Hike Japan’s sacred mountains

Hike Japan’s sacred mountains

Aaron Millar hits the mountain trails of Japan to hike in the footsteps of emperors and monks along an ancient path towards enlightenment.

Ryoei Takagi is a 62-year-old Buddhist monk. Every January he climbs the steep snowy slopes of his home in the Kii Mountains of Japan to meditate under the 48 sacred waterfalls that flow into the Nachi Otaki – the tallest waterfall in the country, revered in folklore as a living god. Despite the icy conditions, he’s able to remain submerged in the near-freezing flow for 45 minutes at a time. “This training has granted me supernatural powers,” he says, leaning in to whisper in my ear. “I can see people’s heart inside.”

But subjecting oneself to glacial conditions, he explains, is only a small part of the process. The real business is in the mountains. Takagi is a follower of Shugendo, an ancient Japanese religion that fuses Buddhist ideals with indigenous forms of nature worship. For centuries, devotees like Takagi, known as yamabushi, have been trekking Kumano’s arduous slopes in the belief that ascetic training in sacred spots can grant one magical abilities. Japanese folklore is rich with examples of these mountain monks predicting the future, walking on fire and even flying.

I’ve come to Japan to explore these sacred mountains. I want to learn more about Shugendo and perhaps see if some of that magic will rub off on me. Over the next five days I will be walking the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo – an 88-kilometre ancient pilgrimage path that bisects the Kii Mountains in the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula, 200 kilometres south of Kyoto.

For more than 1,000 years emperors and peasants have been walking these trails in search of enlightenment and healing on their way to the three Grand Shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hatayama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Mirroring their journey, I plan to stay in small mountain villages just off the trail and discover, I hope, a slice of rural Japanese life seldom seen by outsiders.

“Walk the route, breathe the air and make room in your heart to feel it,” Takagi tells me. If there is such a thing as hiking nirvana, then the Kumano Kodo is surely the place to start looking.

Japanese emperors would have started their journey in Kyoto, with royal processions – sometimes 800 strong – inching their way 160 kilometres south to the port of Tanabe before turning east towards the mountains. But for me the trail begins a few miles inland at Takijiri-Oji, the gateway shrine to the sacred lands of Kumano, and once the site of great celebration and ritual offerings of poetry, dance and even sumo. From here I climb five steep kilometres to the mountain village of Takahara, passing monoliths with mantras etched in stone, buried sutras scribed by emperors, and small wooden shrines with offerings left inside: cups of green tea, a red blanket, rusting decades-old coins. It’s like entering a living museum.

That evening owner Jian welcomes me to the Kiri-no-Sato guesthouse with a banquet of traditional Japanese country cooking known as kaiseki – dozens of individually prepared, uniquely flavoured dishes – that I encounter many times on this trip. Tasting steamed mountain vegetables – along with tuna sashimi, salmon teriyaki, venison in spicy miso sauce – parts of my mouth that had been bone-idle since birth suddenly start singing karaoke. Seeing my reaction Jian smiles. “This is the idea of wabisabi, and it’s how you should walk the Kumano Kodo too: with all your senses open and in the moment.”

I leave for Chikatsuyu, 10 kilometres east, at dawn the next day. The clouds are still sleeping beneath terraces of rice and soya bean and the mountains are two-toned dark green and misty grey. This small valley town, bisected by the Hiki river, has been used as a stopover since the time of the first imperial pilgrimage. Even in the depths of winter, devotees would immerse their entire bodies in the freezing mountain water to purify themselves of sins and misfortunes. Luckily for me my guesthouse, the Chikatsuyu Minshuku, is the only one in town to pump this sacred spring water through a heating system and into a bath right on the river. As I lie in the steaming pool two eagles soar on thermal currents above the gentle rapids at the edge of the tub. I’m not sure if this counts as Shugendo mountain training, but it feels pretty enlightening to me.

Despite its antiquity, the Kumano Kodo has in many ways always been the most progressive of Japan’s sacred places – welcoming all, irrespective of gender or class. As a result it’s been popular too. Records refer to a ‘procession of ants’ – hundreds of white-clad pilgrims scrambling up the steep slopes.

