The first thing we met on the Kumano Kodo trail was another Malaysian! Yes, it was a thing. It was a Malaysian arowana fish swimming in a fish tank in a small shop at Takijiri-oji where the trail began.
The shop owner was delighted to hear that we are Malaysian because his beloved fish is also a Malaysian. He beamed non-stop as he labelled our bags that we dropped off for his luggage shuttle, and as I paid for the drinks, snacks and a bamboo stick that I bought for our walk.
He continued beaming as he took our photo at the start of the trail, and as he presented us with laminated red maple leaves that he had collected last autumn.
It put us in a cheerful mood as we passed through the shrine gate that marks the start of the trail. My cheerfulness paled a little when I saw the path. It was steep, very steep, and totally relentless. All thoughts of Malaysian arowana fish and maple leaves faded as I hauled myself up the hill.
A dramatic start to the Kumano Kodo.
Google has reams of info on the Kumano Kodo so I’m not going to tell you about it being a 1,000 year old pilgrimage route to the three great shrines in these mountains, Unesco world heritage site and all. I’ll just tell you about arowana fish and such.
As we walked along, we came across small boxes containing rubber stamps to collect on a commemorative book to mark the progress of one’s walk. We didn’t have a stamp book which might have been a good thing as the stamping process seems complicated. A woman at one of the boxes looked helplessly at me, as she tried to stamp her book. The stamp appeared to be a roller of sorts, and it wasn’t going on correctly. I had no idea how to, as well.
It struck me: what if you missed a stamp box due to exhaustion or negligence? Would you go back to find it, or leave a gap between stamps number 5 and 7?
And so, we kept walking. The path became flat, then downhill, and evilly trudged uphill again. It really felt unfair to be forced to walk uphill after having been lulled by a long flat stretch. My husband reached the ridge top first. Hurrah! What marvels await us there?
An NHK TV tower! I don’t know about you but it sure felt strange to see a TV tower after being steeped in pilgrim folklore and ambience for a couple of hours. It was like entering a restaurant through its kitchen, and immediately, the spell is dispelled.
Not long after the NHK tower, the forest trees gave way to the outskirts of Takahara, the village in the mist. A short while later, we saw a vegetable patch! We were inordinately excited to see it because it reminded us of our own vegetable garden at home. We wanted to see what he was planting, it looked like onions and leeks, and some green leafy vegetables.
The man tending the patch didn’t look up when we stopped though he wasn’t particularly grumpy. Thousands of walkers must have taken photos of his garden patch, and it must be super boring to keep having to answer the same question: what are you planting? I understand that; I’ve had tourists stick their cameras into my house window to take photos of me making a basket. Huh?
So, we took photos of his vegetable patch but not of him.
Silent houses, silent school
From Takahara onwards, we became accustomed to vegetable patches of leeks and onions, and stopped taking photos of them except for one which had a scarecrow couple sitting inside. It scared us too!
The trail goes through many mountain villages, and although Japanese villages are much more pristine and neat, their small sizes felt similar to our village back home. We liked the honesty stalls, similar to what we have at home, and their homely produce, similar to what we have at home too!
What intrigued us were the seemingly abandoned houses, and one abandoned school. They felt spooky. None were run down as such, but there were giveaway signs like dusty seats or a broken netting. Unwanted homes, a burden. We hurried by them. We are Malaysians, we don’t want spirits of any nationality or vintage taking a liking to us.
This was the one side of Japan that we hadn’t seen before, with the caveat that we only arrived a week ago and it was our first visit. Still, everything that we saw up to then had been postcard perfect, I had never been to any country where perfection is around every corner. This came as a breath of fresh air!
At some point as we walked, a fit and wiry man overtook us, looking all cheerful. He waved, we waved, and he ran off into the distance. We caught up with him again at the viewpoint with a view of the giant tori shrine gate of the Kumano Hongu Taisha. He was taking a lunch break, with some rice balls.
He was more than happy to chat. He says he’s training for a trail run, and this path was readily reachable from his home in a nearby town. Hungry, he said, as he kept munching. After a bit, we said goodbye, and continued walking. He soon overtook us again, calling out “very near”!
The Kumano Hongu Taisha was indeed quite close. We thought we had said goodbye to him but a couple of hours later at Yunomine Onsen village, a man bounded up to us to say “Hello! Do you remember me?” There he was, again! He had reached the village ahead of us, taken a bath at its public baths, and was waiting for a bus home.
I was inexplicably happy to see him, perhaps because he was using this trail in such a practical way, and without the fuss of chop-chop stamps, konnichiwa here and there, special gear and all. We didn’t see him again but I still do think of him, sometimes.
And so, we walked on.