paper streamers that signal the presence of kami—spirits or gods. Kami often make their home inside camphors, as do other magical creatures: Totoro, in the Hayao Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro, lived in one. Camphors are the official tree of Hiroshima, as well, a symbol of hope because they recovered so quickly after the bombing. Before paying my respects at the shrine, which housed an image of Buddha, I used the provided ladle to rinse my mouth and my hands—the left first, then the right—with water. I pulled hard on a thick rope, ringing a bell to alert the kami to my presence, clapped twice, bowed twice, and offered a 5-yen coin. Although it’s not required, I also bowed to the camphors before heading on my way because, again, you never know.
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.
The ancients also sought heavenly rewards through their journey, but modern travelers want our compensation right now, on Earth, ideally at mealtime. In a soaring, cedar-beamed dining room, Jian Shino, the hotel’s Wonka-like owner, conjured a parade of small, exquisite dishes: shimeji mushrooms with scallions and octopus; sautéed eggplant; delicate fiddlehead ferns; the freshest sashimi; a cube of decadent deep-fried peanut “tofu”; kobe beef cooked to buttery perfection in an earthenware bowl over a candle flame; the requisite rice and pickles; a sublime berry sorbet. I ate until I was in actual pain, then kept eating anyway. This was my kind of suffering.
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.
I could tell you that the teahouses of Kumano, now little more than rubble, were where ancient pilgrims met and exchanged gossip; or that according to legend if you climb a particular hill on a particular date you would see the moon split into three orbs, one for each of Kumano’s main deities; or about the statue of an emperor as a boy simultaneously riding a horse and a cow. I could tell you about the village of Chikatsuyu, a name that translates to “blood or dew,” because that same horse-cow riding emperor saw a red drop pooling on a reed he’d plucked as a makeshift chopstick, and asked which of the two it was. But truly, tidbits like that felt less meaningful to me than the mere act of walking through the woods, listening to the creak of bamboo, the eerie howls of distant monkeys, the snuffling of wild boars, the singing of frogs and Japanese warblers. If not exactly silence, I had certainly found isolation. Though I didn’t feel quite alone: Spirits of the dead are said to gather in these mountains, and, especially when tendrils of cool fog rolled in, the trail could feel spooky. (Reading the ghost stories every night didn’t help.) What if I got lost? Every double-arrowed Kumano Kodo sign I passed felt like an old friend; I blessed the periodic not Kumano Kodo warnings as well, since they kept me straight and true.
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 lookout point Fushiogami-Oji translates to “kneel and worship shrine.” The first glimpse of Hongu Taisha grand shrine from here would cause weary pilgrims to drop to their knees in devotion. I was about ready to drop myself when I arrived there on the third day, about 11 miles into a 13-mile hike. But the site was notable for something else as well. Kumano Kodo is known as a “female-friendly”—dare I say feminist?—pilgrimage. Other sacred sites, such as the more famous Mount Koya, were historically forbidden to women. But the traditional keepers of Kumano were a sect of nuns who actively marketed the trek as a source of salvation for women. A plaque at Fushiogami tells the story of a 10th-century female poet who realized, after making it this far, that she was menstruating, rendering her “impure” and unable to enter the grand shrine. Naturally, she wrote a poem about her distress. That night the deities came to her in a dream. Even gods are impure, they told her. We mingle with dust; we aren’t put off by a bit of blood. I contemplated that, trying to recall whether I’d ever⎯in any other culture, on any other trail⎯heard a divine story about a woman getting her period, let alone seen it commemorated for posterity.
. . . 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 3-mile stretch of the last day’s trail, ominously called “the body-breaking slope,” ascends more or less straight up 2,600 feet. If you find that a little hard to conceptualize, you are not alone. Consider what a poet in the 13th century, at a loss for words to depict this “seemingly endless slope,” wrote in his diary: “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.” Eight hundred years later, that still sums it up. All along Kumano Kodo travelers had placed rocks, sometimes in cairn-like piles, as testament to their presence. I didn’t indulge—it seemed like the natural-world equivalent of graffiti—until now. I placed a stone on top of a pile, then another for good measure. After conquering the body breaker, damn it, I’d earned it.
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.