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Pilgrimage of Transformation on the Kumano Kodo Trail

A traveler shares her experience of walking the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan, and how it reconnected her to her spirituality and herself

Considering a spiritual pilgrimage?  Why not hike the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail in Japan? Several years ago, I traversed the Kumano Kodo trail on my own spiritual quest, after having walked snippets of the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago) in Portugal and the Via Francigena in Tuscany.  I first learned about the Kumano Kodo from one of my partners in Japan with whom I collaborate to design bespoke trips. He called to tell me that he would be “out of pocket for a week, hiking the Kumano Kodo trail.”  I had never heard of the trail before and was instantly intrigued. Upon Rich’s return, he sent me a picture of Seiganto-ji Temple, the resplendent three-tiered pagoda nestled next to Nachi Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Japan. It also resides next to Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine. That image was implanted in my heart, and not long thereafter I hiked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail with my husband.

One thousand years ago, Imperial pilgrims walked to the Kumano Kodo trail from Kyoto, for the trails were known for being sacred sites of healing and salvation.  

The Kumano trails are the ‘twin’ of Camino de Santiago, and both have been classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the only two pilgrimage routes in the world that have been conferred said status to date. We tackled the Nakahechi route, the most popular 38-kilometre main route linking the three Grand Shrines of Kumano with the pièce de résistance at the end:  the vermillion-colored Seiganto-ji Temple.

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The Pre-Trip Process

What are you seeking on your pilgrimage? Adventure? Overcoming an obstacle? Healing of sorts? Simplification of your life away from distractions?  Spiritual enrichment? The Kumano Kodo trails can be profoundly transformative. No matter what you are longing for, I believe that our travel desires are a catalyst for our spiritual evolution.

I have always been very interested in the pre-trip process, which can be as “insightful as the trip itself” (review of my book The Red Bandanna Travel Book: The Medicine Of Traveling, quoted by E’Louise Ondash, The Coast News).  Before I take any trip, there are a series of steps I devised to enrich them. One is to examine why I am drawn to a destination. Figuring that out reveals a great deal about oneself and we learn more about our world in the process. I knew that the Seiganto-ji Temple was my visual lure but, as a non-hiker, why this endeavor now when I could go anywhere in the world? I knew I wanted to completely retreat from everyday life and strengthen my faith, and that I needed a huge pause to reflect, reconsider and redirect. So I followed my heart, like running down a path to the sea.

Japan, pilgrimage, travel
Souvenirs from my wanderings.

Lost and Found

Before setting off on the trail on our own, we met with a guide for a brief orientation. He presented us with a glorious map of the route, highlighted with all kinds of twists and turns, landmarks, teahouses and poets’ monuments. He also gave us the Dual Pilgrim book, in which we would collect ‘passport’ stamps along the trails as a record of our hike. The stamps are rewards for each shrine visited; every shrine and teahouse has a ‘stamp collection bar’ with its own trademark stamp perched atop an ink pad, waiting for its next weary and proud pilgrim. One can become a Dual Pilgrim and hike the Way of St. James as well.

Embarking early the next day, I was as excited as a child. Walking up mountain trails and down again, over rice paddies, farms, and through tiny Japanese villages, we were treated to astounding sites including Shinto shrines, abandoned teahouses with remnants of broken pottery, Torii gates (the largest in Japan called Hongu Oyunohara) and poets’ monuments. The sacred forests were deeply soothing and nurturing as we set out on our odyssey.

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The map became a metaphor for my inner journey as I hiked the trail. All along the trail, besides gleaning remarkable insights into Japanese culture, I faced escalating physical challenges, perhaps not so enjoyable at the time. When confronted with another rough trail and a downpour, carrying all my possessions on my back (chronic over-packer) straight up the side of a mountain, I had to call on reserves to carry on.  

At other times in the forest, there was almost a mystical quality to the looming trees and the quietude. The map was a way to discover new things about myself, and reignited long-standing questions: What is my mission? How can I help others more and make a difference in our world?

The trail and its corresponding map became my internal labyrinth to greater self-knowledge and awareness.

Japan, pilgrimage, travel

Customs and Ceremonies

The original pilgrims adhered to rituals and prayers along the trail, seeking rejuvenation. One goal of the pilgrimage in days past was to rid one’s body and spirit of impurities from past and present lives. I could imagine them surrounded by the magical mountains as they undertook rites of worship and purification.  

