Onsong in the onsen.....but leave your tatts at the door

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September 22nd 2017
Published: September 22nd 2017
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Crazy companions
Well, is anyone still awake out there in blogland? Another dribbling concoction of tales from the land of the rising sun....and how wonderful it is!

(Sorry Kate, I've forgotten the exec summary again!)

I asked for a priority tag for my bag and she offered me a seat right up the front, front of cattle mind you, not the real sharp end, I took it, only 6 hours and I'd be off quick smart. Thought I was lucky, 2 vacant seats, but then they arrived. 2 extraordinary, wonderfully crazy, whackjob Japanese women, indeterminate age and manic. Soon we were hysterical, no language but the usual mime, pen and paper and dic app. They brought out huge makeup boxes, I mean yuge! They applied for an hour and a half.....unnecessary, as I pointed out, but entertaining. Chie and Miho drank very little but ordered lots and passed it on, seeing my plight.

I glanced out the window at some stage and we were right over one of the Chinese militarised islands....scary surreal...they are really real, and not far from DN.

Narita, Japan, heart of civilisation......it is another world........everything on such accurate time, so clean, everything available in coin machines, toilets at a level of sophistication verging on surreal, and repression, suppression, oppression.....totally robotic obedience in awareness of society constantly contrasted with individuality and creativity.....and it's sooooo quiet...shhhhh.....after VN this is a shock to the system.......many, many people not talking loudly on cell phones, no one talking loudly at all.

Found the airport post office and the guy helped me insert the SIM card mailed to me, down to JR to waken the pass, tickets for Tokyo, Osaka and eventually Tanabe.

Off the all night train I stumbled into the Kumano Travel Office almost exactly 24 hours after leaving my house and fish in Da Nang.

The most wonderful Ms Yuko greeted me in the classic, almost over the top Japanese style, you'd have thought I was her long lost brother.....for the next three and a half hours she plotted, suggested, checked, phoned around, ordered, reserved and printed maps, agendas and options. Welcome to the Kumano Kodo ancient pilgrim trail.....not so straightforward, many options, on the ground very confusing, how did those old pilgrims manage! Fortunately there were regular survey markers, I was right onto them!

I had a night to kill in Tanabe, I wandered into one of 10,000 tiny bars crammed into the entertainment zone. Like most places it was impossible to see anything from the outside, you just plunge in and see. Down a passage I'm greeted (same effusiveness) by a lovely woman who leads me to a small space at the end of the kitchen, I sit and have beer, sashimi and cigarette. The boss is flat out in the tiny kitchen, with 2 helpers, he tells me to wait. From time to time the 2 waitstaff women stop and chat, one speaks a few words and we get by with mime and dic app....I actually find out a lot about this area. The boss also stops to chat, were talking fish, he brings me a sampler of his smoked tuna, and of course, not just slung on a plate but exquisitely set out with some herbs and sauce in a beautiful dish.....later he pulls a fish from the cooler to show me, next thing he's sliced off a chunk and sushied it, again artistic set out on glass. So many plates and dishes, different shapes and styles for each dish and each condiment, a simple meal can involve 6-8 dishes...who does the washing up? Like most of these tiny bars there's a tiny, private back room with a group of men, plates of food are delivered constantly, eventually they leave. Above the bar are huge sake bottles, I tried a couple, very refreshing.....later the boss gave me a hot sake with my sushi......we chatted on until late, I left on a promise to come back next year and he'll take me fishing....big embraces all round, unusual!.....the boss chased after me and gave me a small ceramic fish.......what an introduction to this country.

And we're off......

Bus from Tanabe to the start of the trail at Takijiri, a couple of Spanish guys, look like serious hikers, an indiscriminate couple and a young Chinese Canadian woman. I followed her to the start point, it's not so straightforward to find....an omen perhaps? Lu is wonderfully manic, chatty and happy to lead, I'm very happy to follow and we tramp off.....where did the others go? Where is everybody? It's totally deserted! I know this is the low season but this is weird....not a soul. Over the next couple of days I saw no more than 5 or 6 people on the trail.....and not one scrap of rubbish, well, just one small scrap of candy wrapper dropped accidentally by a constantly grazing Chinese Canadian woman!

