What this technical definition of a ‘pilgrimage’ doesn’t state, but I believe is also true, is that it involves a certain level of misery. A level of hardship that allows for the pilgrim to reach new heights in their self-awareness. Subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) suffering that tests your resolve as well as your physical and mental strength.
So with this in mind….I think it’s safe to say, my Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage was legit. It was hard. It was beautiful. It was sometimes physically painful. It was a test of my determination. It was an unforgettable experience, and it taught me many things about myself.
So what is the Kumano Kodo? It is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimages (the other being the more famous Camino de Santiago in Spain). It is a series of routes that have been used for over 1,000 years that cross the Kii Peninsula in the Kansai region of Japan. These routes lead to the three grand shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
I hiked the Nakahechi Route, for three full days. Over 25 miles through the heavily wooded mountains on uneven terrain, sometimes up steep inclines for hours at a time and I only fell once (nearly to my death on the side of a mountain!). My legs were sore, my feet had blisters, and my backpack had rubbed the skin off of my hips. I was not a “hiker” per say….but I was indeed hiking.
Each night as I dragged my ass into our minshuku (which are family run guesthouses along the route), I was tired, dirty, hungry, and in need of a hot bath. That’s right, I WANTED to take a Japanese bath….I WANTED to shower with other people in an open space and sit in a hot bath, naked, with strangers! In true pilgrimage fashion, I was opening up to new ideas and learning things about myself. This was the first…my need to soothe my poor aching body in a hot bath outweighed my prudish Midwestern desire to maintain my ‘nevernude’ status. And that communal hot stew was just what I needed to relax and sleep so that I could get up early the next morning and start it all over again!
Every time I thought I couldn’t make it, I would take a break, soak up the beauty and history around me and push on. I thought about the people who walked this path 1,000 years ago in their shitty wooden sandals and kimonos. If they could climb these mountains in glorified wooden flip-flops, I could too in my fancy ergonomic boots from REI, moisture wicking everything, from underwear to socks to headband. I didn’t have to carry water in an old animal bladder or eat dried fish. I had my high tech backpack with my camelback and nutrition bars specially formulated by food scientists. Every time I wanted to quit I’d think about those people and remember that I really didn’t have anything to complain about….
On the third and final day of hiking, to reach the last of the three shrines, I walked up the Daimon-zaka which is a cobblestone staircase about 600 meters long with 267 stairs. At the top is a small town where I saw the tallest waterfall in Japan, Nachi Falls. It was literally picture perfect and also the perfect place to end my pilgrimage. Now that it’s done, I look back at that trip as my favorite thing I did in Japan—even better than cuddling foxes at fox village, so that really says something about how great it was. So great that the sore muscles, blistered feet, and even sitting naked in a bath with strangers didn’t ruin it!