Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 3 Yunomine Onsen : Where I have a hot and steamy time in centuries-old, World Heritage site Tsuboyu Onsen

On our third night on the Kumano Kodo, we were booked in a ryokan in Yunomine, an onsen 
town close to the Grand Shrine of Hongu Taisha.  
Onsen is a Japanese natural hot spring that contains all sorts of minerals -- depending on what
these are, the water can be good for the skin and for body aches and pains.  
I think one reason why the Japanese have such smooth, lovely skin is their fondness for  onsen
A regular soak in a mineral rich bath would do wonders for anyone's complexion. 

An onsen town is where volcanic activity has resulted in a proliferation of hot springs.  Yunomine, 
a small and quiet village nestled in between the mountains along the Kumano Kodo is  
one of Japan's oldest onsen with over 1,800 years of history (and a lot of bathing) behind it.
It's also home to the only UNESCO World Heritage cited onsen -- Tsuboyu Bath.
This was one onsen I definitely had to try. 

We were booked in Iseya Ryokan, conveniently right in front of the bus stop.   Like the minshuku
the ryokan is a Japanese-style lodging but is bigger and more upmarket.  Minshuku are traditional mom-and-pop family operations. Ryokan are more like small luxury boutique hotels -- it's very much worth the experience to stay in one. 

The ryokan will always have a traditional tatami room and most have a small balcony where you can relax and enjoy the view (and yes, a few ice cold beers). 

All the ryokans and accommodations in Yunomine have their own private baths  for their guests.  
If this is your first time in an onsen, a sign posted outside the bath states the rituals and rules of 
onsen bathing. 

Refreshed after our bath, Jay and I ventured out while there was still some light left in the day.  
You might be thinking ... "How very crass, they're wandering around in their nightgowns!".  
Yes indeed, yukatas provided for each guest in both minshukus and ryokans are worn to bed.
But paired with the happi coat -- the short, broad sleeved jacket that one wears over the yukata,  
these are normal for guests to wear as they stroll outside the ryokan.  People walking around in yukatas and happi coats are a common sight in onsen towns like Yunomine. 

The river Yunotani flows clear and swiftly through the village.  The wooden structure you see on the left is the public "cooking onsen" where you can boil eggs, vegetables, potatoes in water that comes from the underground hot springs of Yunomine.  Right behind it is a statue of a jizo --  the guardian of the hot spring waters.

The light was fading fast and lights were coming on along the main street of Yunomine.  All the buildings on either side of the road are ryokans or minshukus and on this weekday night, things 
were pretty quiet, unlike on week-ends when  crowds fill up all the accommodations.

In the distance are the mountains along the Kumano.  Yunomine is one of the most picturesque and quaint onsen towns I have been to.  

After dinner,  we set out to try Tsuboyu Onsen.  Because this is such a popular site, 
and the only World Heritage onsen, visits are scheduled by 30 minute time slots.  
You are given your time slot at the ticket office which is right by the town's public bath and for 
770 yen,  you get entrance to both.  
Since it was a weeknight with not too many people, we were lucky that we hardly had to wait.   
We were number 21 and number 20 was already in the bath.  The ticket seller told us that during week-ends a two to three hour wait was considered normal. 

Ancient pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo made Tsuboyu a popular stop, purifying themselves in the 
hot  spring waters before visiting the three Kumano Kodo shrines.  
Local legend states that a prince in the 15th century who was near death was miraculously cured 
after a bath at Tsuboyu.  I am sure it will do wonders for me too.  

Tsuboyu  is very small -- good for just 2 people,  three would be a tight squeeze.  Use the 
bamboo dippers to clean yourself with the water from the faucet before you get into the bath.    
Bring your towel from the ryokan to dry yourself after.  
If you find the water too hot (and yes, it is), open the faucet for cold water to run into the bath.  
The wooden pole you see hanging on the wall is to stir the water to cool it down somewhat.  
And of course mind the clock to remind you to leave when your 30 minutes are up.  

Don't worry about someone barging in on you -- the door has a secure lock.  

The pool is small and the waters were extremely hot -- we opened the faucet and let some cold 
water flow but it was still hotter than normal.  It is said that the colour of the water changes depending on the time of day but since we only went once, I have no way to verify this.   
It was a milky blue late at night. 
There was a faint smell of sulphur but it was not unpleasant.  I was told that the waters 
are good for all sorts of diseases like rheumatism and even diabetes. 
I normally like a very hot onsen so Tsuboyu was perfect for me.  Although I did get out a few 
times to cool myself down with a dipperful of cold water before getting back in for a hot soak. 

