THERE'S SOMETHING about hiking an ancient pilgrimage route that makes physical discomfort a little easier to bear. Perhaps it's the knowledge that a deity somewhere may reward you for your pains further down the line.
At any rate, my first glimpse of the Ryokan Adumaya in the Japanese village of Yunomine is a sight for sore eyes, not to mention sore feet. My first day of hiking in the Kumano region is a challenge fit for an unfit journalist.
Extending over the lower reaches of Honshu's Kii Peninsula, south of the cities of Osaka and Kyoto, Kumano has been held sacred for thousands of years. Most Japanese consider it the birthplace of their nation's culture. Widely referred to as Japan's "Abode of the Gods", Kumano's three Grand Shrines - Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha - have long formed the focal point of veneration.
"Kumano has always been a special place for the Japanese, a place of nature, worship, religious training and asceticism," explains Matt Malcomson, a fellow British hiker and Japan enthusiast, as he strides comfortably beside me. "Because of its remoteness, this region has so far escaped urbanisation and retains its earthy spirituality."
Awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2004, the Kumano Kodo is a complex network of pilgrimage trails that criss-cross Kumano's picturesque rivers, waterfalls, mountains and forests. Despite the undemanding nature of the Kumano Kodo's moss-clad paths and shady stairways, however, my first day of less-than-strenuous hiking has brought on blisters and a bruised ego.
"Men always think they're fitter than they really are," Malcomson says, laughing, as we dump our bags in the guest house lobby on our return. "Luckily, they've got the perfect pick-me-up for you downstairs."
Wondering whether this magical panacea might involve alcohol, I follow him down a narrow wooden staircase into the balmy depths of the guest house. Malcomson instructs me to strip off, put on a robe, take a shower, then go through a bamboo door.
Less than a minute later, I'm immersed in a gloriously warm bath of naturally hot water, and the tiredness in my muscles is slipping away. I've soon forgotten the exertions of the day, to be left only with memories of forest shrines and misty peaks, crimson-coloured torii (traditional Japanese gateways) and black-robed monks.
"Onsen are one of the best reasons to come to Japan," Malcomson tells me, as we luxuriate side-by-side in the steaming pool. "Together with shrines and these little guest houses, not to mention the fabulous scenery, these hot springs really tie a Kumano Kodo trip together."
It's easy to find the Yuzutsu onsen when you're staying in Yunomine - just follow the people clutching small bags of groceries. Wandering the streets at dawn the next day I soon locate the public cooking "basin", where local residents are already steaming spinach, bamboo shoots, and orange nets full of onsen tamago (hot spring eggs). A free communal breakfast sitting around a pool of sulphurous water is a meal I won't forget in a hurry.
Today Malcomlson, myself and our guide are hiking one of the most popular stretches of the Kumano Kodo, an eight kilometre section of the main Nakahechi route. Starting off at the Hosshinmon-oji (a subsidiary shrine), where poetry parties were once carried out to entertain local deities, we quickly enter a verdant landscape of cedar forest, low mountain peaks and stone-brick houses, interspersed with tea bush terraces and small orange trees.
After a couple of hours I'm standing at Fushiogami-oji, a magnificent viewpoint overlooking the valley of the Kumano River. Here, pilgrims were once rewarded with their first sighting of Japan's spiritual heartland, and we gaze in silence at the dark blue ribbon of the Kumano-gawa, and the huge metal torii that marks the approach to the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine.
"When Buddhism arrived here from China in the sixth century, it fused with indigenous beliefs to create a unique religion," explains Malcomson, as we walk around the shrine's grounds a little later, taking in stone lions, burbling fountains and fragrant clouds of incense. "This was the beginning of the Kumano Kodo's ancient routes."
In the past pilgrims arriving at the Hongu Taisha would take to the waters of the Kumano to reach the next main waypoint, the striking Hayatama Taisha shrine, which sits at the confluence of the river and Pacific Ocean near Shingu City. From here it's a short walk to the finest of the Kumano Kodo's three grand shrines - the Kumano Nachi Taisha. But that's tomorrow's trek, and a decision is reached to indulge in another spot of hydrothermal hedonism at the nearest onsen.
Two days of heavenly hiking have taken their toll on my hiking boots, but Japan's holy trail has also tightened muscles and focused the mind. It's only been 48 hours, but I'm already starting to feel like a new man.
Running north to south, the Kumano River bisects the Kii Peninsula. In the past, this sacred river provided vital access to the Kumano region and was heavily used by visiting pilgrims and the local population. The former would use boats to travel between the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine and the Kumano Hayatama Taisha shrine, which sits at the river mouth.
Less travelled today, it is registered with Unesco as part of the pilgrimage routes in the Kii mountain range.
It's clear, gentle waters travel through some of the Kii Peninsula's most impressive scenery. It is the perfect river on which to kayak.
Based in Hongu, kayaking outfit Kumano Experience was founded by Katsumi Ueno, one of Japan's top kayakers, who also happens to be a Buddhist monk.
"Kayaking is a great way to explore this area," he says. "You get an appreciation of the landscape you don't get from the land.
"A highlight of kayaking around here is the Dorokyo Gorge. With its soaring cliffs and lush forests, this is one of Japan's most beautiful areas. If you have your own kayaking gear that's great. If not, contact us in advance and we can arrange it."
Where to stay
- Osaka: St Regis Osaka, stregis.com/osaka
- Kumano region: Blue Sky Guesthouse, Hongukumano-guesthouse.com/eng
- Ryokan Adumaya, Yunomine, adumaya.co.jp/english
Where to eat
- Katsuragi, Kii Katsuura (for excellent sushi and other seafood dishes), wakayama-kanko.or.jp/world/english
- Cafe Bocu, Chikatsuyu (for great organic cuisine), tb-kumano.jp/en/dining/cafe-bocu
Cathay Pacific, Peach Aviation, ANA and Air India all fly direct to Osaka from Hong Kong. Flight time is 3½ hours. The Kumano Kodo region is located south of Osaka. The best way to explore the region is to start in Tanabe City. From Shin-Osaka station to Kii-Tanabe takes two hours by Limited Express train and costs about 6,000 yen/HK$480 (one way). More information, go to tb-kumano.jp/en