The Kumano Kudo is a mountainous ancient holy ground of Japan in the southern part of the Kii peninsula that pilgrims have been trekking for a thousand years. It’s been under the radar keeping a low profile until 11 STAT pilgrims arrived. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site, the Kumano has been “twinned” with the better known Camino De Santiago in Spain which I have walked twice with my STAT girls. So being rewarded with Dual pilgrimage status was deeply spiritual and full circle for me. After bowing twice, clapping twice, then bowing once again, we all made a silent prayer at the start in Koyasan that insured our trek will go well. Indeed, this 8-day walk through old growth forests of maple, cypress, cedar and bamboo trees latticed with roots looking like steps carpeted in slippery moss exceeded all of our expectations. So it wasn’t cherry blossom season but it was the most colorful fall foliage they ever had at this time of the year. No crowds, just familiar faces like the Brit Katherine tried to ask directions in Japanese to which he replied “I have no idea what you’re saying”.
No switchbacks, just 80 degree Uphills or Downhills! And no whining because after all, ancient pilgrims were supposed to suffer to achieve purification.
This was a challenging mountaineering experience from Shinto shrines to Buddhist temples that my girls embraced like rock stars. Even Peter, our faithful guide who played favorites, was pleasantly surprised by our hiking ability. One foot in front of the other was our mantra knowing that a warm Japanese bath (onsen) was waiting for us at the end of each long day on the trail. Imagine us being naked together in a steaming communal pool with only a modesty towel balancing on our heads. The extraordinary richness of our surroundings inspired so many group pictures than ever before. We bonded even as we expressed individuality through our stories that our parts tell together. An interesting common sighting was Jizo, a bodhisattva who evidently was declined entry to paradise in order to help the rest of us get there is represented in dozens of shrines along the path often wearing red bibs.
He protects travelers like us but especially dead infants whom he shepherds on to their next lives. Sure wish Jizo could have protected Sonia from her hives! Another noted Japanese custom that is everywhere in this land of preserved, refined essences is that every 20 years along the Isuzu River where these sacred shrines live, priests and townspeople gather to tear down the all-wooden Ise Jingu shrines only to reconstruct it
right next to the original. As I understand it, ” to know that you can demolish and improve, that the essence of what you love might even be refined by change.” Profound yet totally inspirational. Or as Shannon would say, Captain Obvious!
Which brings me to the incredible humor we had on this journey. Laughing is medicine. But on a STAT trip, it’s imperative that you belly laugh which I did every night before naked bathing and after dinner wearing matching yukatas (kimonos)
on the floor eating local unfamiliar food shabu-shabu style…boiled broth in a pot with slices of beef, tofu, veggies, udon noodles, and sauces. It was yummy but we were hungry. Absolutely no California or rainbow rolls in sight not even in our Kumano bento lunch box that held rice balls wrapped in pickled mustard leaves with a variety of sides.
The best lunch though was on a roadside that you choose your entree from a picture and pay for it in a vending machine. Ramen, not your average cup of noodles is an obsession in Japan and didn’t disappoint. We, on the other hand, were obsessed with our pilgrim pamphlets collecting the requisite stamps along the trail and our “good luck” calligraphy books signed at every important shrine.
They both will sit close to my altar at home to remind me of this extraordinary journey and the incredible hospitality we received at each ryokan we stayed along the way even the dreaded School house. Sleeping on the floor slightly elevated with a thin mat was surprisingly comfortable or we were all very tired after a full day of strenuous hiking. It makes me giggle out loud remembering our first night stay at the magical monastery crawling into bed by 7 then opening the adjoining doors to make sure we didn’t go to sleep before at least 8!
Turned out to be our best slumber on the trip waking only to the sounds of the gentle monks praying and chanting while preparing and performing a fire ritual ceremony. Magical would be an understatement here as it would be for this entire journey. As we approached the fitting end to our last 8 hour hike in the misty rain arriving at Nachi-no-Otaki
waterfall, Japan’s highest cascade at 133 meters, I could only feel gratitude for nature’s power that lies so beyond our control. Such an awareness is the longest- lasting gift we will all take home from this trip to Japan. But the friendships and memories we’ve collectively nurtured and created for 25 years on these STAT trips is the real winner.