Green and to the heart of the matter

Kumano shows the real beauty of Japan lies not in pop culture and bright city lights

First of two parts

“Once you cross Tonda River, you’re entering the Land of the Dead,” says Brad, a tousle-haired, bespectacled, Japan-loving walking encyclopedia from Canada and also our chief guide on this venture into Kumano — the spiritual heartland of Japan, located on the Kii Peninsula, Wakayama Prefecture.

Land of the Dead? Mordor-like or Mordor-lite? I’m decidedly not scared at this point, but . . . that’s down to naivety. I will almost die, and fall in love in the process.

Me, Brad, a few of his colleagues, and a squad of all-male, all-gaijin (Western) journalists are standing beside the Takijiri-oji Shrine, which most hikers use as a starting point to trek through Kumano, and Brad is spinning a mythical tale, which goes something like this: The female creator deity Izanami died giving birth to the fire deity — and that does sound like a rather painful experience — so she went to Kumano, the Land of the Dead. Her hubbie, Izanagi, the male creator deity, sought her out. But after seeing her corpse, he was naturally upset and fled the Land of the Dead and jumped into the Tonda River, which runs in the valley below. There he did the misogi (purification ritual) and when he washed his body deities were born. And life, the universe and everything moved on . . .

This is just one of many myths; Kumano has thousands of years of complex religious beliefs involving Shintoism, Buddhism and other obscure belief systems (this place also attracts yamabushi [mountain ascetics], who dangle off cliffs and sit naked under freezing waterfalls).

“The important thing to remember is that Kumano is open to everyone,” says Brad. “This place goes to the core of spirituality rather than holding fast to any specific doctrine.”

As our bus winds up and down through the cedar- and cypress-clad mountains, Brad, a crucial cog in the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau soul crew, says, “This reminds me of Nepal. You climb up and down mountains and then enter a river-valley community where you find lodgings for the night and then continue hiking the next day. That’s the general idea when you visit this area.”

One such lodging is the new Kumano Kodo Takahara Lodge in the mountain-top village of Takahara, and it doesn’t get much better than this. The lodge opened last month and the rooms command mind-bending views of the Hatenashi mountain range with prices starting at around ¥8,900 a night; and it also boasts indoor and outdoor hot baths.

“There’s only one child left in this village due to depopulation,” says Brad. “We’re hoping the lodge may create a few new jobs and attract a new family to settle here.”

Looking out at the mountains, I get my first “hit” of what this is all about. It feels good. Another guide, Akagi-san, (clad in a traditional yamabushi costume, and fondly nicknamed “Bakagi-san,” but more of that next week) blows his horagai (conch trumpet), which is used by the yamabushi to attract the attention of the deities and also to communicate.

Pilgrims — from emperors to peasants — have endured a 40-day return hike to Kumano from the ancient capital of Kyoto for thousands of years. Their goal: to visit the Kumano Sanzan, or the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano — Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. They would follow a network of routes called the Kumano Kodo, with the most common being the trail following the coast to the town of Tanabe and then turning east on the Nakahechi Route that cuts through the mountains. Brad says that tomorrow we will hike along part of that route — moving through the Land of the Dead.

We stop for a vegetarian lunch at the Boccu macrobiotic restaurant, which is located in a minka (traditional old rural house) in the village of Nakahechi. The young owner, Yukimi Nakamine, was attracted by the bright city lights and left here to work in Wakayama and Osaka like many other young people. But pining after the natural way of living, she returned to grow her own organic food and open the restaurant. The bean and veggie dishes are so good that if I was on death row this would be my last order.

Next we stop to drink water from the Nonka No Shimizu spring and gaze in awe at the huge Ipposugi cedar tree, with all of its branches pointing south. “That’s because there’s a lot of spiritual power in that direction,” says Brad.

Ipposugi is one of many trees that were saved by the avant-garde environmentalist Minakata Kumagusu. The microbiologist with a fondness for folklore would scamper naked in the woods and then return to a village and tell people that a tengu (long-nosed goblin) had led him to a new species of fungi. He was a fierce opponent of the Meiji Restoration authorities who, in their effort to split Buddhism and Shintoism, were intent on destroying many of the holy areas that fuse the beliefs in Kumano. Kumagusu even got jailed for his dedication to the rebel cause, but in his cell the gods shined upon him, and he found yet another new species of slime mold growing on the wall.

Brad says: “When the government inspectors arrived to check the area to see what had to be destroyed, Kumagusu would be a kind of ‘guerrilla’ guide: One of his famous tricks was to take them to a local inn and get them hopelessly drunk so they’d just pass out and then return to the city with a hangover the next day and without destroying anything.”

In another stunning valley dotted with ume (apricot) trees lies the village of Minachi, and we drop by the rambling, ramshackle home and workshop of 87-year-old Yasuo Shiba, the last of Japan’s great traditional cypress craftsmen. For generations, his family has worked here, making conical hats worn by pilgrims, and which are often commissioned by major Kyoto temples. He is the last in line, and I feel quite emotional watching him beavering away on another hat beneath various awards and certificates that line the walls recognizing his work and telling us he is a Living Intangible Cultural Asset in Wakayama Prefecture.

When I take in the magnitude of silence and peace in this lush valley, I realize this is the “land of living,” and that Tokyo, where I live, is the “land of the dead.” Rather an array of trees than an army of sad-faced salarymen. I get my second “hit,” and it’s a big one. I smile at Brad, and he places one of Shiba’s hats on my head.

And Shiba chats on and on, clearly excited about having a bunch of foreigners crowding around him in this remote village. “Young people don’t do this craft anymore. They leave for the cities,’ he says. “And the old craftsmen are disappearing. I am the last one, but I am getting old, so it’s much harder to go into the mountains to collect the cypress bark I need, but a lot of people in the village support me so I can continue my work.”

He doesn’t say this with sorrow particularly. Just matter-of-factness. But I think he’s got a few good years left in him; he’s a sprightly old fellow and I’d put money on him to beat this alcoholic wastrel of a writer over 100 yards. As the other journalists — and only one of them is taking any notes (maybe they all have amazing memories) — head back to the bus, I ask Shiba if I can use his bathroom. He leads me past a tatami room where two yukata-clad women (perhaps his wife and daughter) have been quietly spying on this strange invasion of gaijin. In a store room on which sake is stacked on shelves a urinal pokes out of the wall like some Duchamp artwork.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “That’s all it is.”

“That’s all I need,” I say.

Shiba usually constructs two hats a day, and they cost about ¥5,000 apiece. At first the hats are a pale yellow. But as the wood ages, they turn a beautiful brown color.

“When it’s sunny and hot, air can pass through the hat to keep you cool,” explains Brad. “And when it rains, the fibers expand and together with the cedar oil this stops your head from getting wet.”

Back on the bus, we’re heading for the oldest spa area in Japan, and Brad announces: “And now for something completely different. The beautiful Mayumi (another guide) is going to take her clothes off for you. I bet you are all very excited.”

I wonder if Brad has been taking secret hits from a flask of shochu. In this case, he’s certainly trying too hard to keep these journalists interested. Can’t blame him though, a few of them look like they’ve just stepped out of a George A. Romero movie and never left the Land of the Dead. Myself, I’m enthralled and enwondered and sex is the last thing on my mind.

Next week, part 2 includes a visit to Yunomine, the oldest onsen area in Japan, and a trip through the Land of the Dead. For more info, contact Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau at

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