The KK is described most everywhere as "not challenging" yeah, by Tensing Norgay.... Lu and I were discussing this false news between gasping breaths as we clambered nearly vertically for the first few kms. It got a bit easier, some flatter wider bits where we could walk and talk, some treacherously dangerous sections, steeply up and down luckily no rain it would be diabolical wet and slippery.

But the magnificence of these endless cedar forests, it is so quiet, and dark, not much light gets through the upper branches.....way up there, somewhere...., peaceful like old cathedrals where thousands of years of pious visitors embue it with calm.....Escheresque patterns in rows of identical trunks off into infinity......birds and crickets sometimes deafening in the silence, leafy, sandy and rock surfaces muffle our steps.....it is soo quite, peaceful, contrasting with bursting lungs, calves and thighs screaming....crikey, I'm in pretty reasonable condition but this is using
Cedar forest?Cedar forest?Cedar forest?

Cedar trees?
new muscles....I'm happy to see Lu also feeling the effects........masses of fern leaves and dropped cedar leaves cover the slopes, clearly there's a lot of water been passed on these steep slopes......gladly not today! .......only the occasional fresh green shoot soaking up the meagre shaft of sunlight getting through. Tiny colourful wild flowers, orchids and broadleafed little strugglers......up ahead Lu lets out blood curling screams, I totally freak out....just another spider web.....jesus wept girl, get a grip! But I'm happy for her to take the lead and clear the webs..... occasionally she ducks under one and I cop it.....no need to shriek. Lu also spots these strange spiders, long spindly legs with little plastic collars on their leg joints.....and they're walking hand in hand...wtf?

We discuss life, the universe and relationship dramas....I'm feeling a connection, no, not like that! like soulmates, talking everything and nothing, her conversation is lively, covering so many things, frustratingly contradictory and intensely intimate.....jumping from subject to subject...hmmm no wonder I feel kinshipness.

There are handy signs, like the 500m markers, reassuring me that I am making progress and I am on the right track!.... and we have maps and gps and along the way small shrines and signs, all with their little stories from way way back.....no problem in identifying that this has been a long time trek......and I was thinking how, a long time ago this was the only way of traversing this country....and they built these huge shrines, 3 of them along the KK, an enormous effort back in the day!

It was only +13 kms but a long day to get to Chikatsuyu village, I stopped to help Lu find her accom, mine was 5kms up the road. Somehow a guy drove me all the way to the door, more amazing generous hospit. A retired chef returned to his family home and started a guesthouse. I was quickly into the onsen.....one of the best partnerships.... the gruelling hike and the hot bath....natural, or unnatural, spring heated hot baths are all along the KK......public and private, all fabulously recuperative.....and cold beer.....and then our hosts 8 course meal....6 Michelin stars, a work of art, insane amount of detail, at least 30 plates and dishes, beer and sake, a couple of Spanish guys....haven't I seen them before? a Portuguese couple...that's it, this place only has 3 rooms......snug. I slept well and woke to an equally extraordinary breakfast but only 6 courses! The others convinced me to walk on....I'd been considering taking the bus.....I could barely get out of bed my legs were so stiff....but a quick onsen and an efferalgen....I was right.....and an artistically and culinary masterpiece of a lunchbox....oi gioi oi!

Day 2. No sign of Lu, is she walking or taking the bus....hmmmm.......and I'm walking with the Spaniards, an Irish guy and his Spanish girlfriend....all serious trekkers, all the gear, boots, leggings, sticks? water bottles you know......there were a couple of seriously steep sections, at one Shane was asking me some metaphysical conundrum, I had to hit the pause button, saving my sparse breath, telling him not to scoff but consider my history of self abuse......and/but it was perfect, a chance to sit and contemplate, mountains and rivers, the endless forest.....and no one about, utterly isolated.....

