Thursday, June 8, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 1 Takijiri to Takahara : Upwards (and some downwards) with the Ki no ne

The first day of our Kumano Kodo hike started well after lunch.  Perhaps because the route from Takijiri to Takahara would cover a scant distance of  3.7 kilometres and we were expected to finish the walk in good time.  Still, it took me four hours to cover that distance.
You'll have to read on to find out why ....

To get to Takijiri we took a local bus from Tanabe City. The bus stop is right in front of the Tanabe Tourist Center  where we also met up with our Mi-Kumano guides who would be walking with us for the next four days of our five day hike. 

Kumano Travel, the community based travel bureau who handled our reservations also made arrangements for our luggage transfers.  As in the Camino, we would not need to walk with everything in our backpacks as our suitcases would be ferried daily to our lodgings.
We would only need to carry what we needed for the day's walk.  
When we got off the bus at Takijiri,  Yama Shuttle Luggage Service was waiting by the stop.
This sweet little lady -- definitely smaller and lighter than me --  took my big suitcase and hefted it into her van ... without even batting an eyelash.  I was really impressed!

The Kumano Kodo Kan Pilgrimage Center is located right at the entrance of Takijiri.   Before we started the walk, our guides  brought us in for a quick briefing.

Inside, the Center is made up of gleaming cedar floors and walls.  There are tourism posters,  brochures, maps and even videos about the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.

There's also a store with hiking gear, for those who need some last minute purchases.  I'm happy to see that the products are by my favourite, Mont-bell -- Japan's premier hiking and mountaineering brand.

Meet the Mi-Kumano guides who would prove to be invaluable during our hike.  From left to right, they are Wada san, Jennifer san and Chika san.
Jennifer is an Ilongga married to a Japanese and who has lived in the area for over 20 years.  
We were all pleasantly surprised to hear someone welcoming us in Tagalog!  

After the briefing and the trips to the toilet (last one before we got to Takahara) we were finally
ready to head off.
Across the road from the Pilgrim Center is the Nakahechi route's official "gateway" to the sacred mountains of the Kumano Kodo.   It is marked by a small but significant shrine, the Takijiri-Oji.
Oji are "children of the deities" and all throughout the various routes, there are shrines dedicated to them where ancient pilgrims stopped to pray and rest.
Most of the very old shrines have been reduced to a mere pile of rocks or stones but are still marked with signs so you can read about their history and significance.

Like the mogotes along the Camino de Santiago,  you will find these wooden posts along the
Nakahechi and other Kumano Kodo routes.  These markers are set every 500 meters so hikers
have an idea of the distance they've travelled.
Phone numbers for the police and fire stations are on every marker -- a good reminder that
while these routes have been walked on by pilgrims through a thousand years,  today's hikers should still be careful along the trails. A false sense of security can lead to accidents on the rough and oftentimes uneven terrain.

Wada san and our guides lead us through the torii into the shrine where we  pay homage to the 
Oji and ask for a safe and accident free hike.

One last thing to do before we enter the mountain trails -- get our little booklet stamped at the shrine.   We had all been given these stamp booklets at the Tourist centre in Tanabe and instructed to collect stamps along the way.  
After we completed a certain number of stamps, we would need to show this to the Pilgrim Center at Hongu Taisha where we would be given a certificate for completing the Kumano Kodo.  
This is reminiscent of the sellos that pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago need to collect along the way so they can earn their compostela.

Right at the vey start of the path, a tree has grown over this massive boulder, its huge roots 
hugging the moss covered rock.  Looking back on this, it was a sign of what was to come -- 
we would see more ki-no ne or tree roots covering the forest trails. 

The initial way up is steep and through stone steps.  It would get progressively harder and steeper as we continued to climb.

Some minutes later, we came upon these gigantic rocks that formed a narrow opening.  
This was a test for those brave and yes,  slim enough to try and pass through.  
Our guides told us that to be able to clamber out on the other side of this stone "womb" meant 
that you had been "reborn".  Some of the Amigos successfully  experienced this "rebirth" but I 
decided that I enjoyed this life too much to want to be "reborn" into another.  