We faithfully followed our allotted time of 30 minutes.  Tsuboyu is open from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 
and we were one of the last to use the bath.  This tanuki was waiting for us when we stepped out in the cold night air.

Bright and early the next morning, we posed in our yukatas by the Yunotani river.   In an hour, we'd 
be on the bus out of Yunomine.
After that restorative bath in Tsuboyu, I felt purified and ready to continue on my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. 

Lessons Learned:

1.  I was so sleepy after soaking in Tsuboyu that I missed using the public bath.  If you go, you can use the public bath first while waiting for your turn at Tsuboyu.
2.  If you plan to go to Tsuboyu in the morning,  you'll have to be an early riser.   The ticket seller said that people start to queue as early as 4:30 or 5  in the morning. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 3 Hosshinmon-Oji to Hongu Taisha : Where I find medical jizos and the path to enlightenment

After 2 days of hardscrabble climbing (and descending) through challenging trails, I was finally coming to terms with the mountain passes of the Kumano Kodo.
As I trudged along, I thought of the monks, the emperors, the ordinary pilgrims of a thousand years ago and felt honoured that in my own small way, I was tracing their footsteps.
A pilgrimage is meant to involve sacrifice and some sort of suffering -- pilgrims specially the monks  did the Kumano Kodo as part of their ascetic practices.
While there was nothing quite ascetic about my pilgrimage -- with  creature comforts of
delicious food, comfortable places to sleep and no luggage on my back -- walking through
unfamiliar and difficult terrain did push me out of my comfort zone. 

Our third day's hike started with a bus ride out of Chikatsuyu.  Thirty minutes later, we were at the
Hongu Taisha- mae bus stop where our Mi-Kumano guides were waiting for us.  The Kumano Grand Shrine was a mere five minute walk away but we were not headed there, at least not just yet. 
From here we would take another  bus ride to Hosshinmon-Oji, where we would start our day's walk that would eventually lead us back here -- to the Grand Shrine itself.  

Just behind the bus stop is the torii that marks the entrance to Oyunohara, where the Grand Shrine Hongu Taisha used to stand.   Floods in the late 19th century caused the shrine to be moved out of this area to its current location, about 500 meters away.  
Not as famous perhaps as the bright red "floating torii" in Miyajima,  this concrete structure however is the largest torii in the world.  
It is a magnificent sight, framed by the mountains of the Kii Peninsula.

It was a short bus ride from Hongu Taisha-mae to Hosshinmon-Oji.  
The signpost states that  the walk back to Hongu Taisha would be just 6.9 kilometres.  

Across the bus stop is this simple torii guarding a small Shinto shrine.  
This is Hosshinmon-Oji, one of the most important Oji shrines along the Kumano Kodo.  
It is also called "The Gateway of Awakening of the Aspiration to Enlightenment" as it borders 
the outer edges of the Hongu Taisha, one of the three Grand Shrines that are the objects of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.
If enlightenment sounds very much like a Buddhist aspiration, the Kumano Kodo, essentially a
Shinto pilgrimage, has many ties to Buddhism.  The pilgrimage is closely associated with Koyasan, the "Vatican" of Shingon Buddhism and the start of the Kohechi route, one of the most difficult routes on the Kumano Kodo. 
If the objective of the Camino de Santiago is to reach the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrims of Kumano Kodo have to visit each one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines -- the Hongu Taisha, the Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. 

I pay my respects at the shrine and hope that I too may find some enlightenment on this pilgrimage.  The ritual at a Shinto shrine is as follows:
1. Purify yourself with water at the temizuya; 
2.  Standing with respect in front of the shrine, bow twice;
3. Clap your hands twice, to call the kami of the shrine 
4. Bow once and pray.  

Before we leave Hosshinmon-Oji, our guide Wada san points out this inscription on a piece of rock.  It is a poem written by a famous Japanese poet from the 12th century.  
The story goes that a nun who used to live near this shrine was visited by this poet and enjoyed her kindness and hospitality.  In appreciation, he composed this poem and scribbled it on her wall.
Unfortunately, this did not sit well with her and  she erased it, much to the poet's chagrin, I can imagine.   
To make up for this, the poem has been immortalised on this rock -- his words resonate through the ages. 
And dear reader -- I researched so you would not have to, these are the words of the poem:

"I' ve managed at last today to attain the fruitful land trying never to return to the six realms of existence."

