Traveling an ancient Japanese pilgrimage route with the last monk of Hongu (2023)

My friend Diana and I left our guest room in Akizuno Garden before dawn and arrived at Senko-ji Temple, a shrine on the outskirts of Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, for our morning rendezvous. Going up a curving slope and up a series of stone steps, we found ourselves near a graveyard from which we could hear Iwahashi Zenichi, a Buddhist priest, already at work. In a navy blue kimono and a wooden outfit.foldWith prayer beads around her neck, she knelt on a shimmering silver and crimson cushion in front of an altar. I watched him play a series of black Tibetan-style bowls while he used a hammer to strike amokugyo, a wooden drum in the shape of a fish, as a preparation for your daily routine: a zazen meditation.

Photo: Diana Zalucky

thanks to our guideokay japan— the tour company that helped plan our self-guided trip along part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route — Diana and I already knew what to do. As Zenichi read the scriptures in front of a Buddha statue, we quietly removed our shoes before entering the temple to begin our meditation. To prepare for the meditation with Zenichi, we first had to go through the Shoko ritual. We fold our hands in prayer and bow in gratitude and respect before heading to the sanctuary for a pinch of incense. We hold it close to our head and set our intention for our week's journey before burning it on the altar.

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Photo: Diana Zalucky

After Zenichi served usbait, a hot ume plum drink, we follow him to the tatami room to begin our meditation. We sat cross-legged and waited in silence as Zenichi rang a bell four times announcing the beginning of the zazen journey, a form of meditation designed to balance the mind and promote inner peace and freedom from any form of distraction or desire. Freshly relaxed after our session, I asked him why his drum was shaped like a fish. "Fish don't have eyelids, and neither do monks," he said. "Like fish, we always keep our eyes open."

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Having arrived in Osaka two days ago, Diana via Los Angeles and I from my home in Mexico City, we officially began our week-long self-guided journey along part of the Kumano Kodo, a series of ancient pilgrimage routes on the peninsula. from Kii. the largest of its kind in Japan. One of only two pilgrimage routes in the world declared World Heritage Sites (the other being the Camino de Santiago in Spain), the Kumano Kodo has been traveled by people of Japanese descent for thousands of years to visit the myriad of sacred sites. within the region.

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Although we didn't have a personal guide to show us the way, we did have a timetable and a personalized Oku Japan book that included all the details of our trip. (They even booked our hotel rooms and pre-purchased our train tickets - all we really had to do was go from stop to stop.) As a self-confessed navigator, I took control of the train tickets and directions, while Diana handled the translation via a portable voice device.

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Starting in the town of Tanabe, known as the gateway to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, we begin our adventure on the trail after our zazen meditation journey, meeting Toshio Tamai, a third-generation farmer, on his land. . Specialized in cultivationUnshu Mikan, a variety of Japanese citrus that resembles a tangerine, we walk through the fields with Tamaito and learn more about their process. Although he grows three types of citrus fruits on his farm, the region, he says, is something of an orchard, with around 80 varieties of fruit grown nearby. "The best thing about owning my farm is having customers like you," she said. “I love it when travelers like my taste. I'm glad to see you happy".

Photo: Diana Zalucky

After making our own bento boxes with the chefs at Akizuno Garten, and making friends with two best friends who work at the hotel cafeteria, who gave us the most delicious vanilla ice cream I've ever had in Japan, we ended our journey. As we climbed through the forest, past pine trees and towering lakes with reflected views of autumn leaves, we arrived at a traditional Chikatsuyu inn, where we slept on tatami mats and drank copious amounts of green tea.

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Our next day on the Kumano Kodo was what we had been looking forward to the most: we met Katsumi Ueno, the last practicing monk of Shugendo (an ancient Japanese religion centered on mountain worship) in his hometown of Hongu. After meeting him at a local cafe in Hongu and having coffee before the next trip, a full-day hike from Hongu to Sanzai Touge, we set off. Ueno wore a traditional monk's hat and blew his silver conch shell to symbolize the beginning of our journey. When I asked him why he was called to this path in life, he explained that it was a matter of divine will. "It was always my destiny to become a monk," he said. "I wanted to do something for my ancestors."

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Photo: Diana Zalucky

He described the commemoration of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage in its entirety as a process of rebirth. During our own day on the way, we passed several shrines, stopping at each one for Ueno to bless using powdered incense to cleanse himself and the immediate area. “I sang for the world to be more peaceful”, he told me after blessing a particular altar. "And to you too. I wish you a great future and a pleasant journey in Japan."

Photo: Diana Zalucky

After staying overnight at Kawayu Onsen and enjoying a soak in the natural hot springs, we woke up the next morning to meet our taxi driver. He picked us up in the remote village of Koguchi and drove us to the trailhead at Jizochaya-ato, the last leg of our journey that would take us over the Ogumotorigoe Pass for a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. Finally, after a leisurely walk through the forest, we arrive at the Kumano Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine. I was mesmerized by the imposing structure, both powerful and delicate in its design. Next to it, in the middle of Nachi Mountain, was a 436-foot waterfall called Nachi no Taki, the highest single-level waterfall in Japan.

Photo: Diana Zalucky

Photo: Diana Zalucky

I would be lying if I said that I was not in the least intimidated by the idea of ​​the trip. As something of a pampered traveler, I'm usually happy to book a taxi to pick me up from the airport, and I also enjoy seeing the ropes of a place by a local guide. It was my first visit to Japan and I only knew a few words of the language; where most would start with a trip to Tokyo, where guaranteed phone service and English speakers ensure nothing goes wrong, we decided to hike alone in a remote forest.

Photo: Michaela Trimble

And yet, there was something about the challenge—navigating somewhere I'd never been, spending time with people whose language I didn't speak—that was refreshing, even if there were some funny moments of lost translation along the way. As much as we searched for the wrong words, the Japanese we encountered always greeted us with kindness and empathy: from the supermarket clerk who closed the register to help me find ear drops, to the hotel manager who insisted in leaving his post to take us to a nearby temple that we had a hard time finding. After all, it's the unplanned moments that make the trip worth it.

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