The previous Japan adventure was in the cities of Osaka and Kyoto, and from there it is easy to take the “Ocean Arrow” train to Kii Tanabe in Wakayama province. Wakayama means “poetry of the mountains”. The Japanese use poetry in every day life and words, and this also gives you the clue that the area is non stop mountains. Rail transport in Japan is cheaper than here, better, smoother, cleaner and well signed in English, so it is easy to travel about.
Part 1 of Ron Smith's Japanese trip: Japan adventure in Osaka and Kyoto
Tanabe is the usual starting point for people wanting to walk the Kumano Kodo. This part of Japan, is the southern area of Honshu island. The walk is twinned with the more famous Caminho de Compostella pilgrim route where roads from the Low Countries and France converge on Santiago in northern Spain. Both walks are UNESCO recognised, and you can get a “passport” for both routes. You have it stamped at various stages on the way, and at the end receive a certificate and so on.
In Wakayama prefecture there are three Shinto shrines that are the most important in the world and various routes converge on them. Over thousands of years Emperors, nobles and simple peasants have made the pilgrimage. Not having enough time to do the long walk (well, that’s my excuse anyway) we drove to Takijiri Oji (an Oji is a subsidiary shrine) and on up to Takahara village for lunch at Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge. This low timber restaurant offers excellent food, with superb views over valleys and mountains. We then continued to Kumano Hong Taisha.
This is one of the three shrines. It is so impressive, typically Japanese construction, a holy site. It was not always on the present hillside. The valley has a large flat area at the junction of two rivers, and for centuries the shrine was there, but floods took a lot of it away. The remains were reconstructed up the hill. The original site is still holy and visited, and you walk though the traditional Torii (gateway) that separates the sacred from the temporal. This Torii is the biggest in the world, at 33.9 metres high and 42 metres across. Is is modern, made in 2000 and is of steel.
Having covered many miles along the beautiful valleys, it was on to the hotel “Midoriya” in Hongu, where there is the remarkable Kawayu Onsen. This is hot thermal waters (kawa meaning river and yu meaning hot water) and the “Onsen” means a bath with these hot mineral waters that can be single or mixed sex, and often naked bathing is the rule. Here, the river is shallow, and at the edges hotel guests just move the stones out of the way to create a pool, and it fills with hot water! The hotel has rooms in Japanese, or in western style. I had a Japanese style room, overlooking the river, and at eye level with a graceful red kite that cruised along to suddenly swoop on something one of the bathers had left unattended. As is normal, whilst I was having an excellent dinner, the low table and legless chair was moved to one side and my bed roll spread out on the tatami matting. I found this style of bed so relaxing, and always had a good night’s sleep on them.
The Japanese are very hygienic, and you are expected to bathe before entering an Onsen, in your room there are slippers to wear, but not on the matting, and separate slippers to use in the toilet which is invariably of the automatic bidet/washing type. The decor of the rooms is minimalist, tasteful, stylish and somehow relaxing. Nothing is ever out of place, and everything is neat and tidy. It was at this hotel that I saw a guest wearing a Celtic football shirt. Ever since Celtic had Japanese players, the team has grown a large following in Japan.
The next day it was on to do the walk. At 8.30 we started off from Hosshinmon-Oji for the 7 kilometres to Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. The walk is through forest and hillside and small villages, and is delightful. It was relaxing, the views keep opening up to distant misty mountains. Walking through one small, remote village, there was a tidy wooden shelter, with a few items for sale. This included bags of tea. Looking through the window of the stall I could see an elderly lady tending her neat rows of tea bushes - this was her tea for sale! You cannot get fresher and more organic than that! I bought a packet, putting the money in the honesty box, and we carried on. It was very hot and humid, and so we were wet through with perspiration all the time. Then the rain came on. It was like a monsoon - it even came through my umbrella it was so fierce. I have never been so wet!