As I walk to Hongu Taisha the next day, climbing 25 kilometres of mercilessly steep mountain passes, I feel tiny, beat up and exhausted. “Being in nature makes you humble” Takagi had told me. “That’s why we come here for training.” Now I understand what he meant; there is nothing more ego-levelling than walking in steep mountains. But despite the exertion, gradually a peacefulness descends on me too. The muted tones and slatted bark of the forest seemingly mirrors all thought, and contains all sound.

When finally I stumble into the dark, natural wood buildings of Hongu Taisha that evening I am greeted by a deep roll of thunder so sonically low it seems more imagined then real. Surrounded by cicadas and the golden lanterns, curved cypress bark roofs and hollow ritual bells of the shrine, I watch eight drummers beat deep taiko drums with thick wooden sticks. They play with such raw primal energy and intensity of focus it feels as if the music and the drummers are one entity – a contained ferocity that seems to emanate from the mountains themselves. It’s mesmerising.

From here pilgrims would traditionally follow the Kumano-gawa river to the Grand Shrine of Hatayama Taisha, but I press on to Yunomine – the only UNESCO World Heritage listed hot spring on the planet you can actually bathe in. Founded 1,800 years ago, it’s also the oldest in the country and, at a scorching 34°C, one of the hottest too. But that’s not all. As I stroll through the village I notice an old man with rubber gloves hoisting something from a hole of simmering water in the central square. To my great surprise a bag of sweet potatoes and a dozen perfectly hardboiled eggs emerge at the end of the line. Not only can you get wet, you can cook your dinner here too.

In 2004 the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, and my final two-day trek to Nachi Taisha takes me through some of its most beautiful scenery. I walk miles of mossy stone paths that wind through bamboo and cedar forests like entrances to an enchanted kingdom. I pass statues of dragons, monks and emperors, and giant cedar trees with hollowed out roots and offerings left inside. I follow rivers and ridges into valleys and villages where wildflowers – planted centuries ago in case of famine – still bloom peach, yellow and blue, and where shy farmers string up hay, like dolls’ hair, to dry in the sun. I hear the snort and dash of a disappearing deer. I eat fresh river crab and – during sunset at Hyakken-gura lookout, the most sublime panorama of the entire trip – I picnic on a Yunomine hot spring hardboiled egg, the best I’ve ever had.

Then, as I catch my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean – knowing the end of the pilgrimage is now in sight – something amazing happens. I hear a sound like nothing I’ve encountered before: the soft howl of an animal, but earthy too, like wind through bamboo. There in immaculate white suzukake robes (ritual garment), with bound feet, straw sandals and a conical Minachigasa cypress hat, is a real life Shugendo yamabushi. He stands tall and proud on the last summit ridge and blows his traditional hora conch shell trumpet to the wilds – signifying the teachings of Buddha and the summoning of nature’s deities. It lasts only a few moments, but listening to him play is the highlight of my trip.

At the end of my journey I walk through the cedar wood incense and the cherry trees of the Grand Shrine of Nachi Taisha – a soft soprano prayer echoing from behind temple walls – to the Nachi Otaki cascade nearby. Shugendo is a unique form of Buddhism, in that it stresses the attainment of enlightenment through active immersion in the natural world. Staring up at the 133 metre falls it occurs to me that there is a profound common sense in that idea.

For most of our existence, we human beings have been actively and intimately connected with nature. It shaped us and it’s part of what we are. If enlightenment is to be found inside us, perhaps it makes sense to start looking outside first. I walk down to the base of the freezing waterfall and think about jumping in. But only for an instant. I think I’ve been enlightened through immersion enough for one day.

Get there

The nearest international airport is Osaka. Jetstar operates direct flights from Cairns and the Gold Coast departing five days a week.

The Kumano Region is about 200 kilometres south of Osaka on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, and can be reached by train and bus.

Stay there

Traditional Japanese guesthouses can be found in all the main villages along the Nakahechi route from about US$65 a night. Visit the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau website.

Tour There

Oxalis Adventures offers nine-day guided and self-guided trips to the Kumano Kodo, Kyoto and Osaka. Trips include five nights accommodation in traditional guesthouses and most meals. Prices from US$1950 per person.

Words Aaron Millar

Photos Aaron Millar and Matt Malcomson

Tags: hiking, history, japan, unesco

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