Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 2 Takahara to Chikatsuyu : Finding my inner "Yama Girl" in the mountain passes

First things first ... what is a "yama girl"?  Yama means mountain in Nihongo and yama girls are Japanese women who like the outdoors -- hiking and trekking are their week-end pursuits.
They wear matching hiking gear from head to toe, often in pretty pastels or stylish prints.  
But don't think of these fashionistas as lightweights --  they traipse up and down the mountainsides without even breaking a sweat.  These women have mad mountain skills. 
Now, I am not a "yama girl" -- far from it.  
On Day 2 of our Kumano Kodo hike, we would be walking through the mountains from Takahara to Chikatsuyu,  and I secretly wished I had a bit of "yama girl" in me, to help me through the trails.

We started the hike from the parking lot of  Takahara Lodge where a sign directed us back onto the Kumano Kodo.  It was a steep uphill climb for a few hundred meters over a paved footpath that passed through backyards and small terraced rice paddies.

Like the Camino de Santiago, the Kumano is well marked with directional signs.  It will be hard to get lost, even if you are walking by yourself.
This well meaning sign just at the edge of Takahara states that Chikatsuyu, 9.7 kilometres away and  our destination for  today is a 3 to 4 hour walk.  
Perhaps if I were a yama girl or a gazelle,  I would make it in 3 to 4 hours.  
I've learned that the Japanese compute distance and speed based on their own fast pace.  
This is very much different from my reality -- what they call a 10 minute walk takes me 20 minutes.
I correctly predicted it would take me 8 hours (including water/toilet/lunch breaks) to finish the walk. 

The steep footpath led us to this asphalt road.  The wooden marker states #8 which means we 
have travelled 4 kilometres since yesterday.  Our target for today is marker 26 -- quite a way to go. 
Today's walk at 9.7 kilometres would also be the longest leg on our Kumano Kodo.  
Our guides had said that unlike the Takijiri to Takahara stretch which was mostly a long steep
climb,  we  would be going through both ascents and descents as we passed through the mountains.  

At the exact boundary between village and mountain is this small altar .  They are not jizo as I originally thought but are two Buddhist deities, tasked to protect Takahara from any evil.

The dirt path changed to cobblestones ands this portion is a steep ascent deeper into the mountain. 
The moss makes the stones slippery so it's best to go slowly or step off onto the dirt track when possible.  Tall cedar and cypress trees line the way.  We hear the raucous caws of crows and the  distinct trill of the uguisu or the japanese warbler.
Birdsong helps lighten the way and makes the climb a little less difficult. 

There's a hut with a an official distance marker in front.  There's someone sleeping inside so we 
push on.

This carefully arranged pile of rocks catches my attention and our Mi Kumano  guide Yamamoto san told me that these are made by hikers as a way of saying "I was here".

Here's a horizontal version -- carefully placed on a piece of wood.  Someone took the time and the effort to choose the rocks and arrange them neatly, all in a row.

Our guide Yamamoto san pointed out this unusual plant growing by the mountain side.  At first glance it seems like someone left behind a wadded up bunch of white tissue.  This is the "silver dragon" plant, called ginryosou in Japanese.  It has absolutely no chlorophyll which explains the absence of any green colour.  Fascinating!

The ki-no ne or tree roots were pretty much absent for most parts of the walk.  Instead we faced loose gravel and dried leaves -- tricky in their own right since they made the path slippery.  At the end of this path the road turned right and we started to climb again.

The brief climb led us to Takahara-Ike, a small pond right in the centre of the mountain.  The water was so vividly green, reflecting the masses of leaves that surround it.  Can you see the  small fish swimming in the water?  

Signposts along the way point out the different Oji shrines.  Oji are minor deities and there are various shrines along the Kumano Kodo where pilgrims could stop to rest and pray for safety along the way.

Wooden posts mark the shaded entry to  Daimon-Oji.  The small red structure  houses the self stamping ink pad that pilgrims use to mark their booklets with.

Behind it are these two stones that mark the spot where the torii or gates of  Daimon-Oji used to be.  

The path turned narrow once again.  I'm glad I do not suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights) or stenophobia (fear of narrow trails).  Although I do have clumsi-mania  (a strong urge to trip and fall) so I made sure to tread carefully and slowly.

During the walk, we would move to the side to let faster hikers pass through.  
While there were not too many that day, we did meet this incredible 60+ year old man 
running along the trail!  He was getting ready for a trail running competition. 
I was so amazed  -- here I was, edging along snail-like on these narrow paths --  and here 
was this fit and fast person, much older than me -- racing along the paths. 
He was very friendly and stopped to chat with us and wish us well -- ganbatte!

After more rocky ascents and descents, it was a relief to reach Jujo-Oji  a grassy clearing with some log benches and toilets.  
Here are our Mi-Kumano guides -- Yamamoto san, third from left and at rightmost Michiko san, 
a former marathoner.   I don't  remember seeing either one of them show any strain or effort at all, 
as they navigated the hardest sections of the hike. 
They were very helpful and solicitous, telling us where to pass and how to walk safely through the mountains.  

