Shirahama, and Why We Will Start By Walking The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage As Part Of Our Saigoku Pilgrimage, Japan
The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, and Why We Will Start By Walking The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage First
The Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage is the oldest pilgrimage in Japan.
It encompasses 37 ancient temples, each of them over one thousand three hundred years old.
Many of the original wooden temple buildings have burnt down, but due to their historical and religious significance, all of them have been rebuilt through the years, some of them multiple times.
The original walking path between the temples, once used by pilgrims seeking to rid themselves of ailments and mental sufferings, or seeking spiritual powers and enlightenment, no longer exists.
Big cities like Wakayama, Nara and Kyoto have suburbs that have spread into what was once the walking path.
Pilgrims embarking on this journey of 1500- 1700 kilometers nowadays have to make their own way.
You can choose to walk the shortest path, or to walk on the mountain road, or to walk by the ocean.
Whichever road you walk will determine the total kilometers of your journey.
Initially we had planned to start our walking pilgrimage at Temple #1, called Seigantoji (那智山 青岸渡寺), located in the southeastern part of Wakayama prefecture.
But if we were to start our pilgrimage at Seigantoji temple, we would have to then continue walking northwest towards temple #2, located in Wakayama city.
The path would take us backwards, on another old pilgrimage route in Japan, called the Kumano Kodo.
The Kumano Kodo is a very famous pilgrimage that is now a World Heritage trail.
It is a short walking pilgrimage, usually completed in no more than six days through lovely mountain scenery.
Historically, it was used in the summers by the royal family who journeyed to the three sacred Kumano Kodo Shrines, in a search for serenity.
Actually, the royal family did not exactly walk the trail.
The royal beauties were carried on hand held palanquins, along with a big retinue of servants.
The Kumano Kodo is recognized as an important walking pilgrimage by UNESCO World Heritage, and it draws many foreigners who enjoy the short experience of walking a Japanese pilgrimage.
There are convenient services to transfer your bags and make your guesthouse bookings, and passport booklets to stamp along the way.
Since almost nobody walks the Kumano Kodo backwards, we decided to follow tradition and to start our own pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo trail.
We will start walking from our hotel in Shirahama Beach, and walk the Kumano Kodo route to our first Saigoku temple #1.
Then we will return by train to Shirahama station, and start walking north to temple #2.
The distance is the same, and logic would suggest that we should start at temple #1 and walk the Kumano Kodo backwards, but tradition is very important in Japan, and so we will comply with tradition.
This morning we woke up early, to a clear and sunny day.
We planned a rest day, before we start walking the Kumano Kodo.
Reading the news made me unhappy – More countries closing their borders because of the coronavirus, more cities imposing isolation, the stock market down 3000 points.
I decided to go for an early morning soak in the big hot spring pools, since yesterday Jules and I soaked together in one of the small private baths.
It was so nice to soak in front of the big blue sea.
Because of the coronavirus and the fact that there are fewer tourists, breakfast in our hotel has been changed from an open buffet to an a-la-carte service.
I much prefer to get served a traditional Japanese breakfast while sitting down anyway.
We went for a long walk around Shirahama, to get to know the area.
The Shirahama beach has crystal-white sandy beaches, and they have put rows of netting on the beach to prevent sand erosion on very windy days.
A few Japanese tourists were on the beach, and some even took a short dip in the cold water.
Thee are a few hot spring foot baths around the small city, and plenty of small eateries, mostly serving seafood.
We chatted with a woman who owns an Italian pizza restaurant in town.
She told us that tonight is her restaurant’s rest day, and recommended to us another Italian place in town instead.
We talked about our travel plans in Japan and about the effect of the coronavirus.
We told her that we were worried about restaurants in Japan closing down, like they are doing in parts of the USA now, but she reassured us this would not happen in Japan.
It was nice to walk in the sun, and we took a pleasant break in a popular cafe with a Beatles theme.
Jules and I tried to guess how the married couple who are the owners had decided to open a Beatles cafe in a small seaside Japanese fishing onsen town, so far away from everything.
It sure seemed like their unlikely gamble has been successful, as the place was busy all the time, and tourists continued pouring in until every single seat was taken.
Our hotel offers a free afternoon tea with good chocolates and cookies, and a free happy hour with wine, beer, drinks, smoked salmon and other foods.
I do not know if they do it normally, or if this is part of a guest appreciation policy for those who still travel in these perilous times.
In any case, it felt nice to be treated so generously.
We ate dinner in the hotel, and took another long soak in the hot springs.
Later we packed again the bag that we plan to leave at the hotel, making sure that our backpacks would be as light as possible.
The Kumano Kodo has some mountain paths, with stone steps and climbing to do.
We are still carrying too much in our backpacks, mostly rain gear, toiletries and electronics, but we will have to do our best.
Sending you thoughts of love and light, and peace and healing to the whole human family,