We started a few rituals of our own; my favorite: the delightful and essential end-of-day onsen experience to soak away the aches from the trail. In one tiny trail town called Yunomine Onsen, known for healing and regeneration, we stripped our clothes and dipped into his and her medicine baths. The town is teeming with traditional Japanese guest houses where you can time travel back into Old Japan.

Another ritual observed every time I return to Japan is partaking in the centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony in a 16th generation teahouse.  I won’t pretend that I understand all of the intricacies of the lovely ceremony, as I imagine one must partake many times to learn its inner game unless born into the practice. I have been told several things:  the ceremony is about grace and gratitude, staying in the moment, and our sense of impermanence… Simplicity and nature are observed while engaging both sides of the brain. The host is hyper-focused on the perfection of presentation while pouring you a cup of tea from their heart.

The rituals performed by the pilgrims had me reconsidering some of my own.  I don’t worship at a formal place because I don’t believe I need icons or an intermediary to talk to God to deepen my relationship. The world and its natural surroundings are my physical place of prayer. I still wanted to answer other questions to see if my daily rituals served me or needed to be eliminated and replaced anew.

Imagining

A happy by-product of the Kumano Kodo trail was that it awakened my desire to make believe. In the olden days, the tea houses along the trails made them more accessible to pilgrims. Sadly, now only ruins remain. However, I could imagine the inhabitants of the tea house glimpsing down the trail and seeing weary pilgrims in the distance. Immediately they would set about preparing the tea to welcome the travelers into their humble surroundings. The teahouses could easily be converted into bedrooms to enable the worn pilgrims a much-needed respite on their healing journey. 

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At one teahouse perched at Hyakken-gura Lookout, where you can see the 3,600 peaks of the sacred Kumano mountains, we feasted on our bento box lunch and considered the misty peaks. I drank in the view as others had for thousands of years, sitting in the stillness of the mountains, recalling my intention and thinking about those who have gazed out with marvel at the very same view. Far removed from everything and totally carefree, I was so grateful to be seeing such beauty.

There is a cobblestone staircase at the foot of Mount Nachi (where my favorite three-tiered pagoda resides) lined with centuries-old cedar trees. The area is called Daimon-zaka, and it has a staircase of 267 stairs leading to the third Grand Shrine of Nachi Taisha. At a tiny shop, you can rent traditional high-end Heian period clothing and dress like an aristocrat. Once clad in your new finery, you can walk up to the Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and the Seiganto-ji Temple. What a lovely way to cast off your persona, observe ancient traditions, and step back in time.

Japan, pilgrimage, travel

A Quest For Clarity

People from all levels of society hiked the Kumano Kodo Trail, not just aristocrats. Samurai warriors crossed paths with retired emperors, priests, and commoners. The mystical atmosphere of the trails takes no note of race and rank. Like the earlier pilgrims, what release and rejuvenation was I seeking?  How would I follow in the footsteps of those who trod before me? Before I embarked on the trail, I knew I wanted to allow the void and rest in the sparseness so I could create conditions for what is truly meant to be in my life. I also wanted to deepen my relationship with my cornerstone, “an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.”

In construction, the cornerstone is the most critical piece of the building.  The most resplendent bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III, had its cornerstone carefully laid by the son of Tsar Alexander III, Nicholas II. I always marvel when a house is in its inception stages, likening the process of rebuilding my own life. In years past, during a protracted period of challenging life trials, I had a blueprint in my heart of what I wanted so I just kept praying, and board by board the outcome materialized. The most important part of navigating that labyrinth was the reliance upon my cornerstone and supportive partner, God.  Everyone finds their own cornerstone, I suppose. I just knew that on my journey I wanted to enrich my relationship with mine. Of course, I didn’t have to travel to Japan and hike with 15 lbs on my back to do so, but the quietude of the forests allowed new awe and wonder to blossom.

Seeking your cornerstone? You don’t have to travel to Japan. But the tiny details, such as the sprig of young cherry blossom on your pillow at night or the simplicity of staring at a Japanese rock garden can help lead to a healing transformation.

One never forgets Japan.

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Joanne Socha is an attorney turned Luxury Travel Advisor and the founder of Travel Far & Well LLC, a Virtuoso-affiliated travel design firm catering to a diverse clientele.  A world-class traveler, she is also a speaker, coach and the author of The Red Bandanna Travel Book: The Medicine of Traveling.  Also known as Your Wanderess Host®, her mission is to inspire people to expand their borders and fall more deeply in love with our world.

Learn more on www.joannesocha.com or www.travelfarandwell.com

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

 

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