Memory of a Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage (1)

Pilgrimage – “a long journey or search of great moral significance”, according to Wikipedia, is usually associated with a religious or spiritual quests. This is not what I had in mind when I set out to walk the Kumano Kodo, what seemed some old pilgrimage trails in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture.

This was back in 2009 when the Kumano Kodo was not famous yet and hardly any foreigners ventured down the Kii Peninsula beyond Wakayama City or Nara City. There was no entry on the Kumano Kodo in the Lonely Planet yet and no tour companies offering guided walks along the ancient trails. The Tanabe Tourism Bureau had just been set up.

I lived in Tokyo’s super-busy Shinjuku Ward at the time and I was between jobs, or let’s better call it between two phases of life: one had finished and the other not yet began. A time in-between. An intermediate state. A transitional phase. A threshold!

A liminal time, much like we find ourselves in now, in times of corona. A time when the old life does not feel right anymore but there is no blue-print yet for the future life. A time of searching; going on a pilgrimage does not seem far-fetched at all.

The three years preceding 2009, I had gone through a demanding executive training program, followed by an intensive martial arts program. Tokyo’s corporate way did not really satisfy me, neither did the martial way.

In Golden Week 2009 I simply wanted to have some space, physically and mentally, to think about life and all the small and big things going on. I wanted to get out of Tokyo and somewhere far away but I did not fancy a New Age-inspired holiday in anther Asian country. I just felt like “a walk without talk” in the woods, not a hike but more like a walking meditation.

The Kumano Kodo I had found by chance when I searched for the birthplace of the founder of Aikido, the martial arts that I trained in. I found Tanabe in the south of Wakayama Prefecture. When I looked for more information, I came across the Kumano Kodo trails.

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The Kumano area, a mountain range full of scenic beauty, traditions and mystery, is often referred to as the spiritual heartland of Japan. For over 1,000 years Kumano has attracted Japanese worshipers and seekers and old trails, more or less intact, cross-cross the peninsula leading to some sacred sites. This was the perfect place for my “retreat” of sort.

I also found a point of contact at the Tanabe Tourism Bureau to whom I sent an email with questions about where to sleep and what bus to take. There was no Kumano Travel site yet to facilitate online booking of accommodations and services and there were no bus timetables online.

Thinking back, travelling to Kumano now seems so convenient and easy. The Tanabe Tourism Bureau has put in an incredible amount of work to facilitate the needs of foreign travelers to Kumano in the last ten years. Kudos to their visionary leaders and all their staff!

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