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Monday, January 13, 2014

The Kumano Kodo backwards on a bike

Tony Gibb

The Kumano Kodo is a walking pilgrimage from the West Coast of the Kii Peninsula to three old, Shinto shrines on the East and South of the peninsula. These are Kumano Hongu Taisha, the Kumano Hayatama Taisha and the Kumano Nachi Taisha.

During the 11th century these Grand Shrines were visited by members of the Imperial family from the Imperial Capital in Nara. They would follow the trail across the Kii Peninsula from Wakayama, down to Kii Tanabe and across to Kumano Hongu. From there they would catch a boat down the Kumano River to Shingu, visit Kumano Hayatama Taisha and then walk around the coast and climb up to Kumano Nachi Taisha. By the 15th century it had become a pilgrimage for everyone, not just aristocrats and the trail became so congested the pilgrims were compared to ants as they struggled along.

The Imperial route (green) and mine (magenta)
The Imperial route (green) and mine (magenta)
It wasn't in order to be difficult but I started visiting the three Kumano Kodo shrines from the wrong end and at the middle shrine. The normal pilgrimage is by foot across the mountainous interior of the Kii Peninsula (shown in green on the map). The path is not suitable for a road bike and would probably be difficult for a mountain bike with path elements such as shown in the following picture. I started in Shingu, visited Kumano Hayetama on foot, rode to Kumano Hongu and rode back to Kumano Nachi.

Section of pilgrim path, Kumano Kodo
Section of pilgrim path
I visited Hongu Taisha just 3 months after a huge typhoon had ripped through the Kii Peninsula. The Kumano River had run as much as 30m above its usual level and the roads were still half washed away. All along the road there were sections where it had fallen into the river or been swept by rocks and dirt falling down the adjacent hillside.

Typical road section three months after the typhoon
Typical road section three months after the typhoon
Near to Kumano Hongu is the Yunomine Onsen village, consisting almost entirely of hotels and ryokans dedicated to the rituals of the Japanese bath. It was wonderful after the long ride up the Kumano Valley to soak in an outdoor bath under a light drizzle of rain. The food was pretty good in the Yoshinoya Ryokan too.

Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hongu Taisha
Kumano Hayetama Taisha
Kumano Hayetama Taisha
Kumano Nachi Taisha Kumano
Kumano Nachi Taisha
Nachi Taisha is co-located with the Buddhist temple Seigantoji, the first temple on the 33 temple Saigoku pilgrimage route. The site was chosen to be near the Nachi waterfall, one of the more spectacular sights in Japan. Following the Saigoku route was my purpose in visiting Japan and the riding Kumano Kodo was a wonderful way of getting into the right frame of mind.

Nachi Falls in the mist
Nachi Falls in the mist
The Saigoku pilgrimage route runs around the Kii Peninsula, up through Nara and Kyoto, across to Himeji, up to the northern coast of Honshu and back across and along Lake Biwa. But that’s another story and can be found in By Bike Around Saigoku

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