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Seeking Japan’s gods and nobles in roots, stone and moss

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If you’ve had a hankering to go hiking with Shinto gods, then I recommend trying Japan’s Kumano Kodo: the Kumano Old Road. This UNESCO World Heritage site, located on the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, offers three pilgrimage routes that take you to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano (Kumano Sanzan). Emperors and nobility traveled the Kumano Kodo from Kyoto during the Heian Period (794-1185), when Kyoto was the capital city.

The Kumano Kodo is very well-sign-posted in both English and Japanese. There are even signs to tell you when you’re going the wrong way. Other boards indicate where historical events took place, and some reference the court diary (kanbun nikki) of Fujiwara Munetada, who, as a court noble, documented religious practices of the nobility in his diary, called the “Chuyuki” (1109).

The pilgrimage was eventually adopted by commoners and became so popular that the hordes of faithful were described as “ants” marching over the mountain passes. Well, better ants than cockroaches, I suppose.

The Kumano Kodo is a linear pilgrimage — a journey to a specific site. You go there, you come back the way you came. It is different from Buddhist pilgrimages that tend to make a loop so that you circuitously, often weeks later, find yourself back at the same place you started.

Traditionally, the Japanese have believed the mountains of Kumano were inhabited by Shinto kami, or deities. But of course, what we’re all really wanting to know is, who exactly are these deities? And, what’s the trail really like? I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble envisioning emperors and nobility in hiking boots.

Not finding the answers to these questions, I decided to go seek them out on the trail myself so that I could then pass the information on to you.

I chose to hike the Nakahechi route, which, according to the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, is the most popular path. This course takes about six days to complete. While people hike the Kumano Kodo to participate in an ancient Japanese tradition from the Heian Period, most people don’t care about tradition that much to hike back the way they came. So, at the end of the one-way journey, they claim victory and finish off by taking a bus back to where they started. Surely the nobility would have scoffed at this and thrown their hiking boots at us.

Because of time constraints (and a lack of concern for tradition, perhaps), I only completed the first four days, and plan to go back soon to finish the rest. But I had a chance to see what the conditions of the trail were like and to meet the mystery gods. I ran into some old familiar Buddhist deities such as Jizo (god of children and travelers), Fudo Myo-o (God of Fire) and Kannon (Goddess of Mercy). But I also encountered some gods I’d never heard of before:

1. God of Tree Roots

The first two hours of hiking, from Tanabe to Takijiri, was via a mountainous path populated by large trees with sprawling roots several meters long! It was as if these trees had snakes in their shoes. The exposed roots provided steps for going up and down, but it was easy to trip over them, too.

To make it worse, after you do trip (and you will), you’ll hear a sniggering among quivering tree branches. The God of Tree Roots is testing you. But this will not last for long. After a couple hours, these types of trees seem to disappear — perhaps because the next part of the route doesn’t offer enough day-trippers for them. From Takajiri, the footpath makes a dramatic change from mainly tree roots to mostly moss.

2. God of Moss

Since the Kii Peninsula gets 3,000 mm of rainfall every year, making it one of the moistest places in Japan, the trail is covered in a lovely layer of moss. You’ll feel like you’re walking through a bargain carpet warehouse that’s having a sale on lime green indoor-outdoor carpet.

But in this case, it’s not a bad thing. Moss is highly revered in Japan, and I always feel a bit awed and humbled in its presence. I know that I am nothing when compared to this contemplative plant that selflessly provides Japanese people with an inner sense of peace. I’ve already decided that should I choose to start a dialogue with moss, I’ll use keigo.

3. God of Flagstone

So popular is the Kumano Kodo that much of it has been paved with flagstone. These are smooth slate rocks, some as flat as tiles, arranged artfully along the path. This natural, unadulterated material is a nice change from the plastic faux-logs you tread upon on most Japanese hiking courses.

This amazing flagstone technology is still in use today. Old dried-up creek beds also offer a natural medium for hiking. Small oji shrines are resting spots along the way.

4. God of Moss on Flagstone

Of course, the problem is that the flat stones, along with the moisture ‘n’ moss combo, get slippery. I saw several people walking tenderly over the stones so as not to upset the God of Moss on Flagstone, who was out to toss them flat onto their behinds.

Proper shoes may do the trick, however, as I didn’t have a problem myself. And, it turns out, the nobility didn’t either: They traveled with an entourage of up to 1,000 people and they even brought horses. Who needs hiking boots!

One does feel blessed to be in the company of such gods on the Kumano Kodo, however, because even after a long day of hiking on flagstone, when your muscles are screaming, your feet are bitching and you’ve trudged 20-24 km through the mountains, you can always get completely naked and offer yourself to the God of Hot Springs.

Kumano is full of onsen baths that will welcome your weary body. In Omine, you can even bathe in one, called Tsuboyu, which was used by Heian pilgrims for purification rites, and is now the only UNESCO-listed hot spring open to the public.

A long soak in the bath will surely be followed by a beautiful meal at a Japanese-style inn, shared sake with other pilgrims, and a hearty crash into your futon.

Six days of hard-core hiking with the gods, six days of post-convivial bliss: That’s what hiking the Kumano Kodo is really like.

Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau: www.tb-kumano.jp/en. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp