Glutes on Fire on Japan’s Kumano Kodo Trail

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Hiking the Kumano Kodo trail in Southeastern Japan is no walk in the park.

The Kumano Kodo trail is actually a network of trails in the remote, mountainous Kii Peninsula of the Kansai region of Japan, southeast of Osaka and Kyoto. The trails, which were established as pilgrimage routes in the 10th Century, connect several sacred sites, which are collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Physical hardship is key to the spiritual experience of hiking the trail. It only took a few minutes on the trail to grasp what that meant. I figure that these trails were established before the switchback was invented. Instead of walking gradually uphill on a series of gently sloping switchbacks, we were either trudging up a long, steep staircase of high, uneven steps or carefully picking our way down the same. All I could think of as I panted up the trail was that I should have spent more time on the glute machine in the gym.

The reward—the secluded hush as we walked through green tunnels of ancient cedars, occasional views of distant ridges and valleys, and a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day as I slid into the baths at the Japanese-style inns where we stayed each night.

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The baths soothed my aching muscles and joints, and the elaborate dinners—featuring sashimi, pickled vegetables, tofu and God knows what else—replenished my depleted reserves of energy. Enough to literally get off the floor each morning (most nights we slept on futons and tatami mats) and trudge uphill once again into the mountains.

Staying in local inns in small villages and riding the local buses to get around also gave us a more intimate sense of the pace of life in rural Japan, a world of difference from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.

After three days of hiking we had a day off, in Yunomine Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, discovered almost 1,800 years ago. We took good advantage of the day off by reading, napping, and lingering in the bath.

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Our last day was supposed to be the most difficult, covering 9.3 miles and more than 3,000 feet of ascent. The estimated time in the walking guide supplied by OKU Japan, our operator and host for our trip, was 6 hours. I multiplied that by 1.5, a factor I had calculated based on our previous days’ hikes to account for our slower pace, and realized that we might end up finishing the hike in the dark, not a good idea on the rough, steep trails.

We opted instead to take a taxi to the end of the trail in Nachi-san, the site of Nachi-Taisha, the most important shrine on the Kumano Kodo trail, and Nachi-taki, a spectacular waterfall over 400 feet high.

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A wise decision, as it turned out. At the end of the day a couple we had met on the trail and at the inns each night—a younger, hardier couple from Australia—showed up at our inn looking bedraggled and completely drained. We would have still been on the trail stumbling around in the dark.

We also had lots of time to explore the shrine, a magnificent complex of temples and other structures spread out on the side of the mountain. We climbed real stairs—instead of the rocks, roots, and pieces of lumber on the trail—weaving in and out among the temples. The stairs were pretty steep and long so we got plenty of exercise, but we stopped whenever we wanted to soak up the considerable atmosphere of the place and linger over the views.

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The next morning we took a local bus to the nearby port town of Kii-Katsuura to catch the train to Tokyo (actually two trains, including the legendary “bullet train”). We had time to explore the dock, eat fresh sashimi, and make friends with a bunch of guys, probably just a few years younger than the two of us. They understood just a few words of English, but enough to share a couple of photos, a few laughs, and a large plate of sushi, their treat.

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Typical of the people we met throughout our visit to Japan—friendly, good-natured, helpful and generous. We loved the food and sites of Japan, but it was the people that really made the trip (well, maybe the food…).


Don_Mankin_headshotDon Mankin is a travel writer, business author, psychologist, organizational consultant and executive coach. He is the author of “Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler.” To check out his blog, visit http://www.adventuretransformations.com/wordpress/

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