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First oji stop reached on the pigrimage after a climb

Purification rituals observed under the dragon's watchful eye

Gyuba Doji statue on the Imperial Pilgrimage Route

Shinto shrine torii gate at Nachi Taisha

Statue of En no Gyojya

The Old Path to Kumano

 Younger fellow travellers on the Imperial Pilgrimage Route

Well, we made it, one way or another

Early Spring Imperial Pilgrimage Tour

March 2005


The early spring 10-day Imperial Pilgrimage Tour was one full of surprises. From an unseasonable snowfall on the first day, to a change of itinerary mid-trek, we came to expect the unexpected. This made for a memorable trip, and meetings with some remarkable people.

Mount Koya is stunningly beautiful when covered with deep snow in winter. At the end of March, however, the light snowfall simply outlined the graceful shapes of the temple roofs. It was cold – the thermometer in the temple washhouse indicated an inside temperature of zero. Fortunately the hot jacuzzi bath, kotatsu , heaters, and cosy futon , helped keep us all warm.


On Day 2 we had to fit tire chains to drive over a section of the skyline to Kumano. There was only a centimetre or two of snow in a few patches but, as always, safety first.


Two days into the 4-day hike along the old Imperial Pilgrimage Route , a couple of members were suffering with aches and pains, so I decided to change the itinerary. The Kumano Mountains are quite a challenge, even if you're fit. Although not that high, the path goes over many passes with steep climbs. These ascents and descents test fitness, and are especially trying on the knees.


Fortunately we happened to be in Hongu on the day a local gyoja (mountain monk who follows the arduous ways of the Shugendo Buddhist sect) was conducting a monthly fire ceremony. We were invited to join in the event, together with his family, friends, and local people. After the ceremony we were treated to a short guided walk around his village. Along the way we stopped at a very old shrine in a glade where the forest floor was covered in rich green moss. Deep in the mountains, and completely natural, the place had an atmosphere which the famous ‘ kokedera ' ( Moss Temple ) in Kyoto lacks.


The following day we stayed in Nachi, overlooking the highest waterfall in Japan . On a warm, sunny spring day we found an excellent sushi bar by the harbour in Nachi Katsuura. The decision not to visit the whale museum in the nearby old whaling port of Taiji was unanimous.


From there we drove north over the mountains to Asuka to Nara . Our guide in Nara invited us to a saké brewery. The samples we tried left us wiser about how saké is made, and decidedly less sober.


The tour was great fun, and I'm sure Alan, Paula, Carol, and Ern (alias ‘Udo', winner of the Haiku Competition in Kyoto with the poem below) enjoyed the fortuitous turn of events as much as I did. Is Alan pursuing his interests in forestry in New England I wonder?


We cross three bridges
As snow falls. The great cedars
Sing mute, ageless hymns
                   Ernest Alabaster


Click to read haiku poems from this tour.

Main reception room in Kongobuji  Mount Koya

Girl in traditional pilgrim gear at Nachi Falls

New boxes for stamps along the Imperial Pilgrimage Route

Relaxing by the irori hearth

Seigantoji Temple at Nachi.

Typical dinner at a ryokan

The 'funky' mountain monk takes us on a short walk through to a natural moss garden

All smiles at Nachi Falls





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