A Long Walk in a Fading Corner of Japan

Stand on the summit of Mount Hinodegatake, look inland across the Kii Peninsula, and there before you are a thousand peaks, crumpled earth like tin foil, frozen roil to the horizon, razorback edges of rock and soil. All muted tones. Turn toward the ocean and you’ll see the jagged coast, wrapping from the port of Nagoya down and around, back up to Osaka Bay, shaped by what’s called the Kuroshio, or Black Current.

The viewing platform at Mount Hinodegatake.

The Kii Peninsula, the largest peninsula on Honshu, the main island of Japan, is perhaps best known for a series of pilgrimage routes that link three sacred sites — Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan — to the ancient cities of Nara and Kyoto.

Before the Nanki train lines were blasted from the mountains, and the lonely National Route 42 was carved out alongside the coast, these highland paths were in active use. People young and old would walk and haul their goods, stopping at a teahouse at the top of a pass for some yomogi mochi, or mugwort rice cakes, or maybe a few dango rice balls slathered with soy sauce and grilled over charcoal.

A shack along the Hongudo Route, which leads to the Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the Kumano region’s famed shrines.
Cedars along the Nakahechi Route, which links together the Kumano regions’s three famous shrines.

And, if not walking, then people could use boats to ply the coastal waters. Sailing from cove to cove must have been a wondrous experience 200 years ago: Imagine being young and in love with someone from Hadasu, maneuvering with the tide, meeting on sandy beaches, placing your feet together in Kukai’s spring.

Once, according to an ancient folk song, memorialized on a stone monument in the city of Owase, a boatless carpenter fell in love with a girl from the town of Mikisato, on the far side of a mountain range. He sang: “If I had my way, I would flatten that Mount Yakiyama with a hoe, and allow her to pass.” Today, a train ride of just a few minutes could carry him through the mountain to true love.

The coastline near the village of Furusato.
Concrete barriers offer protection from landslides.

I was first invited to visit the Kii Peninsula 12 years ago, to spend a few days around Koyasan, a mountaintop city whose main Shingon Buddhism temple, Kongobuji, dates to A.D. 816.

The fertility of the area astounded me — those trees! The graveyard is home not only to the remains of many lords from Japan’s turbulent Sengoku, or Warring States, period, but also to moss lush enough to lie down on.

Mountain scenery along the Omine Okugake Michi ascetic training route, used by practitioners of Shugendo.

I moved to Japan for college when I was 19 and have lived here for most of the last 22 years. The town in America where I was raised — from which I emigrated — was mostly tobacco and blueberry fields, its ground infused with farming and industrial poisons, leading to rumors of uncommonly high rates of dementia and violent impulses. Who knows what’s in my blood.

But after three days spent up in those Koyasan temples, I felt my body change in the way that pure nature changes bodies — the fresh inputs of mountain water and mountain vegetables flushing out the contaminants I had unwittingly brought with me.

An abandoned shop near the village of Kata.
A lonely tree along the Ise Kaido pilgrimage route.

In the intervening decade, I’ve leaned into that sense of cleansing, of renewal, and have walked thousands of miles of old roads and paths across this spit of land. The peninsula itself covers some 4,000 square miles. It is wet — one of the wettest places in Japan, and considered one of the wettest places in the earth’s subtropics, pulling in some 157 inches of average annual rainfall. With that wetness comes a richness of history and ecology.

The Kii Peninsula is among the wettest regions in Japan.

The Kumano area of Kii is written as 熊野. The original character for “kuma” (熊) is 隈 — nook, corner, recess. A recessed space. The second character: “no” (野) — undeveloped or virgin. The wilds. Allan Grapard, the French academic, historian, and Japanologist, describes such an area as a “natural mandala.” He calls it “a large geographical area endowed with all the qualities of a metaphysical space.”

Walk the peninsula, pay attention, and you’ll find yourself floating between worlds.

An abandoned tennis court near the city of Tanabe.

Despite being in the center of Japan, the language of the Kii Peninsula feels thick in the mouth: warbled, informal. It calls to mind a North Carolinian drawl.

In the middle of a 30-day walk last June, I said hello to an old woman tending her patch, and she replied with the equivalent of, “They done saw a bear o’er yonder — watch yerself.”

Even the A.T.M.s say things that sound like: “Oh hon, thanks for using me, now you come ’round again soon, y’hear?”

I’m always tempted to take out a few extra bucks just to hear more sweet robotic gab.

A liquor shop near the city of Tsu.
A stretch of the Ise Kaido.

One of my favorite peninsula villages is simply named Furusato, or Old Village. It feels timeless, suspended between low mountain passes and facing the ocean, a sort of lost micro-Eden. When I approached, I found hunched elderly women — wrapped in floral-print smocks — picking their way through small groves of mikan oranges. Smack in the middle of town, between shrubs and fields and farm machinery, is a public hot-spring bath.

