(Tsugizakura-oji to Hongu Taisha – Distance: 22.1 kms. Walking time 6hrs 50mins to 8hrs 50mins. Elevation 374m to 646m to 93m)
I woke at 6.00am on the morning of Friday 27th September. The shoji screen separating my room from Mik and Patrick’s had muffled their snoring enough during the night to allow me to enter the field of dreams. I was refreshed.
We ate breakfast at 7am, another filling feast of Japanese cuisine. We then packed our clothes and the bento boxes provided by our host into our backpacks, and were ready to start Day 2 of the Kumano Kodo by 7.30am.
I had decided what I was going to do with my hiking boots: I would chuck them. I asked my hosts if I could drop my boots in their bin and they happily obliged. Having done this, I sat on a seat at the front of Minshuku Tsugizakura and put on my black Adidas runners.
My new runners appeared less sturdily made than my old hiking boots. I believed the grip of their near flat soles, the small hexagonal tread, would be poor in comparison. They also lacked ankle support, which increased the possibility of twisting an ankle. However, they were definitely lighter than my hiking boots, which was a big plus. The other big plus was that they were whole. The main question in the front of my mind, though, was would they remain whole for the next three days of hiking? I was unsure.
After I finished tying the laces of my runners, I looked up and was met by the incredulous stares of the other hikers. I explained to them why I was wearing runners, but to no avail. By this one, almost sacrilegious, act, I had revealed myself to be an amateur walker rather than a proper hiker in their eyes. I no longer wore the hiker’s uniform and was therefore no longer a hiker. (Well, perhaps I am embellishing the story a little bit here, but my new shoes did elicit some surprised stares.)
The disapproval of my fellow hikers was a small challenge in comparison to the other challenges presented by the Kumano Kodo. Mik and Patrick certainly couldn’t care less about what I wore on my feet. So we set off.
The Kumano Kodo followed the road out of Tsugizakura-oji for several kilometres before leaving the bitumen and striking out along a dirt track into the forest.
Drizzle began to fall around 8.30am, which then turned into rain. The precipitation made the path muddier in places and the stone steps, which appeared along small sections of the path here and there, more slippery and treacherous. Yet my black Adidas runners met this change in weather conditions surprisingly well. I slid once or twice, but never fell. Some other hikers did not fare so well, even those who had the extra support of hiking poles. The stone steps that were meant to make the Kumano Kodo easier to traverse paradoxically made the trail more difficult to walk in wet weather. Granted without these steps, hikers would have churned up the trail and turned it into a quagmire.
A brief aside here. My praise for my runners is not meant to be in any way an infomercial for Adidas. I am describing them in detail because I was surprised how well they did. The death of my Scarpa hiking boots had forced me to question what I had learnt from both my own hiking experience as well as conventional wisdom. I had believed that wearing hiking boots on long multi-day hikes was a necessity. However, I discovered this was not the case. The advantages of wearing light runners rather than hiking boots while walking the Kumano Kodo certainly balanced, if not outweighed, the disadvantages.
We walked on. One brown Kumano Kodo sign post passed another. They were numbered and spaced every 500 metres to indicate the route of the Kumano Kodo. The rain grew heavier. I took out my poncho and placed it over myself and my backpack. We walked over log bridges crossing rivers and past the ruins of old teahouses, which had been built to cater for the needs of pilgrims hiking the Kumano Kodo centuries earlier, but were now no more than piles of foundation rocks, the wooden buildings themselves having long since decomposed and returned to the forest floor.
Over the last decade, the section of the Kumano Kodo trail between Tsugizakura-oji and Hongu has been hit by a couple of typhoons. Several detours have been put in place to avoid unstable mountain sides as a result. According to my map, the Kumano Kodo split in two not too far ahead at Funtama-jinja. The south-eastern trail, called the Akagi-goe route, headed to the onsen town of Yunomine. Yunomine was only a couple of kilometres from where we were staying that evening at Wataze, another onsen town on the Yomura-gawa River. The other trail, which was the last section of the Nakahechi route, initially went north-east, then turned east and finally south-east arriving at Hongu before eventually winding its way to Yunomine.
We had intended to bypass Hongu altogether and take the Akagi-goe route to Yunomine. However, when we reached Funtama-jinja, the Akagi-goe route was closed due to typhoon damage. I later discovered that I was looking at an old map of this part of the Kumano Kodo. Newer maps of the Kumano Kodo have removed the Akagi-goe route altogether.
So Hongu it was. And we were lucky that the typhoon forced us to visit this town.
Most hikers spend a rest day in Hongu. It is definitely worth doing this as there is a lot to see and experience, such as Hongu Taisha itself, one of the most significant Shinto shrines in all of Japan, as well as onsens, tori gates and natural thermal springs. There are numerous places to stay in Hongu and the surrounding towns, which makes booking overnight accommodation in this area relatively easy.
However, unfortunately for Mik, Patrick and I, we couldn’t stay an extra day in Hongu because we had booked accommodation at Koguchi for the following evening of Saturday 28th September. The influence Koguchi exerts over the itinerary of the modern Kumano Kodo pilgrim far outweighs its significance as a pilgrimage site on the Kumano Kodo itself.