Travel | FREEWHEELIN' ACROSS JAPAN

Into the Land of the Dead

Second of two parts

Mayumi’s kimono finally falls to the floor. She wraps herself in a small white towel to keep some semblance of modesty and steps into the legendary Tsuboyu hot spring, which is built into the creek that runs through the village of Yunomine in the Kumano region of Wakayama Prefecture.

“Mind if I hop in with you?” I ask, playfully.

“There’s not much room,” she says. “But if you must.”

The first part of her reply implies a definite “no,” so I say: “No. I must not. It is rather small, so to speak.”

And then elbows fly as the male journalists on this trip catch up with me and take advantage of . . . this photo opportunity.

Sulfur hangs heavy in the air in this onsen (hot spring) area, and it isn’t because of the old local men boiling eggs in a nearby outflow with a water temperature of 93 C. And considering that tomorrow we will be journeying through the Land of the Dead (see last week’s story on The Japan Times Web site), the stench is appropriate. Perhaps a god has farted.

Tsuboyu, tiny though it is, is one of the most famous baths in not only the Yunomine area — which is the oldest onsen region in Japan at more than 1,800 years — but all of Japan: It’s the only World Heritage Site that has a bath that you can actually slip inside. It’s also a healing onsen, and the water is said to change color seven times each day due to the masses of minerals bubbling up from underground. Right now, it’s got a milky white hue, which is a perfect accompaniment to guide Mayumi’s pale, beautiful skin.

Yunomine is a good starting base for a hike in Kumano — the spiritual heartland of Japan — and it’s littered with tiny minshuku (guest houses, often with private hot baths). Me and a ragtag bunch of guides and hacks climb up to the Yunomine-oji (holy place) shrine on a small hill where one of the Japanese guides accidentally drops her boiled egg on the ground. She washes it in the okiyome no mizu (purification water) at the entrance, but the egg squashes in her hand. She tries to fish out bits of dissolving yoke from the water but finally gives up, and after guide Bakagi-san has blown his horagai (conch trumpet) — he’s getting better at it and the sound echoes impressively throughout the valley below — we beat a hasty retreat before a monk lynches us.

We join the nearby taiko (Japanese drum) workshop. In a nutshell: Drum group Oku Kumano Daiko bangs huge 400-kg drums that cost $80,000 each really loud. Best story: They did a show in Wakayama City for hearing-impaired people who all waved their hands in the air as their way of applause afterward (they loved the vibrations the drums made). End result: We’re all invited to bang the drums a lot. And when I leave the workshop I get a “hit,” the kind of high feeling you get after a good workout at the gym, not that I’ve done that kind of thing for a while. I have a sense, however, that I can actually hear the silence of Kumano better.

Our bus takes us to the Fujiya ryokan (Japanese inn) where we will end the first day. It’s the most luxurious ryokan I’ve ever stayed in. It has big, immaculate rooms and multiple hot baths. But what tops everything is that you can dig a hole on the pebbled shore of the nearby Oto River, watch it quickly fill with hot water bubbling up from underground, and then sit in it; and when you get too hot, plunge into the cold river for a swim. In winter the local inns band together and build a temporary onsen big enough for almost a thousand bathers — and it lasts until the rain falls and the river overflows and eats it up. But the less said about tonight the better. It’s party night and the gaijin (foreign) journalists are a bunch of amateur drinkers. One of them is left doubled over in the ryokan’s hot bath, eyes open as if in shock, staring at the floor like he’s just heard his beloved budgerigar — the only love of his life — has died, and he refuses to move even when Bakagi-san tries to encourage him to his room. And when I’m finally in my futon after a hefty drinking session with Bakagi-san in his room, I fall asleep to the music of my roommate, a Tokyo magazine scribe, throwing up a few feet away from me all over the bathroom floor. In the morning I step over his stomach musings. He didn’t clear it up. Charming.

It’s Land of the Dead time. Everybody has hangovers but I sensibly fortify myself with two big bottles of beer at the 7 a.m. breakfast. I take our chief guide, Brad, into a corner.

“Brad, my family has a history of heart attacks. I’m not stupid. And it’s raining . . . heavy,” I whisper. “Is it OK if I pull out of the hike and just wait on the bus? I don’t think I can do it.”