The trail is full of large and interesting rock formations, some of them with very interesting back stories.  
Our charming guide Chika san  told us the legend about this rock that hides a small cave.  
It is said that a baby was born to a powerful lord and his wife while they were on the Kumano pilgrimage. They left the baby near this rock and continued on to the shrine.
When they came back, they found the baby well and healthy -- nursed by the wolves in the forest.  
The rock is now called Chichi-iwa which  translates to "Milk Rock". 

We continued the unrelenting steep ascent towards Takahara.  Sometimes, we walked on uneven stone steps  --  I huffed and I puffed but those stones just kept climbing up and up and up.  

More difficult than the stone steps were the ki-no ne or tree roots that were even trickier, at least that's how I felt.  I had to look for secure footholds in between the roots.  One false step could mean a twisted ankle -- certainly the end of the hike for me.

The entire mountain is covered with these Japanese conifers.   They grow by the ridge along the narrow trails -- if you slip, you'll roll straight down the slope. I made a mental note to try and grab a tree trunk if that ever happened to me.

Normal seasoned hikers (these include the elderly Japanese who were trotting along and passing us on the trail) usually take the 3.7 km hike in 2 to 3 hours.  Navigating the twisting, snake like ki-no ne further slowed down my usual slug like pace.   

Thankfully at some points, we'd reach level ground -- where the roots were not as "invasive".
Time for a water break and a smile for the camera.

Halfway through the hike, the trails got a bit wider but were now covered in dried leaves making the path quite slippery.

Dirt covered paths amidst lush greenery reminded me of the Camino trails in the Galician mountains.  Instead of the smell of eucalyptus, there was a faint hint of pine leaves.

Smoother and wider walkways and a clearing at the end signified that we were nearer our goal.  It was almost  6 p.m. and we had been walking for more than 3 hours.

Three kilometres covered!  Just seven hundred meters to go.

At the outskirts of the village of Takahara, we saw this altar with two jizo
Jizo are traditionally deities who are guardians of children -- those who have died or were unborn, miscarried or aborted. 
This altar however houses a husband-and-wife jizo,  protectors of couples' relationships.
If you look closer, there is a sake cup in front of one of the stone figures I'm guessing it must be for the husband jizo

We are very near the centre of Takahara -- just 400 meters away.  We walked 3.3 kilometres to reach this point.  We had also climbed to 317 meters, the altitude of this mountain-top village. 

Marker number 7 is right by the roadway.   Takahara seems sleepy and quiet -- it's just after 6 pm  
but we did not pass a single person as we walked into the village.

The residents are used to pilgrims passing through -- as evinced by this handmade sign propped up against one of the houses. 

Before we got to our hotel, we stopped at Takahara-jinja which is one of the oldest shrines of  the  Kumano Kodo

Behind the shrine is the giant camphor tree that our guides tell me could be more than 800 years 
old.  It is enclosed by shimenawa, the rope seen in Shinto shrines  signifying that this is a sacred place. Shide or lightning shaped paper cut-outs are hung on the shimenawa -- a sign that kami or deities are present here.  
I bow my head in silent thanks to the kami of the tree for guiding my feet safely through the 
ki-no ne or tree roots along the trail.

It's almost dusk as I snap this last photo, taking advantage of the soft natural light.  
Takahara is surrounded by the beautiful Hatenashi Mountain range.  It is this panoramic vista that 
is my reward after a challenging but ultimately fulfilling first day's walk. 

Lessons learned : 
1. I do not know why  luggage transfer from Tanabe City to Takahara was not recommended to us.  Since we had suitcases, we took up all the aisle space in the bus and the local residents had to get around our  luggage to get on and 
off  - sumimasen! 
2. If you are inexperienced with tree roots and steep mountain trails, slow but sure is the best way to avoid accidents or spills. 
3. Sticks or poles are essential in navigating your way along the uneven terrain.

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