Wada san said that today's  6.9 kilometre walk was easily the most popular along the Nakahechi route.  We would wind our way through small villages, easy forest trails and low mountain passes.  
My leg muscles all heaved a sigh of relief.

We saw marker #62 -- we would end at marker #75.  Not too long a walk -- it would be a breeze!

This poster reminded us that we were still in the countryside and that certain risks lurked -- 
perhaps in the tall grass around us. This is a warning about the poisonous mamushi or pit viper.
That's where walking sticks can help -- as you place them on the ground ahead of you,  any snakes along the path are given fair warning to get out of your way.  
And anyway perhaps death would not be instantaneous from a mamushi bite, Wada san said he had been bitten by one as a child and he survived.  

It was a lovely day --  perfect for walking along these quiet back roads.  Do you see the red circle 
in the photo above? According to Wada san, that was the halfway point and where we would be stopping for lunch.   

The roads were just wide enough for one car to pass although hardly any did.  It was  a gorgeous
day to be outside.

These small villages in the hills are landlocked without access to fire hydrants. 
This  cement pool is where the villagers keep water to use in case a fire breaks out.

This unmanned store had a number of folk art wood carvings -- I don't know if they were for sale since there were no price tags.  There were owls (symbols of happiness for the Japanese) the maneki-neko or waving cat and some Buddhist statues.  

A few steps further on, this large wooden cat with bright yellow eyes stood in front of a woodshed.

This must be the artist's house as there are more statues in front and what seems to be a workshop right beside.  It would have been nice to see if he had any small pieces for sale as everything 
I had seen would not have fit in my suitcase.

These shady paved paths were a delight to walk on  although I must admit, I did miss my old friends the ki-no ne ... just a little bit.

There are jizo or guardian deities all along the Kumano Kodo.   Traditionally they are guardian
deities for children but they are also revered for other purposes.  This one, almost hidden behind a
tree, is a "dentist" jizo.  
Wada san explained that centuries ago,  people in these remote areas did not have the services of
dentists so this jizo was their recourse when toothaches came along.  
And no, it is not the tooth fairy jizo so it doesn't give you money when you lose your tooth.

A grassy clearing is our next stop.  Mizunomi-Oji as the name suggests (mizu is the Japanese word for water) was where a spring was discovered making it a favourite  stop for ancient pilgrims.
An elementary school building stands in the grounds but it has been closed for some time  for lack
of students. 

There are a pair of jizos decked out in polk dot bibs alongside an engraved stone.  Wada san tells us that these are the jizo for backaches.  I think of them as the "chiropractor" jizos.

Apparently the "chiropractor" jizo is still at work to this day.  The statue is split in half and if you
lift it and place an offering of a  coin in the space in the middle, your backaches will be cured!
Here is Jay hoping that the jizo will ease his aches and pains.

Perennially red Japanese maples make me think of autumn -- it's a pretty sight as we leave Mizunomi-Oji.

There is a brief interlude of a shaded forest path -- tall cedars and cypresses provide some relief from the heat of midday.

All too soon, we are back on the paved road passing by gardens and front yards.  There is an early blooming hydrangea --  the bushes will be in full bloom by June.

This area has a number of small tea plantations -- they're very neatly arranged along the slope.

We came upon a farmer manually drying tea leaves in his front yard -- he graciously agreed to have his photo taken as he continued with his work.

Aside from tea, oranges are also plentiful in this village.  The farmer had a stand in his driveway
with oranges and packs of tea for sale -- honour system applies, just leave the payment in the small plastic bin.

Oranges are a good source of sweet hydration on this hot day so we completely obliterate his supply. At 50 yen each, it was  cheaper and definitely healthier than buying a bottle of juice. 

We climb a small hill and look back to the point from where we started, the area I have encircled
in red.  It's been a pleasant 3 kilometre walk thus far.
This is my  romanticised idea of a hike, a gentle picturesque stroll over easy hills and shaded paths.

At the top of this little rise is a delightful rest stop -- complete with snacks, drinks, a few souvenir items  and a marvellously clean toilet.  Managed and maintained by the community, it is staffed by volunteers who keep everything in tip-top condition.  

