WALK any leg of theWorld Heritage pilgrimage network on Japan's mountainous Kii Peninsula and you are guaranteed interesting company. Signs and shrines along the 300 kilometres of ancient routes that lead to and connect the country's most sacred Buddhist, Shinto and Shugendo centres honour and introduce a host of historical characters.
Among them is Dokyu-zenomon, the posthumous name given to a pilgrim who died of hunger and fatigue on the southern Kumano Kodo trail in 1854.
I've long thought that dying on a pilgrimage speaks volumes about the god (or gods) involved, so I take comfort - hopefully not unfounded - in doing two Kumano day walks for interest rather than spiritual need.With me are 13 travellers from Sydney and Brisbane, several of whom deserve monuments of their own for one-liners uttered under duress on our first day.
By their nature, pilgrimages pair rituals with sacrifice and hardship and some sections of the Kumano Kodo are extremely tough.
The 9.3-kilometre leg from Takihara to Chikatsuyu-oji is not one of these, yet different combinations of age and fitness result in very different experiences. Some of us stride out; others labour on the steady climb and long descent through mostly pine plantation. Collecting red-ink stamps at ojis (subsidiary shrines) in souvenir books (soon to be published in English) is fun and it gives you a chance to catch your breath.
Walkers tread in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims from across Japanese society - so many made the epic month-long journey fromthe ancient capital of Kyoto during the 10th to 14th centuries that they travelled in long lines like ants - and modern-day pilgrims wearing signature white clothing and conical hats and carrying bamboo sticks. Such sticks support us on the track's rocky and root-roughened sections and double as staffs for mock fights on a stone bridge late in the day.
In contrast to that forest walk, our second day on the Kumano takes us from Hosshinmon-oji (the gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment) to Fushiogami-oji, a lookout where pilgrims traditionally fell to their weary knees on seeing Kumano Hongu Taisha below, then down to the shrine itself. On this easier, seven-kilometre walk we visit a village where water-poweredmoving scarecrows surprise passersby more than the habituated crop-eating birds and see countless rice terraces and persimmon trees laden with plump orange fruit.
Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three grand shrines of Kumano Sanzan, was relocated inland in 1895, after a flood carried much of the original complex down the Kumano-gawa River. Within its grounds, Norihiro Fujii, a Shinto priest, explains that the Kii Mountains in ancient times were seen as another world, apart from the living one, and the Kumano Kodo was the access route. On reaching here, he says, you are dead to the world, however you get to rejoin the land of the living, being reborn and reinvigorated on your way back, which makes the pilgrim's return journey almost more important.
As the priest talks, a busload of Japanese tourists rolls through the shrine, most posing for photographs in front of the beautiful timber oratory before waking the gods by ringing a gong and bowing twice, clapping twice and bowing again to make a prayer.
Melanie Ball travelled courtesy of Japan Holidays.
A free audio guide to the World Heritage Kumano Kodo, pilgrimage route maps, accommodation guide and bus timetables are available at tb-kumano.jp/en. Accommodation on the peninsula ranges from campgrounds to centuries-old Japanese inns. Many lodgings have an onsen, a mineral spring bath. Japan Holidays arranges private and group tours of Japan focusing on seasons, events and regions. Phone (07) 3300 2396 or see japanholidays.com.au.