‘Forest-air bathing’ is a traditional Japanese pursuit, but hiking the ancient Kumano Kodō pilgrimage paths through the Kii Peninsula mountains, the author finds herself most absorbed by the rocks beneath her feet. By Toni Jordan.

Japan’s Kumano Kodō pilgrimage

Stacked rocks on the Kumano Kodō trail.
Credit: Toni Jordan

On the afternoon of the third day on the Nakahechi route of the Kumano Kodō, the ancient pilgrimage trail on Japan’s Kii Peninsula, the rain falls in blinding sheets. My pack is sodden under its black garbage bag, my feet squelch in my hiking boots and I imagine the skin of my toes turning white and puckering as though I were floating in my bath at home. June is the rainy season in Japan, so this is to be expected and the point of a pilgrimage is, after all, to be reborn, to be washed clean. Today, the next village is 21 kilometres away. It’ll take the best part of nine wet hours.

There are more forests and open spaces than I’d expected in this country dense with people; shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing) is taken seriously in Japan. There’s science behind it. In a paper published in Public Health in 2007, researchers found hostility and depression scores decreased significantly and liveliness increased significantly on the “forest days” of healthy volunteers compared with control days. These effects were even greater in the subjects experiencing chronic stress. The trees in these mountains – giant cedars, twisted, centuries old; towering stands of ramrod bamboo – have seen walkers come and walkers go. And it’s true. By some alchemy, my shoulders drop and my mind clears. Yet it’s the rocks, not the trees, that capture my imagination.

On the Kumano Kodō, rocks are everywhere. First, the path itself is mostly laid with rough stone paving, slippery and green with moss. It’s easy to imagine retired emperors and noblemen and tradesmen and monks and nuns walking these exact steps on a day such as this. The soft shuffle of straw sandals on this damp and worn path. The swish and sway of white robes. Sometimes we pass the ruins of a teahouse or inn where those early travellers would have stayed. Only rotten stumps remain, if anything. Mostly the only trace is a patch among the forest where the trees are vaguely thinner.

In those early times, pilgrims walked the Kumano all the way from Kyoto. It was tradition to write one’s will before setting off and to include instructions for the treatment of the body. We pass tiny family cemeteries in the shade of cypress groves and special gravesites for people without direct descendants to care for them. We pass wider cairns piled with thin, flinty slabs that could be graves and other mounds that, legend has it, once contained buried jars of sutras. There are tiny Shinto shrines everywhere and, here and there, Buddhas and other statues just off the path, sometimes carved by villagers to honour the place where a pilgrim died. Smaller rocks are piled everywhere in towers, magically balancing. Young children, a sign tells us, die before they can accumulate enough karmic worth to pass into the afterlife, so they stack pebbles as a prayer for salvation. I’m guessing these particular piles are tributes made by walkers and the monks who still live in these mountains, rather than evidence of ghosts.

We sleep early, on futon mattresses laid out on tatamis in small inns, after hot spring baths. We wake early, before sunrise. I carry only a daypack, with water, rain gear and a packed lunch of fruit and onigiri or a sandwich, and thank my lucky stars that the rest of my luggage is picked up in the mornings and arrives before me in the next village. The walk itself is demanding, but not impossibly so. I suffer no aches or pains or strains, and suspect this is due to the daily hot baths rather than my minimal preparedness. On the fifth day we reach “body-breaking slope”, where the path climbs almost 800 metres in elevation over just five kilometres. It’s a killer, and contrasts this geologically young country with Australia’s worn and flat ancient mountains. Japan is still being shaped. Twenty per cent of the world’s large earthquakes occur here – about 1500 a year. Everywhere on our travels, we see signs of preparedness: tsunami information cards in the seat pockets on the trains, loudspeakers attached to suburban electricity poles in ocean-side towns. Children, people tell us, practise drills at school and they know to hide under their desks until a teacher tells them it’s safe. Families have “grab bags”, with first aid kits and dried food, wind-up radios and insulation sheets. That’s another reason for the open spaces: places to run, in case of disaster.

In Japanese mythology, these islands were unformed, floating masses until the gods Izanagi and Izanami stirred the sea with their magical stone-covered spear. Here, in the quiet, dripping forest, this all makes sense: the understanding that the firmness of the ground is a recent, fleeting innovation; the primacy of the spear, the near relative of the sword, made here since the Bronze Age by melting and casting these rocks, by making them fluid again. Few crafts or arts are as respected here as sword-smithing. It’s fitting that in every katana and every kitchen knife, and every keen and whetted blade forged with such care and pride, is both the ability to take a life and a re-enactment of the creation of the Earth.

There’s plenty of time for wondering, and I think about the effects upon a national psychology, this acceptance that the ground is not really solid beneath your feet and at any moment and without warning, might begin to buckle and roil. They are children, these mountains. Babies with tantrums and moods. In my mind I see them in the act of forming barely 20 million years ago, thrusting from the ocean floor as the tectonic plates beneath the islands shift and pull. Rocks of all sizes flying through the air. It’s easy enough to imagine: when Mount Ontake erupted a few years ago, 63 hikers were killed by rocks flung in the air from the mouth of the volcano.

One section of our path is closed due to a “major crack in the mountain” caused by a typhoon back in 2011. Today, though, the ground is firm and still except for the steep parts, where it’s become a stream. I lose my footing several times and fall heavily once, on my adequately padded rear, and the livid, purple bruise lasts for weeks back at my desk, a souvenir and reminder every time I sit or lean. In the mountains, even when it’s not raining, the air is heavy and damp.

A detour from the closed path takes us along a forestry access road, through a net fence, then along a ledge that seems to hang off the side of a mountain pass. Here, we’re above the clouds. Fog rolls into the valley behind us. At its height, there were hundreds of individual monasteries in these holy mountains. Now, although there is evidence of many people having been here in the piles of coins in front of even the tiniest trackside shrine, over our five walking days, we run into only nine other souls on the path: six Western tourists prepared, like us, with walking boots and daypacks; two Japanese athletes using the trail as a training run of sorts, too focused to chat; and one skinny cheerful lad from Oklahoma dressed for a stroll in a park and going the wrong way too late in the afternoon, with no tent, in this weather. I worry about him for hours.

Yet we are rarely alone. My hiking partner spots monkeys but I’m too far behind and too slow. There are fewer birds than I’d expected, and none of the famed black-and-yellow butterflies, perhaps because of the rain. There are leeches, though, which love this kind of weather: one of the hikers we pass has stopped to wring the blood from his sock. The path is dotted with freshwater crabs five to eight centimetres across, wildly orange and cross with the world, brandishing their claws at us. We see a huge toad that leaps blindly out of our way and on another day, almost camouflaged on the russet and copper of the paving, a smallish but also cranky pit viper, pointing its tongue and rattling its tail. It’s said that snakes can predict an earthquake days in advance, but it’s us strangers upsetting this one. Several thousand people are hospitalised every year in Japan from pit viper bites but ours studies us for a while, then cedes. We pass.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2017 as "Heart of stone". Subscribe here.

Toni Jordan
is the author of four novels including Our Tiny, Useless Hearts.