On a recent walk, a tipsy farmer in the locker room — his head barely reaching my shoulder — kept insisting I was putting my robe on backward. “No, you ain’t got it. It’s right over leftright over left,” he said, growing increasingly irritated. Others in the locker room looked at us and laughed. “Left over right is how women do it,” he said. “You ain’t a woman, are you?”

Travel Trends That Will Define 2022

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Looking ahead. As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry hopes this will be the year that travel comes roaring back. Here is what to expect:

Air travel. Many more passengers are expected to fly compared to last year. You’ll still need to check the latest entry requirements, and wear a mask for now. But more destinations will be within reach as countries reopen to tourists.

Lodging. During the pandemic, many travelers discovered the privacy offered by rental residences. Hotels hope to compete again by offering stylish extended-stay properties, sustainable options, rooftop bars and co-working spaces.

Rental cars. Travelers can expect higher prices, and older cars with high mileage, since companies still haven’t been able to expand their fleets. Seeking an alternative? Car-sharing platforms might be a more affordable option.

Cruises. Despite a bumpy start to the year, thanks to Omicron’s surge, demand for cruises remains high. Luxury expedition voyages are particularly appealing right now, because they typically sail on smaller ships and steer away from crowded destinations.

Destinations. Cities are officially back: Travelers are eager to dive into the sights, bites and sounds of a metropolis like Paris or New York. For a more relaxing time, some resorts in the U.S. are pioneering an almost all-inclusive model that takes the guesswork out of planning a vacation.

Experiences. Travel options centered around sexual wellness (think couples retreats and beachfront sessions with intimacy coaches) are growing popular. Trips with an educational bent, meanwhile, are increasingly sought after by families with children.

I was pantsless.

A small truck near the village of Koguchi, along the Akagi River.
A stonecutter’s workshop near Kumano Hongu Taisha, a Shinto shrine in the city of Tanabe.

For a second I panicked, thinking I might have had it wrong all these years. A lot of people get more things wrong than you’d think. People sidle up to a Shinto shrine and flash cash, clap twice, then bow, when they were supposed to bow twice, clap twice, and then bow again. Some people even clap at Buddhist temples, which sends the monks into a tongue-clicking tizzy. And this guy, with his ax to grind, wasn’t trying to get me to do it the manly way, but rather the way of death: The dead are wrapped right-atop-left.

I told the farmer, “All right buddy, if you do right over left, I’ll do the same.” He did. So did I. And he took me on a little tour of the town, both of us the walking dead.

A bus parked next to the holy grounds of Oyunohara, the site of a shrine that was washed away by a flood in 1889.
A sand-sifting facility north of the town of Susami.

For me, walking through working villages and towns is the great joy of the Kii Peninsula. Being able to cap a day of strenuous mountain routes with a bath alongside locals, wacky though they may sometimes be, is never not interesting. The whole of the experience, however, is one of acute bittersweetness.

The countryside of Japan is aging into nothingness, and it’s rare to see people under the age of 50 out and about. Many of the old coastal tea estates have been converted to solar farms — vast fields of trees replaced by gleaming black panels.

Abandoned homes and gardens abound. Part of the reason I’ve walked Kii so obsessively in recent years is because I can feel, palpably, the fading of what once was. In Odai, I missed having a cup of coffee at La Mer, a classic Japanese kissaten-style café, by just two months. The 80-something-year-old owner left a sign outside: “I’ve aged out of the business.” In Tochihara, an inn that has been in operation for hundreds of years may soon take its last boarder.

A playground near Nachi Falls.
A kissaten along the Ise Kaido.

But these changes don’t necessarily induce gloominess or sadness. They’re simply part of the inexorable flow of contemporary life — the aging of a population mixed with the loss of employment opportunities in the countryside. We’ve made certain decisions about certain industries on a global scale, and this, in part, is the result.

Instead, if I feel anything, it’s gratitude toward the energy of the peninsula itself — the abundant vitality of the land and the kindness of the people who are still there, all buoyed by the thousand-plus years of historical import.

Bikes stowed near the village of Kawazoe, along the Ise-ji, a pilgrimage route that runs along the east coast of the Kii Peninsula.

I wish you all — all of you reading this — could teleport here right now, right in this very moment, and I could take you on a long walk around one of the peninsula’s towns on a Sunday morning, all blue skies and sunshine, to bear witness to the pride with which it’s all being maintained. Just a few folks left. And yet: streets swept, shop gates lifted, kissaten beacons flashing. One imagines flying carp in the spring and the last of the summer festival shrines carried on the shoulders of shirtless men in white-rag fundoshi underwear.

But you’d have to come now. Right now. Like a tiny nub of glowing charcoal, this brightness and warmth isn’t long for our world.

Craig Mod is a writer and photographer based in Kamakura. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter. His latest book, “Kissa by Kissa,” chronicles his walking along the Nakasendo highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. His next book takes place on the Kii Peninsula.

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