We awoke to a thundering volley of rain above our heads, forcing us into a decision: call off the Kumano Kodo hike or confront the full force of a Japanese monsoon head-on. We weighed up our options. We had copious amounts of waterproofing, we could dry everything out in the camper van and the village of Yunomine (where we were parked) boasted a natural hot spring - an ideal place to soak aching limbs and dry off. The decision was unanimous.
We made some quick poncho repairs and slung the poncho together with my raincoat and plastic backpack cover to a create 3-part, 'high-tech', waterproofing camera system. So long as I cradled the camera like a baby in front of me and separated the various layers with my hands I figured it would hold. Maybe? Was it worth the risk? Maybe? You never know what lies around the next bend!
We clambered out of the van into the torrent of rain. It was warm and humid. Yunomine looked similar to the romantic, mist-enshrouded postcards we'd seen of the Kiso Valley. Street lights reflected off the coating of water on the ground. There wasn't a trace of human activity in the downpour. Once through the clutter of houses, a break in the trees provided a final glimpse of the village's slanted rooftops, before entering into the immense woodland of the Kumano Kodo.
The canopy above provided us with some much-needed shelter from the rain, which worryingly had already made its way through the first layer of my advanced waterproofing system. We entered a valley of ferns and wove in and out of an ominous mist. At times it felt like a cloud forest. We found the remains of a deserted teahouse, maybe 40 years old. The Kumano Kodo itself is much older. For more than 1000 years emperors and peasants have shared this pilgramage route. Broken crockery and a selection of slippers littered the teahouse floor, a small reminder of this ancient heritage. Continuing onwards in the footsteps of history, a couple of fox shrines dotted the track and we stumbled across what we initially mistook for a snake, but turned out to be a large, bloated earthworm.
In time, the impossible occurred... The rain grew heavier. We might as well have been walking through a dense crowd bucketing water at us. With this herculean mass of rain came a colourful surprise. Orange crabs tiptoed across our path, cautiously basking in the torrent. This was the last place I had expected to see sealife, but they kept coming. Hundreds of the little guys popped up out of nowhere. How they had remained hidden until now was a complete mystery. I was busy marvelling at the critters when I almost stepped absent mindedly onto the head of a gigantic frog/toad/monster. I hopped out of my skin. It was bloody enormous. It was raining crabs and frogs.
The tallest torii gate in the world is called Oyu no Hara and lies towards the end of the Hongu Loop. As we descended into the town of Hongu Taisha, it towered over us. At 33 meters high, it's truly a sight to behold. The passage out of Hongu is very overgrown and whilst attempting to clamber over a fallen tree we caught the attention of what we thought was a baby monkey. We couldn't make out anything through the vegetation, but it began howling at the top of its lungs. Amusement quickly turned to fear as the howl was echoed by a barrel of monkeys, not far off and approaching fast. We turned tail and fled back through the undergrowth, ducking, weaving and hurdling branches. Their cries ricocheted above us. Back out in the open, we caught our breath. It seemed that route was out. Begrudgingly, we diverted and navigated by road to Yunomine.
We planned to soak (some more) in the natural hot spring of Yunomine, Tsuboya, but were thwarted by the scolding spring. A quarter of an hour spent bucketing cold water into the bath made no difference. Luckily, the public onsens were available. It was a great end to the Kumano Kodo and to top it off, somehow, my camera hadn't had to endure even a dribble of rain. No one believes me when I say Japan rains crabs and frogs...
Words & Photography: Scott Norris (@_scott_norris) // spring 2015
Note on alternative route: We could not find the trail back from Kumano Hongu Taisha as it seemed completely overgrown (but we didn't have a map this accurate or GPX at the time, so maybe you'll have more luck?). I have included the route along the road that we followed in case. Alternatively, buses run from Kumano Hongu Taisha, but this won't really be an option if you've parked at Yunomine Onsen.
From Toyko/Kyoto/Osaka take a bus or train to Kii-Tanabe station. From here take a bus from Kii-Tanabe station to Yunomine Onsen (there's limited service).
This walk starts in Yunomine, best reached by car as public transport is infrequent. The trail head is located to the north of the onsen. It is signposted (just about). Maps definitely required.