Living in the Moment Along the Kumano Kodo of Japan
Story and photos by Heidi Siefkas

While hiking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in one of the most scenic areas in Japan, a visitor starts to learn the local customs and get lessons in cherishing every gathering: "Ichi-go Ichi-e."

Japan travel story

With each footstep, I could hear the water whoosh from within my boots. Since daybreak, I had been walking amongst the dense, Japanese cedar forest of the Kumano Kodo. Thousands of steps passing thousands of trees caused a meditative Zen state, in spite of inclement weather. As I neared the highest point of the day's hike, the clouds parted just enough to reveal the Hongu Valley and the Oyunohara Torri Gate. I set my sights on where I would spend the night and hopefully dry out my boots.

This was day two of my adventure on the Kii Peninsula. I had never been to Japan. I could barely eat with chopsticks. All the Japanese I knew was from martial art films. To say that I was naive about Japanese culture would be an understatement but that did have an upside, I arrived without expectations.

The Path of Emperors

I embarked on this journey knowing that it would test me fully as any great adventure should. The impulse to do the ancient pilgrimage trail was to celebrate life. Ten years prior, I had nearly died from a tree limb breaking my neck. Honoring my second chance on life, I decided to set out on a pilgrimage that was once only for emperors, beneath countless trees.

That soggy afternoon as I entered my ryokan (BnB), a wave of embarrassment hit me as I realized I must take off my boots displaying my wet, muddy socks to the female owner and hostess. I reluctantly took off my socks and hid them in my backpack before placing my prunish feet into the house slippers provided. As I was escorted to my room with tatami mats (traditional Japanese straw mats not to be walked upon with shoes nor house slippers), she instructed me to take off my slippers and dawn a yukata—a house robe or casual kimono.

Japan mountains and rice

Of course, I was happy to get rid of my hiking clothes that had served me well for fifteen miles, but a beer and a shower were at the top of my to-do list. Before leaving me to change and get settled, the hostess reminded me that the onsen (thermal baths area) was open until 10 pm.

Onsen 101

Although my feet certainly couldn't become more wrinkled, my calves, lower back, and shoulders could use a hot soak. Dressed in my robe, I set out for the hot baths. There were two entrances, one for men and one for women, each marked with Japanese characters in different colors, red and blue. I somehow correctly selected the women's locker room with red lettering where I would place my slippers, yukata, and towel in a small cubby.

To help the onsen newbies, two rules were posted on the walls in Japanese with supplementary pictures. Rule one: the only thing allowed to enter the onsen, except yourself, was a modesty towel, more like a traditional U.S. washcloth. Rule two: All must completely bathe with shampoo and soap before entering the pools.

Unlike my locker room shower experiences from Junior High to the present, bathing was not done in a communal room and standing, but beside the onsen pool sitting on a small stool with a shower nozzle, bucket, shampoo, and soap within arm's reach. Once I was clean, placing the meager modesty towel aside, I entered the pool or better said spaaah. How amazing to soak in Mother Nature's jacuzzi after a full day of hiking sunup to sundown. I promised myself that before setting out the following morning, I would repeat the experience.

Way Beyond Trekker Grub at the Guesthouse

Thoroughly relaxed, it was time to refuel. Meals along the Kumano Kodo are provided by your ryokan hosts, typically a breakfast of eggs, fish, and/or porridge before leaving in the morning with a bento box of fish, tofu, sautéed veggies, and rice balls to eat for lunch on the trail.

Guesthouse meal

For dinner, you are served a multiple course dinner either in your room or in a family-style dining room with other guests. This particular evening, I ordered a cold beer to wash down my meal that consisted of tuna sashimi, a beef hot pot with veggies, fried tofu, vegetable stir fry, pumpkin souffle, and raw horse meat.

Every dish was a masterpiece, intricately designed with flower or herb garnishes. My chopstick skills were lacking, but when there's a will, there's a way. I ended up eating some items with my hands. Plus, I skipped the horse meet. I'll save that for another time.

Beauty and Hazards

Oji gateUpon my start of the Kumano Kodo two days earlier, I stamped my pilgrim passport at the Tikijiri Oji shrine. I then passed through the Torri gate, purified my hands and mouth, then gave a small coin donation to the shrine before ringing the bell and wishing for a safe journey.

