Pilgrimage to the Sea and Mountains – Day 1

I think this might have been my longest hiatus from this site now. I really fell off of my once a week posting plan. For the past few months I’ve been slowly transitioning from my job teaching English at a public high school in Tokyo to being a full-time freelancer. So for maybe a month and a half that basically meant working almost 2 jobs simultaneously, trying to make the transition as smooth as possible. I gave notice at my school a month ago and Wednesday was finally my last day at school. It was a weird, sad day. I guess now that I’ve left the school I can talk more freely about it here, but somehow I don’t really want to. I wish I could just narrow out my memory of my last day to the last hour I spent with my English club kids, and especially the 20 or so minutes where about 15 of the chorus kids, my English club kids, and I made an impromptu pow-wow in the middle of the hallway, passing around the guitar I had on me and singing a mixture of Japanese and English songs. But that sweetly sad and still blissful window is clouded out with a more painful, emptier sadness that seemed to cascade down on me in waves throughout the day. It reminded me stupidly of my first sleepaway camp experience. I was 10 or 11 and on the last day of camp all of the other girls were crying their eyes out and clinging to each other desperately, and I myself had no one to really cry over and no one to cry over me, and this pathetic, self-pitying thought oppressed me to the point where it made me cry ironically. At which point some of my bunkmates came over to comfort me, assuming I was crying over the impending separation, and reassured me that they were also sad to leave me, which instantly cured my own cause of grief, unbeknownst to them. Anyway my last day at school reminded me of that stupidly.

But anyway, not to mourn over that too much, I decided to take a short trip after my school job finally wrapped up and before going full-swing into freelancing. Actually, I told a few of my freelance jobs that my school job didn’t end until 11/9, so I’d have that extra free week. A month or so ago a friend of mine told me about this famous pilgrimage route in Japan called the Kumano Kodo (熊野古道) that connects the three “Grand Shrines of Kumano.” Actually, the road is a complicated criss-cross that laces all over the Kii Hanto peninsula. For awhile I vaguely landed on this road as the destination of my trip, but didn’t actually get around to planning the details until about a week ago, at which point all the ryokans (Japanese-style inns) and the only hostel I could find along the route I wanted were booked up. So instead, I’ll be hiking a small section of the route on Sunday that connects a series of famous hot springs. The whole circle can be done in a few hours, which leaves plenty of time for hot springs bathing as well. Today (Friday), tomorrow, and Monday, I’m exploring around the coast and mountains of Wakayama–the prefecture that the Kumano Kodo crosses through.

Since I’m doing this trip on the cheap as usual, I took a night bus out of Tokyo Station at 10:50pm on Thursday night, arriving into Wakayama city at 9am. It was a pretty long ride, but not too uncomfortable, and with enough stops that it never became intolerable. All in all I probably only got a handful of hours of sleep, though. When I got to Wakayama I had a slow breakfast while I waited for my train down to the coast where I was spending the night. Since I wasn’t too sure what exact area of Wakayama to aim for, I basically just airbnb’d the whole southern region and looked for the most appealing place. The one I chose offered a private room in an old but cozy Japanese house on a small farm in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

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View from the train

The train ride down the coast took about 3 hours in total, plus about an hour and a half stopover at one of the busier stations where I had lunch. On the left side of the train, cliffs and farmlands rose up alternatingly, and on the right was the most spectacular, gushing blue ocean.

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My airbnb hostess met me at the local train station at half past 2 (only 1 station attendant and no machines, so no using my Suica train pass) and drove me through the narrow dirt roads to the property, which is snaked in by forests and little rivers. At the bottom of the hill where we parked the car, the view opens up onto the vast expanse of green farmland.

When we got to the house she showed me around and brought me a truly delicious cup of coffee and a few sugary snack things to eat while I looked over her brochures. She recommended that I head over towards an area to the west called Nachi tomorrow after breakfast–about 50 minutes by local train–where there are tons of waterfalls and ancient shrines.

After chilling in the house for an hour, she drove me around the area a bit. She took me to this famous landmark where a nearly completely eroded beach connects the mainland to this overgrown island that has a single shrine on it. It’s kind of like a tricky path puzzle trying to make it from the mainland to the island, with so much of the “beach” covered in boulders or completely flooded. But I did manage to get to the island without soaking my one pair of shoes that I brought on this trip too badly. I would’ve continued further and tried to climb the wall of boulders along the side of the island to get at the shrine gate, but my hostess was waiting for me back at the entrance while I frolicked about and I didn’t want to be too rude.

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After that, we swung by her son’s daycare and picked him up and drove together towards the local lighthouse (just learned that word in Japanese– toudai 灯台) and another gorgeous view of the coast. Her energetic little 2-year-old (Yu-chan) wobbled about ahead and behind us, pointedly refusing to be carried and insisting on managing on his own as much as possible. For some reason, I guess because he just came from daycare, he had this one friend fixated in his mind the whole time. As we walked along the path towards the lighthouse, he insisted on stopping at every peg in the wooden rail, approaching it in a friendly manner and addressing it, “Sota-kun?” (his friend’s name), to which his confused mother would explain that that is in fact not Sota-kun, who is likely back in his own home. As the sun set and the crescent moon came out, Yu-chan alternated his addressing of the wooden peg with addressing of the moon (“Konbanwa!” (Good evening)). I tried to combine these two games by patting the wooden peg with him and saying “Konbanwa, Sota-kun.”

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At the moment, Yu-chan and I are back in the little house with the stove brightly lit in front of us, since it’s rather chilly here at night. While I sit under the kotastu (heated Japanese table), Yu-chan is distracting me by trying to stand on his head in front of the fire-lit stove, eliciting from me a regular “kiotsukete, atsui (careful, it’s hot)” every time he gets too close. His mom is in the kitchen finishing up our dinner. I think she’s trying to time it for when her husband gets home, who called about an hour ago, presumably to say he’s on his way. What a nice life they have here.

Before I put this away to join them for dinner, I’ll close with a picture of the beautiful spread that Yu-chan’s mother just laid before us.

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