Friday, August 11, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 5 Katsuura to Nachi Taisha : Climbing the stairs to the end of my pilgrimage

On the last day of our Kumano Kodo, I woke up with the thought that my hiking days were almost over.   There was one shrine left to visit -- Nachi Taisha.  Located at the top of Mt Nachi,  we would reach it by bus but with a bit of climbing left to do.

The bus terminal is right by the Kii Katsuura railway station.  This makes it convenient for those who come from Osaka or even Nagoya and who have time only for a day trip to the shrine.   

The round trip ticket will save you a few hundred yen.  We all needed to go our separate ways after lunch, so we took the 8:25 a.m. bus to give us enough time to get back to Katsuura.  There are buses that leave earlier, the first at 6:45 and again at 7:25. But those were a bit too early for us.

After a short 20 minute ride, we got off the bus at the stop for Daimonzaka -- which literally means "gate to the slope".  Nachi Taisha is located on Mt. Nachi,  just up ahead.

Near the bus stop is this familiar marker which we first saw at Takijiri Oji
at the start of  our hike.  The marker states that the Grand Shrines of the Kumano Kodo as well
as other landmarks and areas in the Kii Peninsula are UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here is the map that shows the way to the shrine.  I've marked the various points -- the red circle shows the bus stop where we got off.  Next is Daimonzaka (orange circle) which are the stone steps that lead to the shrine.  
From Daimonzaka,  we would continue to walk up to Nachi Taisha (pink circle) and then walk down to the bus stop (yellow circle) that would take us back to Katsuura. This bus stop is also nearest Nachi no Taki or Nachi Falls.   
Some visitors opt to do a counterclockwise route --  by getting off the bus at the yellow circle and walking their way down to the red circle.  

A plain stone torii marks the start of the sacred grounds of Nachi.  Past the small red bridge are a few souvenir huts before you reach the stone staircase of Daimonzaka which will lead you up from the base to the mid point of Mt Nachi.  

At the very start of the stairs  are a pair of giant cedar trees that are said to be 800 years old.
These are known as the meoto-sugi or husband and wife trees so called because their roots are entwined at the base, underneath the stone steps.

We begin the steep and very crowded ascent of Daimonzaka.
As it is a Sunday, we are inundated with busloads of Japanese tourists who much to my chagrin,
bound up the uneven stone steps with such ease.
For those who need assistance, bamboo walking sticks are available, use them and leave them at the top when you finish your climb.

The air that surrounds Daimonzaka is suffused with a primordial energy -- these stone steps date
back hundreds and hundreds of years.  Trodden and well worn with the steps of countless pilgrims,
I can feel and understand the attraction and powerful pull of the Kumano Kodo.

We dawdle along the slope and soon it is completely quiet and there is no one around but us.  
The giant camphor, cedar and bamboo trees along the steps keep us cool on this warm summer day.  It is an incredible walk up this ancient stone staircase.   Surrounded by the forest, one can feel the strong chi or energy coming from this  natural environment.  

While picturesque and photogenic,  Daimonzaka is also quite a bit of a walk.
There are almost 270 steps, some of them steeply inclined,  that go on for over 600 meters, with a
rise in elevation of 100 meters.  
You  need to watch your step as it's easy to trip over the broken and unevenly placed stones. 
I see my dear old friends, the ki-no ne or tree roots and say a fond farewell to them.
Perhaps we will meet again someday?

Past the midway point, we came upon a group of Japanese ladies excitedly peering through the
trees. They quickly motion me over to point out a tiny but distinct glimpse of Nachi-no-Taki or
Nachi Waterfalls.

Along the way, we saw this hollowed out tree,  so massive that four or even five people would comfortably fit inside.  

The light at the top of the steps means we are nearing the end of the slope.  It has been an invigorating and unique  experience, climbing the Daimonzaka.

At the top of the steps, I take one last look back.  With a slight rustle, the trees seem to shroud the stone steps.  If it disappeared before my very eyes,  I don't think I would have been that surprised.

A signpost shows the way to the shrine complex.  We are headed for the direction of Nachi Taisha and Nachi no Taki

It's a bit of a let down to come upon this concrete car park that mars the natural beauty of the place.  While I realise a car or taxi could have brought me up here, I would not have exchanged going up the Daimonzaka for that convenience.  