A little further on there is a view point where you can see for miles, right down to the Shrine and the large Torii. Here a small wooden shelter and cafe was run by some elderly ladies. It was good to stop to have a dry off and a cup of tea. An elderly granny came from the back of the counter and sold me a towel / scarf (these are quite normal in Japan, people are to be seen anywhere with a towel / scarf around their necks mopping up the perspiration ) and this helped. In cheery rapid Japanese she would sell me all sorts of things if I wasn’t careful, so with much laughing and bowing we continued down to the Grand Shrine.
In the tourist office there (very well appointed and professional, well worth a visit) they kindly gave me a room to change in, with dry clothes from the boot of the car which we had left there. Carrying a sack of wet clothes we continued to drive for an hour to the Pacific coast at Nachi - Katsuura town. The town is a tuna fishing port, and lunch was in a local restaurant, excellent food, the freshest fish and good price. Then it was off again for a 15 minute drive to the Nachi area. Here there is the Daimon Zaka slope, the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, the Nachisan Seiganto - Ji Temple, and the Nacho waterfall. This whole complex would take an article to itself to describe. The colourful and myriad temples are still visited and honoured by people all the time, and there is a Buddhist temple too, religious tolerance in Japan goes back a long way, and and mixing two or more religions at the same time and place is quite normal. The waterfall is the highest in Japan, and is also a Shinto religious place, as nature is honoured very much. The shrines on the hillside, the crowds of the faithful as well as tourists, make this a very busy and popular place.
It had been a busy and long day, so it was a short drive back to Katsuura and park the car to take the ferry to the hotel. This is the Hotel Nakanoshima, and it covers a small island in the bay. The regular boat shuttles to and fro on the 5 minute trip. The hotel is very large and spread around one end of the island. It has its own Onsen thermal pools, a swimming pool, and all the amenities you could imagine including a large children’s area full of things to play wth. See www.hotelnakanoshima.jp/en for more details. I could have stayed on the island for days. The hotel has a shop in it too, so there is no need to “go ashore” and it was so relaxing to sit on my balcony overlooking the sea and the islands, watching the boats buzzing about and the tuna boats with their very low wheelhouses and strong high bows to combat the mighty Pacific.
Japan was such an experience for me. There is so much to see and experience. Breakfast often includes porridge, but made from seaweed and rice. There is usually soup too, and also the scrambled eggs and bread etc., that we are used to. The climate in mid summer is very hot and very humid, so I was always damp, but Japanese folk play tennis, jog, play baseball (very popular) and cycle in this heat. On the trains, the ticket inspector comes into the coach and bows, and after checking everyone, bows again before he goes out. Bowing is a great form of politeness and is typical of the grace and style of the Japanese. I thought that us Brits were the world’s best at queueing, but the Japanese are better. Waiting for a train on a very busy platform, the coach numbers are painted on the platform, so you wait in the right place, and form a queue along the line on the platform. When the train came in the passengers stepped aside in unison, while the alighting passengers descended, the we moved onto the train in perfect order. There is no litter anywhere. It really makes you see just how dirty we are in the UK. I was looking for a litter bin to dispose of a label, and asked someone where there was a bin - this caused confusion as they assumed I wanted to buy a bin and was looking for a shop that sold them - it was not clear why I would want a litter bin - I explained about the label, he then said that surely I would take it home with me to dispose of it? Japan also has a very low, and constantly dropping, crime rate. It is one of the safest countries in the world. I enquired about this, the local authority man pondered for a while, then said that if he were to commit a crime, he would feel shame, his family would feel shame, his work colleagues would too. There is not the “getting away wth it” attitude that sees our MPs fiddle their expenses, social security fraudulent claims, and the general decay of our society.
But, I am getting too serious. Japan is a fascinating place to visit. People are kind and polite, everything works, and there is so much history to explore, so much wonderful scenery, and the Japanese cope so well with their country that is at the junction of three tectonic plates so they are prone to earthquakes every year, and even in the trains there are notices telling you what to do in the event of a tsunami. I thoroughly recommend it, and was so impressed that I am planning to go again.
It is easy for us to get there too, with the KLM flights from Inverness and Aberdeen connecting seamlessly in Amsterdam for overnight flights to Osaka or Tokyo. You will be hearing more about other parts of Japan in future articles.