One hundred miles on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.
By Caroline Harris
Matsuo Basho believed in what the Japanese call mono no aware: appreciating the beauty of fleeting moments. In 1680, at the age of 37, he took up a life of wandering. He roamed through the wilderness, chasing inspiration for his poetry. For the most part, he wrote about ephemerality: the song of a cicada, the moment before a frog splashes into a pond. Basho went on to become Japan’s most famous haiku poet, and also my muse. Inspired by Basho, I hiked over 100 miles of Japan’s Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, beginning in Osaka and ending in Ise.
Sitting in my off-campus apartment, I appreciated Basho in the abstract. I loved the idea of becoming more meditative and mindful. I read articles about wayfarers and wanderers, wondering what it would be like to depart from my everyday life. Supported by a Terry B. Heled Research & Travel Grant from the Kelly Writers House, I planned my pilgrimage. I set out to write about poets and pilgrims, and about the meaning of Basho’s wandering.
I met my fellow pilgrims at a restaurant in downtown Osaka, where we shared sushi and sashimi while discussing our expectations for the trek. I had decided to participate in a guided Walk Japan tour of the Kumano Kodo. I had learned that nearly all the signs of the Kumano Kodo are in Japanese, making solo travel as a non-Japanese speaker an iffy proposition.
My fellow pilgrims were, for the most part, married Australian couples in their 60s. They were seasoned hikers, speaking of recent treks across Mongolia, Myanmar, and Tibet. I had my answer to my research question. Who is the modern-day pilgrim? Apparently, Australian empty-nesters.
The next morning, we were Koya-bound, shooting through the majestic mountains of Wakayama on a bullet train. My first glimpses of the trail revealed the natural beauty that inspired Basho’s belief in nature as the source of man’s salvation. The cedars and cypress were intercepted by Buddha statues, red gates, and bridges that promised the path to eternal paradise. We landed in the mountain temple community of Koyasan.
Basho would like this:
Sun splashes cedar forest
Cross of maple spines.
We hiked a few miles before settling in at the Buddhist monastery where we would be staying. Monks handed us each a robe, belt, and pair of wooden slippers. They directed us to the onsens to cleanse ourselves before dinner. I was told that in these communal bathhouses, swimwear was strictly forbidden. I assumed this was a joke, a brand of Australian humor with which I was unfamiliar.
It was not a joke.
Mortified, I crouched under a showerhead, bathing next to women I had known for one day. The notion of appearing naked in front of strangers offended my American prudishness. But one of the Australian women laughed, attributing my shyness to my age.
“Just wait until you have kids,” she chuckled.
Soon I dropped my robe. I relaxed into what became a repeated experience. I learned to see the onsen for what it was: communal and bonding. Along with eating mackerel for breakfast and sleeping on the floor, I grew to enjoy it.
The next morning, we rose at six for morning prayer followed by a fire ceremony. The monks chimed gongs and chanted heart sutras in ancestral worship. They burned incense in remembrance of those they have loved and lost. Lips murmuring prayers, they gathered around the fire.
After a breakfast of dehydrated vegetables, green tea, and white rice, we began our first full day of hiking. We clutched stamp books, collecting Kumano Kodo memorial stamps from the wooden stands that sprinkle the trail. The Kumano Kodo in Japan and the Camino de Santiago in Spain are the only UNESCO World Heritage-listed pilgrimages. Ambitious long-distance hikers can collect stamps on both trails to register as dual pilgrims. I embraced the satisfaction of every stamp. There would be many days of hiking and many physical accomplishments marked in red ink.
The Kumano Kodo felt like home to me. Growing up in Northern California, I grew accustomed to the way sun spills through the slats of redwood trees. During the hikes of my childhood, I stared down at the treetops from mountain summits. I became familiar with the dense green of forests and the dirt path of trails. Nestled in the mountains of Wakayama, I had to remind myself I was no longer in California. Aside from the Japanese trailhead signs and the relative thinness of Japanese redwoods, the terrain was similar. As we drew closer to the Japanese view of the Pacific Ocean, the Australians sang Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”
I have always been a mountain girl, happiest at elevation, whether in forests or in snow. I am a certified yoga instructor and have tried all the popular forms of meditation, discovering that nothing is as effective for me as walking. While on the Kumano Kodo, I experienced a quietude and calm. I understood how Basho could spend his whole life like this, roaming among the redwoods. There is something humbling about knowing everything you need can be carried in a backpack. I fell into the rhythm of the Kumano Kodo, lacing my hiking boots every morning with the assurance I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.
There was a pattern to our days. We rose early, sliding into our robes and wooden slippers for a breakfast of rice and fish. It was silent in the ryokans, save for the chattering of birds. Morning light sliced through the blinds, and I could sense the gentleness of the tatami mats under my feet. We trekked up slippery cobblestones to gates shrouded in mist. Backpacks slung over our shoulders, we flitted between conversation and silence as we walked.
I became mindful of every footfall. I watched for venomous snakes and Japanese giant hornets, as well as for the more realistic situation of slipping on loose rocks. I reminded myself to look up—to notice the cedar trees washed in silver light and how the redwoods segmented the sky into sections. The trail put on a show for me. Sometimes the mist and rain gave the path an air of the mysterious. Sometimes the stones slickened with moss and my heart lurched, convinced I was falling.
The trail was not without its challenges. On our seventh day, we encountered the “slit-belly hike,” named after people who would rather slit their bellies than chart the arduous course. The Kumano Kodo brims with inclines called “the bastards” because they seem endless and without reprieve. There were times when my stomach churned at the thought of eating more mackerel. At the end of each day, I was unwilling to leave my tatami mat but convinced I had earned my rest.
The Kumano Kodo left space for reading and relaxation. I studied biographies of Basho. He believed that by distilling life to its essentials, he could become one with nature and therefore the divine. Born into a prominent samurai family in Iga Ueno, Basho left the world of material possessions. By choice, he lived like a lay monk. He shaved his head, wore drab robes, lived in crude huts, and ate basic food. Many times, he depended upon his disciples for sustenance. They fed, clothed, and housed him during his extensive wandering.
I thought about Basho often. Mostly, I was moved by how he strived for a simple life, the fusion of himself with the trail. I walked for 100 miles to witness the abundance of cedars and cypress, mountains and forests, gates and bridges, sunrises and sunsets. When I arrived in Ise, the sacred city that marked the close of my pilgrimage, I knew my journey had just begun. I dreamed of future treks, to Big Sur and Mount Tam, to Muir Woods and Cascade Falls. I dropped my backpack and pulled out my pen.
Fair Basho was here:
Straw shoes passing through the shrine
As he journeyed on.
Caroline Harris is a College senior studying English and creative writing.