I alighted at Kii Tanabe Station to hike the Kumano Kodo, a wooded trail through Japan’s spiritual heartland in Wakayama Prefecture that leads to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha.
My goal was grander than the hike, however. I was on a mission to carve out a culinary map and eat my way from the beginning of this World Heritage-designated pilgrimage to the end — 70 kilometers over four days on the Naka Hechi Trail — to Kii Katsuura. My experience with Japanese cuisine has taught me that the local pabulum can impart a great deal about the terrain and the culture.
The Tanabe City Gourmet Map lists an array of eateries to satisfy the palate of every epicure, from carnivores (Kumano beef so tender it melts in your mouth), pescitarians (whitebait sardines downed with a bit of local ume plum spirits) vegetarians (umeboshi pickled Japanese plum specialties) to flexitarians (yakitori grilled chicken restaurants where the meat is grilled over binchotan coals, the fuel of choice for grilling and a Wakayama specialty). Many of these recommended restaurants have English menus and allow you to tuck into authentic cuisine only available in these parts of Japan.
Asked for a recommendation, one local resident urged me not to miss a delicacy called utsubo. “It’s ugly to look at, but delicious to eat,” he said.
I headed straight to Tanabe’s restaurant district called Ajikoji in search of the frightful piscine dish and soon found myself at a hole-in-the-wall specializing in utsubo, which turned out to be the many-fanged moray eel. The taste was enhanced by the ume-infused plum liquor the happy drunken patrons doled out to me.
Once on the Kumano Kodo trail, restaurants become scarce, so proper meals are taken at your accommodation or in major towns along the route that act as waypoints. While hiking, it’s best to carry a lunch to tide you over until the next lodging. As luck had it, in the town of Yunomine Onsen, there was an opportunity to try onsen tamago — eggs boiled in a hot spring. While residents simmer bamboo shoots, potatoes and other produce, for hikers it’s the eggs that prove most convenient for tossing into the top of a backpack. I bought the ingredient kit (eggs, a net bag and a pinch of salt) from a small shop. Once dunked into the water for 10 to 12 minutes, they’re finished!
I chose that evening’s accommodation according to the best online food reviews and thus booked into Kameya Ryokan in the next town, called Kawayu Onsen (which has it’s own not-to-miss geological thermals in the Oto River, free and open to the public). After an hour’s hike I checked in and was soon enjoying the pleasures of watching the river rumble past while savoring delicate morsels of yakuzen-ryōri, the medicinal cuisine for which Kameoka is famous. “It’s medicinal in the sense of staying healthy to prevent illness,” said the ryokan owner, kneeling next to me on the tatami explaining the dishes one by one. All the ingredients were fresh, seasonal and local, gathered from the surrounding area, which is presided over by a guardian deity called Juniyakushi, (“the Medicine Buddha”.)
Although most accommodations sell their own homemade onigiri (rice balls) to take on the trail, after a couple days I was yearning for a little more variety. It’s said that the pilgrims of the late Heian Period (794-1185) streamed to Kumano in such great numbers that they were referred to as “ant processions.” Ants are invariably headed toward food, which made me wonder what those people ate, so I pursued this idea and found that indeed there is a special bento that mimics the early pilgrims’ fare. The Kumano Lunch Box (¥1,150) contains what is considered to be one of Japan’s earliest forms of sushi and is packed full of traditional comestibles including meharizushi (sushi rice wrapped in pickled mustard leaves). Having arranged for this to be delivered to my lodging the next morning, I then set out for Kumano Hongu Taisha.
Wakayama Prefecture is the leading producer in Japan of ayu (sweetfish) and the city of Hongu has several restaurants that serve this freshwater fish, rubbed with coarse salt to bring out the fragrant flavors and roasted over open flames. I also picked up sanmazushi (Pacific saury) from a bento shop before the two-day trek to Kumano Nachi Taisha.
After allowing ample time at the 133-meter Nachi Waterfall, and hiking down the Daimonzaka cobblestone staircase, I ended up at Nachi Station. The onsen town of Kii Katsuura is just a short train ride away and this is where I planned on ending my gourmet hike by scarfing down tuna sashimi delicacies from the Kii Katsuura Tuna Market (also try breaded tuna cutlets or the tuna rice bowl). Located a short walk from the station, the market has been thriving for over 700 years. The auctions start at 7 a.m. (but are closed on Saturdays) and sell to restaurants throughout Osaka and Kyoto.
With an early start to the day, this well-nourished pilgrim had plenty of time to get to her next gourmet adventure: the Kyoto Trail.
This is the first of a six-part monthly series exploring the cuisine found along Japan’s famous hiking routes. The next part will appear in the last week of August.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5