Fiery Exploring: Japan – starting the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage!

During high school and university I always had friends that had a super passion for Japan…they self-taught themselves the alphabets, watched every single anime that was released and had plans to travel there as soon as they saved up enough. I think this always stayed with me, and always thought this was a trip I would make ‘in the future’. For some reason (this is how my brain works…) I decided beginning 2016 that I HAD to go to Japan that year. Alone or with a friend…this was going to happen! And so it did!

I’m sharing my Japan story in reverse chronological order…starting during my last part of the trip and working towards arriving in Tokyo.

Kumano Kodo – Most people I have spoken to about this region in Kansai have never heard of it, including many Japanese. The Kumano Kodo is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes in the Wakayama region, which can be reached 2.5 hours by train from Osaka. In 2004 the Kumano Kodo was registered as UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage, one of two in the world!

Map from CNN

This pilgrimage has been walked for the last 1000 years, and leads through a breathtakingly beautiful mountainous forest region. Some parts of the route are very challenging, which is part of the purification process for pilgrims. I had heard about this pilgrimage on a TV show 10 years ago, and the quiet beauty and sense of spirituality always stayed with me. After visiting cities for two weeks, it was great to get away from the busyness of the cities, relax and be surrounded by nature for a few days.

Our route: Osaka → Kawayu Onsen→ Kumano Hongu Taisha → Yunomine Onsen → Kumano Hayatama Taisha → Kumano Nachi Taisha → Kii-Katsuura →  Osaka 

The majority of the places we visited in the Kumano Kodo are not visited much by foreign tourists, which I did not mind at all! Along our route we kept meeting the same super friendly people. There are three main shrines of the Kumano Kodo, and we organized our trip so we could see all three! We started off from Osaka, taking the Kumano Kodo express down to Tanabe. If you have a JR pass, this covers this express train as well! In Tanabe we nearly missed our bus, but thanks to the friendly lady at the tourist info we hopped on just in time! In the bus we traveled for another 2-2.5 hours to Kawayu Onsen, where we were staying the night.

Kawayu Onsen: This is a small village with a few waterside accommodations. We splurged for our first night and stayed in a Ryokan with river views. Our room was HUGE and beautiful, with comfy classical chairs to sit in and take in the surroundings. This place has something special – you can make your own hot bath in the river! A Belgian couple we met on the bus explained the technique…build some walls with rocks to make sure you have the hot thermal water bubbling up, but do not forget a stream of cold water, or you’ll make a pool of hot lava water!! We relaxed in the crystal blue water for a bit,  watched the birds of prey and ducks (yes, cute duckies just swam by <3).

After another onsen bath inside we headed to dinner in our yukatas.  For those do not know what a yukata is, it is a casual version of the kimono. It is a robe usually made of cotton, which you can wrap around and fasten with a sash (obi). Most ryokans and minshukus in onsen towns will provide one for their guests. If you ever visit an onsen town, I would really recommend wearing the yukata after your bath! It’s super comfortable and helped me just relax into the atmosphere and mood of our Ryokan.

Dinner was delicious, and was explained to us by our very sweet host. It existed of various little dishes, very exquisitely prepared! We had to giggle though, as SO many dishes were served, we couldn’t keep up with how many dishes we had or remember what they all were. It was all delicious!! Fruit is always the last dish to be served, so you know the dinner is coming to an end.

One recommendation when staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan or minshuku – educate yourself on the etiquette first. This gave us less anxiety, as we had an idea of what we were supposed to do, and helped us navigate the many unwritten rules. Some of the guests entered the dining hall with their shoes, this is the biggest no-no on tatami mats! Japan is a wonderful country with a long history of traditions and wonderful food, and we really enjoyed going with the flow and trying our best to do things as done locally. We had so much fun exploring how to do things and sometimes making silly mistakes, that’s the magic of traveling, right?

Omelet, little forest mushrooms and flowers and baked fish, all so delicate!
Shrimp, squid, tuna and salmon…beautiful and delicious!

Sorry for the long posts, but I enjoy sharing the little details too much!

Next post: Kumano Hongü Taisha and Yunomine Onsen!

Ja ne (see you soon)! Flávia

 

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