“But there’s crucial aspects of the story that can’t be explained if you’re not there,” insists Brad.

I guess Brad’s Boot Camp has already begun. It’s all right for him. He’s as fit as a fiddle. He once even got reprimanded by local authorities for kayaking in Kumano during a typhoon. I shrug, walk off and secure two bottles of sake, which I feel is required to nullify the hangover, paranoia and possible panic attacks that might lead to cardiac failure during the 7-km hike through the Land of the Dead, where the spirits of gods reside.

I think Brad is still affected by last night’s imbibing as he’s on top form on the bus despite getting just two hours sleep.

He points out of the window to the homes as we pass through the town of Hongu. “Each of the houses here has a sewage tank, and a truck visits all the homes to suck out the waste. It makes this “doh-do-doh-do’ sound like an ice-cream truck. Sometimes I’m out of my chair and about to run out to get an ice cream, before realizing, errr, it’s just a s**t truck.”

“All the pilgrimage routes round here lead to Hongu,” continues Brad, as we pass near the Oyunohara, and the biggest torii (a shrine archway) in Japan. “We will end up there after walking the last part of the Nakahechi pilgrimage route.”

The bus stops on a hill and we’re turfed out into the drizzly rain and mist.

“As you pass through each gate — and most of them are psychological rather than physical — the sacredness increases as we now approach the center target of the spiritual heartland of Japan,” says Brad, as I retch behind a tree.

“In Buddhism, this is the place to throw away your six previous lives and start afresh,” Brad adds.

I just want to hold on to this one precious life, I think as I stagger on and the mist in parts turns into deep fog.

“You are passing lots of different shrines,” says Brad. “That one’s for backache and safe childbirth. Just round the corner there’s one for toothache. Many of them are for healing because it’s a tough 20-day trek from Kyoto to here. A lot of pilgrims have died on this trail.”

“Is there a shrine for hangovers?” I inquire.

After about an hour of walking, I’m struggling and have fallen behind the pack of hacks. I hear Bakagi-san blowing his trumpet in the distance. He’s in a car. The bastard! He’s got the best deal — getting the bento (boxed lunches) for us and meeting us halfway through this four-hour trek. A bit later he drives past, waving out of the window. I scream at him to stop. “Give me a lift, man!”

“No, you must walk!” he shouts back with a grin before blowing his trumpet again and accelerating away down a narrow path.

I stagger through a small torii, lose my footing and tumble down a slope. I look up and see a wooden pole with a dead crow nailed to it. What’s that all about? I hear a noise behind me and swivel around. A small red thing flashes from behind a tree to another tree in the distance. Maybe I’m hallucinating. I think of the killer dwarf in a red anorak in the classic Nicolas Roeg film “Don’t Look Now” and how Donald Sutherland meets a meaty end in an alley. I feel my bowels moving. I’m terrified. I hear the soft crunch of wet twigs behind me as the dwarf comes up from behind to knife me.

“Simon, are you OK?” It’s Brad.

“S**t man,” I gasp. “I wandered off the track to take a photo, slipped, saw a dead crow and the red raincoat reminded me of . . . um, death.”

“There’s not long to go, Simon. You can do it. But watch out for the poisonous snakes.”

I fall behind again and about an hour later another car comes up and I try to thumb it down thinking it’s Bakagi-san, but there’s an old guy at the wheel and he swerves away when he sees me and almost crashes into a small shrine.

And then Brad delivers some great news: “This is Fushiogami-oji,” he proclaims. “Our first site of Oyunohara, our destination. Pilgrims fall down and pray here.”

I fervently fall to my knees and utter a short prayer. I get up, light up a cigarette, and am blown away by one of the most stunning views I have seen in my whole life. Mist enshrouds the mountains and Oyunohara stands towering and regal in the valley.

I punch the air when we finally reach Kumano Hongu temple, which lies near Oyunohara. The bus halts outside the temple. I limp toward it, having pulled muscles in both my legs. But then Brad steps in my way.

“It’s just another 15 minutes’ walk and we’ll be at Oyunohara,” he says. “You must walk it to the end of the route.”

“The end of the affair,” I stutter.

For more info about the activities in the story check Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau’s Web site at www.tb-kumano.jp/en Simon Bartz is now taking a break from this column for several weeks.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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