I caught up with the others a bit later and we talked and walked along wider, flatter paths, more deep discussions and the strong bonding......then we came to my turn off, a supposed shortcut to Yunomine.....hahaha........The bonding is intense, it reminds me of some experiences on the road many many years ago, talking so intimately with total strangers, the depth of the intimacy juxtaposed with the sudden and complete break when we went our different ways......as we moved off in our different paths it was an emotional farewell, but hey, I'd only met these guys this morning....but that's how it goes!

I've discovered Gereoke....I wander into another tiny bar, greeted wildly again but this time it's a group of v elderly women and one really old man.....they take it in turns singing karaoke, the guy can't move from his seat but the women croon around the room singing straight at me.....the owner is one of the oldest of the women, maybe 120? Nice contrast after VN where the karaoke is always so ear bleedingly loud, and off key...here it is quiet, subtle and quite beautiful

Lots of old people, unlike VN where 90% of the population is under 25, here 90% are over 95......most of the workers I see are old......train drivers, labourers, the guy on the forklift, cops, restaurant owners, chefs, waitstaff, shopkeepers, just such a contrast to VN where everyone seems to be just out of school......and I never see pregnant women but I seem to recall that's a cultural thing.....

More contrasts, the hugely old, million year old stuff right next to cutting edge technical modernity, like the old guesthouse at Nachisan, the third of the great shrines...and the overflowing waterfall, the guesthouse was about 400 years old, fabulous rock hewn onsen but only squatters!.....outside a public dunny with all shmicko add ons......

Another......at dinner, at so many places, the most exquisite hand crafted ceramic pottery dishes....right next to the crappiest crapolla plakky takky shit bowl...wtf?

Line up your deities.....shrines, temples, statues, everything iconic, well rubbed and loved. The typhoon finally caught up but 2 days of intense rain weren't too bad, it wasn't cold and once I was thoroughly soaked it didn't matter, walking in the rain....On the way to Nachisan and the big waterfall, I got off the bus about 10kms short of where I thought I was.....I checked the map to confirm my stupidity and trudged on up the road......3 kms on and a guy pulled over and offered me a lift. He was actually going the other way but turned around and took me all the way to the top....more wonderful hospitality.......

I've never been a fan of busses but I must say the local busses here are absolutely wonderful......almost painfully punctual, sometimes they have to stop if they're getting ahead of schedule! like everything, and so easy to use, paying for fares, information etc, I wonder how I was allowed to get off too soon?

Afternoon at Nachisan and the wind picked up, blowing a gale, horizontal rain, trees crashing, everything movable had been lashed down. All night gusting and howling, between times I could hear the falls, over a kilometre away, roaring with a Twin Peaks soundtrack white noise effect.

Did I tell you the local KK emblem is the 3 legged raven? Could fit into GoT maybe?

The end of day 2 stumbling into the onsen at Yunomine. Yunomine and I know yours. A steaming hot spring runs down the middle of the town, locals hang bags of veges and eggs into the boiling pools.....the guesthouse pipe it into huge baths....ahhhh

After the bath and nursing a beer I wandered down to the bridge and ran into Lu, she'd piked and taken the bus, it was so good to see her again....she's off to find her bf, flying in from Canadia to drive around the mountains further north.

Next day I hit Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Slam Shrine then on in the rain to the Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and the falls....we've jumped time here somehow.....the boat down the river was cancelled due to the increasing typhoon, bummer! But I spent a night at the Nachisan, the next morning it was brilliant sunshine, typhoon all gone!

But no trains running so I bussed it to Shirahama a lovely coastal town, beautiful beach, more tiny bars and wonderful people and astounding food.....strange hotel......big, vast halls and passages, not for the first time I think I was the only guest...fabulous ancient rock onsen down in the bowels....fleeting glimpses of the cadaverous 110 yo manager.....and his mother....

A Shinkansen all the way south to Kagoshima for a night and you know what? Yes, more tiny bars etc etc....

Next stop Hiroshim.......that'll be the next instalment, I'm off to the station for a marathonkinsen up to Sapporo in the far north, 2,000 kms in 18 hours or so.......

Keep those cards and letters coming in!

Additional photos below
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The hot spring runs through the town, locals cook eggs and veges in baskets in the spring

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