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Walking with the Emperors

Pilgrims have sought spiritual renewal on the sacred paths of Japan’s Kii Peninsula for over a millennium. Walk in their footsteps along the Kumano Kodo
An inn in Yunomine Onsen – a hot spring resort on the route to Koguchi. The hot springs were discovered in the 4th century, making it the oldest onsen (hot spring) town in Japan
Photographs JONATHAN STOKES @jonstokes1

IN THE FOOT HILLS OF THE KII PENINSULA, it's raining - hard. Fat raindrops clatter through the trees, hitting the ground with a sound like marbles being dropped on slate. Rivulets of water tumble over the trail and a film of white cloud curls over the treetops, casting the forest in a gauzy, silver glow. The scent of damp earth hangs in the air. Ahead, a path tapers into the mist and three walkers trudge past giant cedars a hundred feet high. None of the hikers appear downtrodden by the rain; they seem positively cheery, chatting merrily as they tramp the leaf-strewn path, pointing out birds swooping and darting among the trees. Like all good pilgrims on the Kumano KodO, they know that endurance and enlightenment are two experiences that often go hand in hand.

The Kumano KodO was conceived as a test of mind, body and spirit,' explains hiking guide Kennis Wong, a veteran of Japan's most famous long-distance trail. 'The difficulty, the isolation and the hardship were important parts of the pilgrimage. The belief was that y overcoming them, you puriied yourself and improved your inner spirit.' She jogs ahead to catch up with her group and a moment later the clouds split, sending white sunbeams rippling over the forest floor.


For 1,000 years, pilgrims have travelled to this corner of Japan in search of spiritual salvation. According to legend, the Kii Peninsula - now part of Wakayama Prefecture - was home to primal nature spirits that dwelt in the rocks, caves, rivers, trees and mountains. They were worshipped by followers of Shugendd, an ancient animist faith, who built shrines to honour them deep in the forest, hidden along riverbanks, buried among tree-roots or raised on wind-scoured hilltops. The paths that connected them, collectively known as the Kumano Kodo (Old Roads of Kumano)- offered a kind of roadmap towards rebirth and redemption, and pilgrims travelled from far and wide to walk them; monks and merchants, noblemen and samurai, peasants and emperors. They did so in reverence and awe.

Today, however, if you tell a Japanese person you're travelling to the Kii Peninsula, their first thought will likely be to hand you an umbrella. Jutting into the Philippine Sea, it's the wettest place in Japan, regularly rocked by landslides and drenched by seasonal typhoons. But since 2004, when the Kumano KodO trails were named a World Heritage site - the only walking routes to receive the honour apart from Spain's Camino de Santiago - the paths have been rediscovered by a new generation of pilgrims in search of their own mystical adventure.

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Find the complete article and many more in this issue of Lonely Planet - November 2018
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