(Tsugizakura-oji to Hongu Taisha – Distance: 22.1 kms. Walking time 6hrs 50mins to 8hrs 50mins. Elevation 374m to 646m to 93m)
Mik, Patrick and I reached Hongu by 3.30pm. After strolling around Hongu Taishi, we descended a series of stone steps bordered on each side by fluttering white standards and entered the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center. The Heritage Center is well-stocked with souvenirs as well as food and drinks. We partook of macha smoothies and coffee. Both were delicious.
There is a bus stop just across the road from the Heritage Center. We consulted the very helpful ladies working at the Heritage Center about the bus schedules and decided to take a bus to Wataze as there was not enough daylight left to walk there.
Twilight was setting in as the bus dropped us off on the side of the highway looking down to the onsen village of Wataze. The owner of Guesthouse Okagesan, where we were staying that night, also owned a yakatori bar in the village. We found him in his bar and he took us to his guesthouse. The guesthouse was one of the oldest buildings in the village. It had a number of rooms. Mik and Patrick gave me the privilege of once again sleeping in my own room while they bunked down in the snore room next door.
Guesthouse Okagesan was very chilled. We had the place all to ourselves. There was a nice little library of books, many on Japanese history and religion, as well as a couple of replica Japanese samurai swords propped up against the wall.
Wataze is an onsen town and I was keen to experience an onsen bath. So was Patrick. At 6.00pm, we decided to walk to the Wataze Onsen, which was across the river from our guesthouse, while Mik was quite happy to sit in the yakatori bar and drink some Asahi until we returned for dinner.
Night had fallen by the time Patrick and I set out. Our thoughtful host gave us a couple of torches to guide us in the dark. We made one wrong turn, but then found the fairy light lit pedestrian bridge that spanned the Yomura-gawa River to the rotenburo outdoor baths at the Wataze Onsen. The scene was beautiful and I would have liked to share this special experience with my wife and son, but they had flown back to Melbourne from Tokyo four days earlier. Instead, I shared it with Patrick. I warned him not to get too romantic.
We found the entrance to the bath complex and stumbled our way through onsen etiquette. We paid the entrance fee, hired some towels, nuddied up and placed our clothes in a locker. Being prudish foreigners, we made sure to avert our eyes from each other’s nether regions. We then had the obligatory pre-shower and plunged into the onsen baths. Except for one other bather who stayed only for a brief period, we had the baths to ourselves.
There were three baths, all connected together. The first bath was the hottest. It was located inside the bath house. We tried this one, but it was too hot for both of us. The second bath was a little cooler and was located outside under the stars. The third bath was also located outside.
We dipped our feet in the second and third baths and settled on the second. The hot mineral waters were soothing after a long day of walking and the view of the stars helped to relax our minds and bodies. However, we could relax only so much because, even though our muscles were feeling better, our stomachs were growling. We bathed for about half an hour before walking back to the yakatori bar for dinner.
That evening was one of eating and drinking: chicken yakatori followed by beef yakatori followed by local brews, sake and dishes I didn’t know the names of, but which were tasty nonetheless. More informal than the classic Japanese dinner we had eaten at Minshuku Tsugizakura the night before, the relaxed atmosphere at the yakatori bar allowed us to once again immerse ourselves in Japanese culture. This time even more deeply.