Chasing a Vision of Japan

At my inn in Kyoto, a package awaited from Oku Japan: my 12-page itinerary, a booklet detailing the Kumano Kodo with directions (I would be taking the Nakahechi route) and several beautiful laminated color maps with height elevations. I was all set. The next morning, having condensed my essentials and a few of my favorite books about Japan into a shoulder bag, I grabbed a boxed lunch at Kyoto Station and got on the Super Kuroshia No. 7 limited express, nonreserved car, as per my instructions.

I studied my itinerary and maps as the outskirts of Kyoto and then Osaka gave way to small towns and finally, the blue expanse of the Inland Sea, dotted with tiny islands as jagged and numerous as those portrayed by Hiroshige. The train hugged the west coast of the peninsula before arriving at the town of Kii-Tanabe, where I got off and found the bus that would take me into the interior.

As I got on, I noticed a group of Westerners who seemed to be following the same instructions. This was something I had not considered: Others would be taking the same self-guided tour at the same time and I would be, by default, part of a group.


Hiroshige made sketches of his travels, as did our writer, although Hiroshige never had to portray the vending machines that are ubiquitous today.

Sketches by Wendell Jamieson/The New York Times

The bus climbed away from the cluttered coastline into rich green mountains, and eventually along a wide, pebbly river. Soon enough, and right on time, we were in Takijiri, a tiny town in a deep ravine at the intersection of the Tonda and Ishifune rivers where the Kumano Kodo begins.

I paid the 960 yen (about $8.80) Oku had prepared me for, and went into a shop to get water and a bamboo walking stick. I also wanted to let the others get ahead of me.

I followed my instructions. The first shrine, Takijiri oji, was just behind the shop. I walked toward it, and then to the left around it, and saw the beginning of the trail, a sharply ascending ladder of logs and tangled tree roots, slick with damp leaves, beside a steep drop-off. Up I went.

Have I mentioned that I’m not much of a hiker? Beyond my Japanese-fencing phase, athletics have never been a priority. I’m not outdoorsy; I’m indoorsy. But my Hiroshige fantasy propelled me onward, even as my chest started to ache awfully soon.

I’m also a little anxious about heights. This was an issue that first day, and on the subsequent two days, as the trail was often atop a towering cliff on the right side, the left side, or at a few spots, both sides, the path crowning a precipitous land bridge. At one point, I kicked a small rock to determine how long it would take to the reach the bottom. It was still bouncing down, on and on, more and more distant, when I resumed my trek.

I got into a rhythm, marking my progress on my map and at every wooden trail marker. Oku explained the history and legends associated with this or that shrine or landmark, kept me from taking several wrong turns, and warned me away from a detour that, while promising a great view, would have been exhausting. And anyway, there were already views at every break in the trees — layers and layers of mountains, some smooth, others rough with treetops, their ridges meeting in diagonal lines, each a different shade of green-blue.

The first day was only 2.8 miles. Soon I descended into the tiny town of Takahara. Here two roads met on a gliding slope, and there were a few shops and one hotel, the Organic Hotel Takahara Kiri-no-sato. Every room in the place, from the wide-open lobby-dining room with its bare support beams to the men’s and women’s baths to the bedrooms, had spectacular views of the yawning valley below, now tinted gold.


A Hiroshige print of Nissaka.

Courtesy of Ronin Gallery Collection

I tossed my bag in my room and went to have a beer and take some notes on the terrace. The afternoon cooled: The instant the sun dipped behind the mountains, it felt as if the valley became air-conditioned. I found the group from the bus, beers half-empty, one of the women with a laptop, and discovered that after my solitary train-bus-walk day, I didn’t mind a little company.

After a bit I went for a bath, joined in the wooden tub by two chatty and elderly Japanese men, and enjoyed the view of the darkening mountains some more before getting dressed for dinner, set for precisely 6:30 p.m.