There are more steps to climb on the way to the shrine.  As in most major temples and shrines there are shops selling souvenirs, amulets and crafts along the way.  The shops in Nachi are located along this stone staircase.   You can do some shopping as you stop to catch your breath.

These wooden masks and statues would make such great souvenirs but Jay calls them "dust gatherers" so all I can do is look and admire.

There are also figurines made of a type of jet black stone -- these come from the Kii Peninsula Mountain range. 

For thirsty pilgrims, there are bottles of water and tea set out by the side.  Naturally cooled by flowing mountain water, I can imagine how refreshing these must be.

At the top of the steps is a large torii that marks the entrance to Nachi Taisha. 

The view of the lush green mountains is a stunning backdrop for the vermillion torii and the
lanterns that line the steps.   The mountain breezes are no match for the hot sun -- it's an energy draining slog up this long staircase. 

And what do you think I found at the top of the steps?  Another tall and steep staircase to climb.  
Thankfully, it was the last one. 

At the top of the mountain is Nachi Taisha.   It is the smallest of the three Grand Shrines of the Kumano Kodo and like the Hayatama Taisha is painted in the traditional red orange of the
Shinto shrine.  We line up to pay our respects and thank kami sama for allowing us to finish our pilgrimage safely.

Another group photo is in order -- the Amigos just completed the Kumano Kodo!
Otsukare sama deshita!

Off to one side of the shrine is this giant camphor tree that is almost a thousand years old.  A  stone torii guards the entrance to the base of the tree where stone steps take you to the small shrine within.
Shinto venerates all  of nature and certain venerable elements such as rocks, water or  trees are seen as power spots where kami or gods are present.
The shimenawa or rope hung with shide that you can see on the torii signifies that this is a sacred place.

Just a few steps away from Nachi Taisha is Seiganto-ji,  an important Buddhist temple and the first stop in the Saigoku 33 Temple Pilgrimage devoted to Kannon, goddess of mercy.  This temple is 
also designated as an Important Cultural Property.
As you prepare to climb the wooden steps, pay homage to a statue of Kannon, located on the left.

Seiganto-ji's hondo or main hall is made totally of wood and is a marvellous piece of temple architecture that dates back to 1590.  Can you see the bright red pavilion of Nachi Taisha peeking from the left side of the photo? 
The proximity of Shinto shrine to Buddhist temple is a very common all over Japan.  
I particularly noticed it here along the Kumano Kodo where shrines to Oji or children of Shinto deities co-exist side by side with statues of jizos or Buddhist bodhisattvas
The Japanese observe and practice both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and traditions. 

I tried as best as I could to capture one of the more iconic scenes of the Kumano Kodo.  
As you walk down from the temple and the shrine, you will come to Sanjudo, the orange three-story pagoda of Seiganto-ji with Nachi-no-Taki, Japan's tallest waterfalls in the background.  
Even from this distance,  I could sense the power of the waters as it cascaded down from the mountain.
Rumor has it that the monks of Seiganto-ji know a secret spot to take the best photo from but since 
I did not run into any monk, I was not able to ask.  I can only hope my photo somehow captures this magnificent sight. 

From the pagoda, it was downhill all the way ... literally.  A 10- minute walk over paved roads 
took us down to the  stop for the bus back to Katsuura. This is right in front of the entrance 
to the stairs leading to Nachi no Taki.
On hindsight, it seems rather anticlimactic to end my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage at a bus stop.  
In a perfect scenario, I should be bowing to the gods on top of a windswept mountain or if I had 
the time, I could have been standing near the crashing waters of Nachi no Taki.

But perhaps is isn't so bad -- after all,  I was waiting for a bus  ...  to take me on to the next journey and on to the next pilgrimage.   


Lessons learned: 

1. The way down is harder than the way up.  Don't be daunted by the numerous stairs to climb, take the normal route of Daimonzaka to the Nachi Taisha.
2. The falls should be a gorgeous sight, leave enough time in your visit for the walk down to the falls.  I'm sorry we missed doing that.
3. Photos were not allowed inside the Seiganto-ji but don't miss a visit inside to see the beautiful treasures on display.


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