Stairway to Heaven, Kansai Scene Magazine
Text: Natalie Emmons
Published by Kansai Scene
December 1, 2012
The serene beauty of the Kumano Kodo is as legendary as its history. For centuries, this network of mountainous pilgrimage routes has granted each traveller a stimulating physical and spiritual journey. The divine panoramas, the moss-covered shrines, and the ethereal stillness of the forest create an atmosphere of otherworldly transcendence. Regrettably, there is nothing like sore calves to yank you back to reality.
For Kumano Kodo novices, the Nakahechi section of the pilgrimage is a great place to start. Stretching across the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, this popular trail connects three renowned Shinto shrines known as the Kumano Sanzan. Originally used by the Japanese aristocracy, the Nakahechi route has existed for over 1,000 years. Judging by the trail’s terrain, the imperial family must have been in great shape. Don’t let nomenclature fool you. The word “trail” is a euphemism for “eternal staircase that will turn your legs to noodles.” From towering cobblestone steps to slippery muddy slopes, it’s hard to imagine how the ancestors did the entire pilgrimage in straw sandals. No wonder the ancient resting places called out “We have tofu and hot baths!” to passing travellers. Even in the midst of idyllic landscapes, you will soon be yearning for a different sort of paradise, the kind that involves a long, hot soak and a hearty meal.
Luckily, there are magnificent onsen along the trail, several of which are clustered around Hongu Grand Shrine. Located roughly at the center of the Nakahechi trail, Hongu Shrine is the head of over 3,000 affiliated shrines and the ultimate goal of the Kumano Kodo. No trophy awaits you at the finish line, but a visit to the nearby hot springs is an excellent way to reward your efforts and revive your strength.