One member of the group, Janet, invited me to sit with them, and I liked the idea, but my hosts said this would be impossible: We were different parties, after all. Sometimes in Japan, I’ve found, rules can be intractable. So I ate alone — pickles, beef I dipped in boiling water, and several other items including a very western avocado dish — at the next table over, my back to the others. It was equal parts awkward and comic. “How are you doing over there, Wendell,” Janet asked at one point over her shoulder.

The rules were relaxed as the meal ended, and I shifted my chair around and joined the other table as I finished my sake (not included in Oku’s fee). There were five of them: Janet; her husband, Stan; her aunt Elvina; her colleague Pat; and Pat’s friend, also named Pat.

We traded the basic details of our lives. They were from Canada, Edmonton and Vancouver, with jobs that included judges and lawyers in family court. It made for fascinating after-dinner conversation. They were also fierce hikers, having tackled many ambitious walks, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain. They were indeed following Oku’s instructions, and had found the first day’s walk a snap. “Have you seen the elevations for tomorrow, and the day after?” one asked me.

I had and said that I was worried.

The second day’s hike was 6.5 miles, including 1,575 feet of ascent. I went down to the village to take in the view from there, and to allow the Canadians to get a head start; I still envisioned my hike as a solitary adventure. Soon enough I was deep in the woods, marveling at the towering and straight-up Japanese cedars and passing an abandoned house that looked like something out of a Japanese horror movie. Some trees were flecked with early-autumn orange. I sat on a stump to eat two sandwiches the Organic Hotel had packed for me for lunch.

At one point I paused beside an especially deep ravine. The cedars stood like an infinite army of stoic and towering sentries all around and above and below me, endless legions of them, falling away on my hill and then rising higher on the next one, their tops shimmering gently way, way up there in the occasional breeze. A few beams of sunlight slanted down, but otherwise all was in shade. There wasn’t a sound, not a bird, not a cricket; even the branches swaying in the breeze could not be heard, as if they were in a silent movie.


A marker along the trail.

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

My hiking senses sharpened. I came to learn that a glimpse of blue sky near the bottom of the trunks ahead meant I was reaching the crest of a mountain, just as the increasingly loud gurgle of a stream meant I was reaching the bottom. There always seemed to be more up than down.

I encountered the occasional solitary hiker flying by with scissoring poles, pilgrims with twinkling bells, and small groups. One was a gaggle of young women from Osaka who asked me to take their picture, asked me to appear in a picture with them, and gave me as a reward a selection of Japanese candies. After they thanked me and I absent-mindedly responded “Sure,” they engaged in a contest to see who could best imitate my voice, each attempt getting deeper and of longer duration. “Sure.” “Sure.” “Suuuuure.”

At another point I was joined by a retired Japanese man who spoke nostalgically of the months he’d spent in Indiana studying engineering. He practiced his English on me while I practiced my Japanese on him. (Sumimasen?)

Oku had warned that the Kii Peninsula could be rainy, but I never had anything but sun. My stamina followed an arc: I tired quickly, then got into a rhythm, magically energized. I felt my mind open up and go free — it wandered through time, over that print show at the Cooper Hewitt, my family, my first trip to Japan, even my job: Solutions to several vexing problems at work suddenly became clear.

I tired again as I approached my destination, the town of Chikatsuyu, where Oku had booked me at a minshuku, a guesthouse, more modest than a traditional Japanese inn. It sat on the far bank of the Tonda. I had another long, hot bath, this one fed by a hot spring, again with two chatty and elderly Japanese men, though not the same ones as the evening before.

I threw in once and for all with the Canadians at dinner. Maybe I’d already tired a little of my own thoughts. We agreed to stick together the next day. Another group at the guesthouse was from Spain, including a stocky bald man said to be a karate expert.

We started early the following morning — Elvina was soon way ahead — and marked our progress on our maps. We had lunch in a small field next to a stream: I had two rice balls I’d bought at a shop in Chikatsuyu and an egg that Elvina made me take from the hotel, saying she was worried I wouldn’t have enough for lunch.

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