(Takijiri-oji to Tsugizakura-oji – Distance: 18.2kms. Walking time 6hrs 25mins to 9hrs 40mins. Elevation 82m to 688m to 374m)
My two mates, Mik and Patrick, and I stayed at Kodo-no-Mori Minshuku the night before we began our walk. This minshuku is located beside Takijiri-oji, the Shinto shrine that marks the beginning of the Kumano Kodo. This is a convenient place to stay prior to beginning the Kumano Kodo. The hosts are hospitable and the food is tasty.
Mik, Patrick and I woke around 6.00am on Thursday 26th September, washed, had breakfast and were ready to begin walking by 7.30am. A large tori gate stands in front of the Takijiri-oji and in front of the tori gate is located a stone basin filled with water, which contains wooden ladles for pilgrims to purify themselves. We washed our hands and mouth in turn with the wooden ladles. Next we faced the tori gate, and the shrine behind it, and prayed for good fortune on our trek of the Kumano Kodo. Following the Shinto rite, we bowed deeply twice, clapped our hands twice and bowed deeply once again.
Once we finished our pray, we walked behind Takijiri-oji and found the start of the Kumano Kodo trail. Straight away the trail ascended steeply into the mountains, gaining 250 metres in elevation within 1 kilometre. Fresh and positive, we climbed up the steps of the trail with little difficulty. We soon discovered that one’s mental attitude is as important as the condition of one’s muscles for hiking.
After about 15 minutes of climbing, we reached a natural cave formed by a set of huge boulders. The cave is called Tainai-kuguri. According to local legend, it is good luck to climb through the crack at the rear of the cave. For most Japanese pilgrims this would not be much of a problem, but for the foreign pilgrim this feat can present more of a challenge. I was able to shimmy my long svelte frame through the crack once I had removed my backpack. However, Mik and Patrick, whose frames were not as streamlined as mine, found the challenge insurmountable and chose instead to walk around the boulders.
We resumed our climb and the trail wound its way upwards amongst Japanese cedar trees. For the most part, these trees were young, only several decades old, not ancient queens and kings of the forest. Their roots formed a lattice of interlocking arms which sometimes enveloped the track; the trees’ attempt to regain some mastery over this mountainside, which they had prior to the arrival of humanity.
I pulled ahead of my mates at one point. And as I walked alone along the trail, I experienced an extended moment of silence. The sounds of the forest disappeared and the internal sound, the low ringing in the back of the mind which the yogis meditate upon and refer to as the sound of creation, the eternal ‘Om’, also faded. All was quiet and still. I looked around me and through the surrounding trees to see if I could find the cause of this phenomenon, but found nothing. This moment was followed by another. Then there was a chirp of a bird and the rustle of leaves. Internal and external experience returned to normal and I moved on.
Once we reached the top of the mountain, the trail broke out on to a ridge. The sky was clear with the exception of an odd cloud. Views of valleys met us to our left and right as we walked along the ridge and appreciated the gift of level ground.
After 3 hours of walking, we began to come across small signs on the side of the trail advertising the sale of coffee and the existence of a café or two not too far ahead.
The gravel trail then met a bitumen road and we entered the small village of Takahara around 10.30am. Wooden farmhouses stood amongst paddocks of evenly-spaced tea bushes interspersed by the odd persimmon tree. At one point, we passed a chestnut tree. The ground beneath its branches was littered with the green spiky husks of fallen chestnuts, without the chestnuts; the product of industrious squirrels.
As we walked down the main street of Takahara, we encountered more signs promising the approach of welcoming cafés, but we discovered to our dismay that the cafés these signs spoke of were closed. We settled instead for purchasing some water and ice coffees from the vending machine at the community centre.
The day had warmed up. The Sun had bite in it, but not Melbourne bite. We sat in the shade underneath the veranda of the community centre and looked north to the Hatenashi mountain range. Takahara is also known as ‘Kiri-no-Sato’, Village in the Mist, but there was no mist on this Thursday; Thor had taken his storm clouds elsewhere. The sky remained clear and the temperature hovered between 26 degrees celsius and 29 degrees celsius, as it would remain for most of our 4-day trek, except for Day 2 when it rained for a couple hours.
The signs advertising the cafés were annoying, firstly because they lied , lies are always annoying, and secondly because they had been a distraction. When we finished our drinks at the community centre and tried to leave Takahara, we discovered that we had missed the actual turn off to the Kumano Kodo trail because, rather than following the course of the trail, we had been looking at the café signs instead. We had to retrace our footsteps to find where the trail resumed. The Kumano Kodo taught us a good lesson here: distraction leads to mistakes and mistakes make the walk even harder.