Passing trail marker 1, I climbed the steep first couple of miles with travel friends that had in fact introduced me to this very trail while hiking its sister pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. However, we adapted our own natural pace and agreed to meet in the evening. Alone on the trail, I was in awe of the morning sunlight playing off the cedar trunks and the moss-covered tree roots that were braided across the trail.

That first day was just a preview of much of the beauty on the Kii Peninsula: rice terraces, mountains, and quaint farming villages. I got wind of two major hazards of fall on the Kumano Kodo though: a storm lurking offshore in the Pacific and being accosted by a duo of two-inch-long, deadly, giant Japanese hornets. Whether it was the fact that I was allergic and on high alert, ready to draw out my Epi-pen at a moment's notice, or the nearly ten-miles of hiking, a smile and sigh of relief came over me when I saw the trail marker 26 near my first ryokan in Chikatsuyu.

trail Day 3

After the first day on the trail, I set out alone to cover more ground. However, the weather changed to rain showers and increased clouds. This shift made hiking a more pleasant temperature but also thankfully warded off the hornets. Every daybreak, I was prepared with a raincoat, rain pants, and a rainfly for my pack. However, I quickly would get too steamy and shed my gear. There came a point on each of the rainy days that I gave up trying to stay dry to stay in my ten-degree range, Goldilocks, comfortable hiking temperature window.

On both of my most memorable yet tough days, the rain came and went. I arrived damp at both the Oyunohara Torri Gate, the largest of its kind in the world, and Nachi Falls. However, I kept remembering that hiking in the rain beats sitting in a cubicle on any sunny day.

Nachi Falls

Familiar Faces on the Kumano Kodo

By day two or three along the trail, I noticed familiar faces. This I've found to be true on other multi-day trails and pilgrimage routes. Most pilgrims decide to do similar stages for comfortable lodging and refueling, creating opportunities to bond. Well beyond the beauty of a destination, the adventures you share with others are the most memorable. This was certainly the case in Japan for my start with inspirational friends and the next to last section of my hike, which required a bus ride to the trailhead.

Upon boarding the bus, I had noticed two other women that were speaking English. Curious, I started to eavesdrop as to where they were from. Then suddenly one of them gasped, "Oh man." Her Camelbak bottle had just leaked all over the floor, half-emptying her water for the day.

I commented with a smile, "The same had happened to me once, but I sat on the hose. So, it looked like I had peed my pants." My story lightened the mood. All three of us, two Americans and one Canadian, set out as strangers with a common destination and language, but four hours later we were friends swimming in a cold, mountain stream to calm our barking feet. We told stories, laughed, and enjoyed beers purchased from the only store in town, one run by a small, Japanese lady that used an abacus to compute our tab.

Bow to Mother Nature

On my final day, I set out on the trail early to try to beat the rain and the same dangerous storm that had been advancing too close for comfort. My arrival at the Nachi shrine was a sweet victory. However, it was at the feet of its waterfall, the largest in Japan, where I bowed in honor of the power of nature and my second chance on life.

The Kumano Kodo has nurtured a form of nature worship since ancient times, in which mountains, rocks, forests, trees, and rivers are deified into gods. It was only natural that after climbing mountains, swimming in rivers, traversing forests, and soaking in onsens, I would end my journey with a natural treat for my feet provided by Mother Nature herself.

Japanese forest

Later that afternoon, my Kumano concluded with the removal of my hiking boots at a public, thermal foot spa with a view of the Katsuura Harbor and the Pacific Ocean. Alongside three locals: a mother, her daughter, and son-in-law, I sat down and said the most useful phrase in Japan, "Sumimasen" (excuse me). With slight bows, they welcomed me not only to the foot spa but to their hometown and culture. I bowed my head in return and commented with my favorite Japanese phrase, "Ichi-go ichi-e" (one life, one encounter). With a round of laughter and smiles, it was a natural end to a transformative journey.

Heidi Siefkas is an author, TEDx speaker, and adventurer. Her books include Cubicle to Cuba, With New Eyes, and When All Balls Drop. You can learn more about Heidi's adventures and books at:

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