We meet up with the rest of the Amigos - the ones who walk much faster and are usually at least an hour or two ahead of me on the trail. 

We had  homemade onigiri (rice balls) in our lunch box from Minshuku Nakano
My favourite was the mehari-zushi,  rice wrapped in a pickled mustard leaf. The onigiri were
packed in a bamboo sheath,  making it a healthy and eco-friendly meal. 
To go with our onigiri,  Jay and I had iced coffee and fresh shiso juice.  The red shiso leaf  
is used for this refreshing, thirst quenching drink.  The ladies at the rest stop said that both drinks were made with the natural spring water in the area.
Oishii desu yo!

Right across the rest stop is Fushiogami-Oji,  one of the important stops along the Kumano Kodo.  We climb a few steep stone steps to reach the look out point.

For pilgrims who had endured through all kinds of hardship along the ancient trails, this hill on
which Fushiogami-Oji stands is the first time they see their destination - the red encircled area in
the far horizon is where the Kumano Grand Shrine Hongu Taisha stands.  
As they were overwhelmed by how near their goal was,  pilgrims fell to their knees and prayed --
which is what the word "fushiogami" literally means.
It's a tradition that modern pilgrims follow so naturally, I got down on my knees and said a prayer
of thanks ... that I too was so near to achieving my goal.

After Fushiogami-Oji, we pass more terraced tea plantations.  Looking at the steep sloping rows of tea plants, I would hate to be the one to harvest those tea leaves. 

A short walk into the forest and we come to this bridge over a cement road.  We are less than 2 kilometres away from our destination.

This narrow trail through the forest leads to Koyasan, 70 kilometres away.  This is the well known Kohechi Route,  characterised by its length and difficulty as it cuts through high and dangerous passes and recommended only for experienced mountain hikers.
I can imagine the relief of the pilgrim who would emerge from this path, knowing that
Hongu Taisha is well within reach.

I was enjoying this walk so much -- the mountain trails were the widest we had been on and I did not fear falling off the mountain at all.

Of course we had to pass through some difficulties before the walk ended.  A short but steep climb 
on irregularly placed stone steps and my on-again, off-again friends, the ki-no ne made an appearance just as I was lulling myself to complacency.  
And since what goes up must come down -- the descent over the same terrain had my knees begging for mercy.  

Thankfully relief was in sight.  We left the mountain and walked this shaded path to the last few hundred meters to Hongu Taisha.

Just before we entered the shrine grounds, we made a brief stop at Haraido-Oji.  Shaded by centuries old trees, the shrine was the last stop for pilgrims to purify themselves before they entered the sacred precincts of the Grand Shrine. 

This plain wooden torii marks the back entrance to Hongu Taisha.   There is a grander and more impressive one at the front entrance but it was more satisfying to enter through this simpler, almost austere entrance.

The first building I saw was this Grand Shrine Hall, a beautiful wooden structure with the trademark  roof and bronze ornaments of a Shinto shrine.  The roof abuts over the front and over the steps,  extending the shrine's  protection to pilgrims and visitors. 

A few steps away is the entrance to the inner shrine of Hongu Taisha.    Note the thick
shimenawa made of hemp hanging from the wooden beams.  The shimenawa are symbols of purification and can be seen in all Shinto shrines. 

Hongu Taisha is wide and low and sweeping.  It houses the deity Izenagi-Okami, who gave birth to Japan as well as the deities of the two other Kumano shrines of Hayatama and Nachi.
Japanese cypress and cedars grow tall at the back of the shrine.  
I love the plain unvarnished look of Hongu Taisha.  Among the three Grand Shrines, it is the only
one not painted in bright vermillion red.  
The natural unpainted buildings blend well with the trees that surround it -- where does the shrine
end and where do the trees begin?
It feels like a place that the kami -- the spirits  of the forests, the mountains, the earth and the trees would feel truly at home in.

I found this marker on the road just before I entered the grounds of Hongu Taisha.  It reminded me
of my own journey, walking through the beauty of the mountains and forests on the Nakahechi route.
As in the Camino de Santiago, you find your way by walking, but by walking, you also  find a bit
of yourself.
To paraphrase Buddha -- the way is not in the Camino or the Kumano Kodo, the way is in your heart.
And I think that is about the most enlightened I will ever get.