For thousands of years, a venerated Shinto Buddhism shrine in the Kii mountain range of Japan has been a place to visit for millions of pilgrims.
All levels of society, including retired emperors and aristocrats, have made the walking journey to this shrine.
The walk itself was an integral part of the pilgrimage process as they undertook rigorous religious rites of worship and purification. These pilgrims used a network of routes, now called the Kumano Kodo, which stretched across the mountainous Kii Peninsula in Western Honshu.
In 2004, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes were registered as UNESCO World Heritage, and a twinning program began with the Camino de Santiago pilgrim path in Spain for a dual pilgrim credential program.
The Kumano and the Camino are the only two UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimages in the world; one being Christian and other Buddhist
Since I had walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela (the minimum 100 miles needed to get my pilgrim credential or “Compostela”), I decided that I wanted to also walk the Kumano Kodo in Japan to get my dual pilgrim certificate, and to research the trail and Japan for bringing future adventure groups with my travel brand Active WorldJourneys. (You don’t have to walk both pilgrim trails in the same year or in any certain order.) Also, as I was about to turn 50 years old, and felt like this was a significant birthday milestone, I timed it so that my birthday would fall on the halfway point of my walking journey on the Kumano Kodo in Japan.
The Kumano Kodo route that most people walk these days is called the Nakahechi route.
It takes about 4-5 days to complete and is about 40 miles long. The traditional starting point is near the large town of Kii –Tanabe, which is about a 3-hour train ride south of Osaka, Japan’s second largest city.
I hiked for about10 miles a day, for 4 days on the Kumano Kodo trail. Stamping my pilgrim passport along the way from these little wooden houses like boxes and reading the historical stories about the Kumano Kodo posted at various locations along the trail.
Turning 50 on the Kumano Kodo was a very spiritual event for me.
I felt like I needed to shed some skin, reflect on what I believe had been the first half of my life, and embrace the upcoming second half of my life. On the Kumano Kodo, I actually felt like I was stepping a little deeper into myself each day. A self without as much need and desire and expectations as before, and a self-ready to truly accept life for what it is…an individual journey filled with ups and downs, a search for purpose and meaning, and human bonding.
For those of you who have walked the Camino de Santiago, by way of comparison, the Kumano Kodo goes through more forest than the Camino and has more elevation gain and loss. So I’d say the Kumano is more of a hiking journey, while the Camino is more of a walking journey. There are fewer places to stop and eat and drink along the Kumano trail than the Camino, and fewer accommodations, so book well in advance.
Most of the places to sleep along the Kumano Kodo are very lovely small boutique family run Japanese B&B type of accommodations and include breakfast and dinner.
They are the type of places where you get to wear the traditional Japanese robe and slippers from your room to dinner. Most of the properties will give you a bento lunch box to go each morning for a small fee so you have something to eat on the trail. By the way, this region of Japan has numerous ancient volcanic hot springs, which make for a wonderful way to soothe those aching muscles and relax at the end of each day. No bathing suit required, or should I say allowed! Just your birthday suit!
Hiking the trail in late November, the mornings were cold, so layers were a good idea, but the afternoons were sunny and brisk and cool (about 60F), perfect weather for hiking. (November can get some rain, but I got lucky as it stayed dry.)
I thought about the thousands of people that had come before me walking this ancient and sacred trail throughout the centuries.
What did they discover? Did the pilgrimage strengthen their faith? Did they feel fulfilled and jubilant after they reached the main shrine on the trail called Kumano Hongu Taisha?
Maybe life is always a constant seeking of something bigger than what we are. A search to unravel some type of mystery of our origins and our purpose for being here on Earth as humans. The Kumano Kodo reminded me that we are just a blip in time during our lives, and humans are still relative newcomers in the history of our planet Earth.
After completing my walking journey on the Kumano Kodo at the largest waterfall in Japan – Nachi Falls, and receiving my dual pilgrim credential along the way, I was feeling balanced, rejuvenated, and spiritually cleansed. I was going to own being 50, and not try to hide my age anymore or desire to look younger than I am. I was going to accept who I was, and my place on this planet.
With a fresh outlook, I decided to head up to the ancient capital of Japan – Kyoto to do some exploring.
Once in Kyoto, I rented a bike and spent the day visiting several temples and shrines. (Kyoto is a big place that has numerous temples and shrines and to see most of them you will need at least 3 days). I picked out 3 to focus on that were all situated in the eastern part of Kyoto – Kurama-dera Temple, Nanzen-ji Temple “The Silver Temple”, and Fushimi Inari. And oh my gosh, the fall foliage was bursting in Kyoto on that late November day!
The next day I travelled to the town of Nara, where thousands of deers roam freely around.
They even cross the streets with you and hang out on the sidewalks in front of cafes. You can buy biscuits and feed them. They are very quiet and friendly, soothing and peaceful to be around. In Nara is Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden structure – Not to be missed!
After taking The Shinkansen “bullet train” up to Tokyo (and catching a glimpse of the magnificent Mount Fuji from my window!). After a few days in Tokyo, it was evident it is one of those cities that can be anything you want it to be – dynamic, energetic, and shopper friendly, and/or even nerdy, naughty, and edgy.
All over Japan, I was very impressed with the friendliness and the respect and dignity of the Japanese people.
Japan is a culture forged on the tenets of respect for human life; spend a little time there and you feel good all-around as a human.
It has been suggested that 200 million people go on some type of pilgrimage each year. They set out from the ordinary, and seek the extraordinary. I was now 50 years old and a dual pilgrim. I had taken a mid-life spiritual pause to hike an ancient and sacred trail in search of the extraordinary. It felt right and it was indeed very rewarding on a personal level.
And so it was now time for this 50-year-old to go back home to Los Angeles.
As the plane lifted off the runway in Japan, I exhaled and smiled at the person sitting next to me; and that’s when I realized that maybe the extraordinary that so many pilgrims seek out each year is nothing more ordinary than a simple smile.