There are jizos (statues of guardian deities) along the Kumano Kodo and as we stopped at this particular one called the Koban Jizo, Yamamoto san told us the sad story behind it.  
A poor traveller passed away on the path with a koban or gold coin in his mouth.  
The gold coin was meant for his expenses so he would not burden anyone who found him that he would be assured of a proper burial. 
Coins and even a cup of sake have been left behind by pilgrims to honour his memory.

We climbed up and up on these narrow and seemingly endless trails.  That is not a smile, that is a grimace of suffering that you can see on my face.  
Michiko san stays behind me probably to make sure I do not roll off the mountain -- can you see 
the steep slope right alongside?

From Takahara with an elevation of 317 meters, we reached the highest point on today's hike --  Uwadaya-Jaya Teahouse is 690 meters above sea level.  In the olden days, tea houses were popular fixtures along the Kumano Kodo as they were places where pilgrims could refresh themselves and meet up with the local people. 
We had walked almost 6 kilometres since we started and our guides assured us that after this highest peak on the mountain,  the paths would start to descend.

This shows you just how narrow the paths can get.  These paths must be impassable during the rainy season. 

My old friends, the ki-no ne made a few cameo appearances today -- although not as pervasive or invasive as yesterday's climb from Takijiri to Takahara.  Sometimes they did help, providing small footholds where you could securely plant your feet.

In steep descent,  the ki-no ne was my friend, as they formed a network of irregular steps that  
helped keep me from sliding straight down.

The sign marks the site of the Three Fold Moon Viewing Spot -- if you follow the trail going up on 
the right, you'll see the place where legend has it that a monk saw the moon rise in three places. 
I wonder what the scientific explanation of this phenomenon could be (perhaps too much sake or shochu, hmmm?)
From this marker, the Kumano Kodo continues on the left where the descent becomes difficult once more -- steep and perilous with a snarl of dried leaves, ki-no ne and small loose gravel on the narrow trails. 

It looks very much like a snake is hanging from this tree.  

I detest descents more than ascents -- they're extremely hard on the knees and ankles.  Since I'm so uncoordinated, descents are particularly dicey as I always imagine falling forward on my face.  
Full disclosure -- I did fall once on this day's hike but I landed on my butt.  Thankfully, the ground was well padded with soft leaves and my bottom is well padded as well.
Here is Jay before going down a really steep switchback -- I remember wondering if I could just sit and inch my way down.

All of us successfully made it, thanks to Jay who showed the way  and thanks to our expert guides who talked us through the descent.  Please note, the descent started way ahead that red circle on the top right of this photo. 

This is the marker for Oosakamoto-Oji -- time to stop for another stamp on our booklets.
Oosakamoto means "the bottom of the big slope" and I can heartily relate to that.  
I am sure the deities still guarding this place helped keep us safe on the way down.  
On the marker, it says that in 1109 a pilgrim mentions a snake like object hanging from a tree, 
which once used to be a woman.  I wonder if that is the same object that I just saw.

Our reward after traversing that challenging pass was this cooling and refreshing waterfall -- 
I longed to go down and wiggle my toes in the water. 

We  conquered the big slope of Oosako Pass!

We still had a few more trails to climb down from but once you have gotten through the "big slope" the rest comes easier.

Marker #23 --  just 3 more (or roughly 1.5 kilometres)  to go!  

At this point, the Kumano Kodo continues on towards Chikatsuyu but it also gives you the choice to make a detour at a rest stop on the highway across the trail.

This is the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Michi-no-Eki which is right by Highway 311.  This delightful rest stop has clean toilets, vending machines for all kinds of hot and cold drinks and a small store selling snacks,  local specialties and shopping alert!!!  -- all sorts of kawaii Kumano Kodo souvenir items.  
The stone statue in front is of the young Emperor Kazan who lived in the 10th century and was one 
of the early Imperial pilgrims along the Kumano Kodo.  We would meet him later on during the walk. 

If the shadows seem long it's because we reached this spot past 3 p.m.  We had not eaten lunch and 
I didn't realise how hungry I was until I tasted the ham and cheese sandwiches packed by Takahara Lodge. 

It was difficult to put down our cold drinks but we needed to stop dawdling and get to Chikatsuyu.    We had a pleasant but brief walk through quiet paved roads before entering the mountain once again.

A kilometre away is the Gyubadoji statue of the afore-mentioned Emperor Kazan.  
A mere teen-ager when he ascended the throne,  he was a victim of political intrigue and enjoyed just a brief reign. 
Forced out of power, he lived the rest of his life as a wandering monk.  The Kumano Kodo is full of these interesting stories, some of them poignant and sad.  Hearing our guides talk about them makes me realise the historical and cultural significance of this pilgrimage even more.  

Just past Marker #25, I finally get a glimpse of the houses and farms that make up the village of Chikatsuyu where we would be spending the night.  
I breathed  a sigh of relief -- after a day of walking up and down the steep and narrow mountain 
trails,  I had emerged, quite unscathed.  
Perhaps just perhaps,  there is a little bit of  a "yama girl" in me after all!
Otsukaresama deshita!

Lessons learned:
1. When navigating narrow mountain paths, stay close to the mountain side.  
2. Rains cause landslides so watch out for the loose parts of the trail, particularly near the slope.
3. There are many interesting things on the mountain but please, do not get any souvenirs, not even a stone.  
The Kumano Kodo is a sacred path so please leave everything undisturbed. 


No comments:

Post a Comment