‘Harai’ is a Japanese noun.
It translates into ‘exorcism’ or ‘purification’ and is one of the principle goals of the Kumano Kodo: a cleansing of one’s self.
For centuries pilgrims have performed feverent rituals at various shrines along the route to rid themselves of impurities from lives past and present. This culminates at Haraido-oji with one final rite, before the pilgrim goes onto pray at Kumano Hongu Taisha and ends their journey.
Whilst maintining the utmost respect for this process, it seems to me that when a person walks far enough, they can also experience their own personal version of ‘harai’.
For me though, walking is more of an opportunity to declutter. To clarify thoughts, rather than exorcise. Walking gives me the space to make sense of my mind and, by extension, the wider world around me. It puts things into perspective and allows time for long periods of mulling-over, which seems to be an undervalued skill these days.
Back to our second day on the trail however, I have no thoughts other than enjoying the cup of hot miso soup in front of me. It is 6.45am and we step out into a beautiful gloom. Chikatsuyu snoozes as we creep past houses, my hand wrapped around the bear bells to prevent them becoming an unpopular village alarm clock.
After a while the sun creeps up and over the surrounding mountain tops. We drive on to the edge of a wood. Panting, we check the time and break out in smug smiles. We have achieved over eleven kilometers by 10.30am. Stealing a literal march on the day like this is a wonderful feeling.
I celebrate by dropping a hundred Yen piece into a purse hanging from a nearby doorway, before taking a cold can of sweet, milky coffee from the water trough that sits alongside. Presiding over the trough, a pinnochio statue urinates spring water downwards to keep the make-shift drinks cooler topped up. Rather racy for rural Japan.
The route is as long as it is undulating. We dive down into a fairy tale forest, complete with a Snow White chimneyed cottage. Sun slants through the pine trees, birds chirrup and a brook bubbles alongside. I half expect the whole place to erupt into song. The climb back out of the basin is tough though. If the forest valley was a Disney remake, then escaping it is the Brother’s Grimm version with the sweat, blood and tears left in.
The views and atmosphere along the route are fantastic. We have long stretches to ourselves; just us and the birds and the jangling of our bells. We break for lunch at a rest stop and unwrap bannana leaf parcels prepared by our Minshuku guesthouse the night before. Three colourful and symmetrical rice balls: serious and much needed Japan-style hiking fuel.
At this rest stop we meet a group of friendly Japanese ladies. They are almost as colourful in their attire as our digesting lunch. We catch up further down the path and, after the usual pleasentries of how we have the same Osprey bag (Osprey are clearly doing something right in Japan), we end up in a quite unexpected situation.
Striding down towards us is a man that looks like he has stepped fresh from a Tokyo salon. He is clad all in white with a trendy scarf, sporting a well groomed goatee and is wearing an expensive looking leather man-satchel. It is not made by Osprey.
“Can we please film you for a hiking advert?” he asks, first in Japanese to our new friends and then in English to us, “We are from Eurosport.”
One “Camera. Action!” later and we are striding down the path doing our best to look hiker-ly. I go for a pensive and slightly pained look. Several kilometers later, I see the same media group trying to convince a local village lady to carry a sack of grain past them. It doesn’t seem to go well.
We push on past green tea plantations and persimmon trees. Teahouses beckon but the restrictive winter daylight hours force us onwards.
Twenty-six kilometers into the walk we limp into Kumano Hongu Taisha. Juxtaposed by the isolation of the woods, the number of tour bus pilgrims is a bit overwhelming. It feels like everyone is flitting around in a frenzied, selfie-stick ‘point and click’ induced state.
The view of the Torii gate, the biggest in the world, is an imposing one. It dominates the landscape and, walking through its towering presence, the history of the Kumano Kodo passes through alongside. We rest for a while to take it all in.
It is an inconvenience at this point, as our legs seize up, that we still have two kilometers of brutal uphill to reach our lodging at Yunomine Onsen.
We power through it in the encroaching darkness in blistered and tired silence.
At the end, we are greeted by a lovely and eccentric lady: the owner of our Minshuku Yamane.
She ushers us through to the private onsen baths, fuelled by the village’s natural hot springs.
After a good long soak, we emerge pink, exhausted and cleansed.
N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!