Ryoei Takagi is a 62-year-old Buddhist monk. Every January he climbs the steep snowy slopes near his home in the Kii Mountains of Japan to meditate under the 48 sacred waterfalls that flow into the Nachi Otaki: one of the tallest waterfalls in the country, revered in folk legend as a living god. Despite the icy conditions he is able to remain submerged in the near freezing flow for 45 minutes at a time. “This training has granted me supernatural powers,” he says, leaning in to whisper in my ear. “I can see people’s heart inside.”
But subjecting oneself to hypothermic conditions, he explains, is only a small part of the process. The real business is in the mountains. Takagi is a follower of Shugendo, an ancient Japanese religion that fuses Buddhist ideals with indigenous forms of nature worship. For centuries, devotees like him, known as Yamabushi, have been trekking the Kumano area’s slopes believing that ascetic training in sacred spots can grant magical abilities. Japanese folklore is rich with examples of these monks predicting the future, walking on fire, even flying – and their rituals are still alive today.
If you’ve come to Japan and go on this trip that promises to drop you in the heart of these sacred mountains. Over the next five days you can walk to the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo, a 54-mile ancient pilgrimage path that bisects the Kii Mountains in the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula, 120 miles south of Kyoto. For more than a thousand years, emperors and peasants alike have been walking these trails in search of enlightenment and healing on their way to the Three Grand Shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha.
For the first time, this self-guided trip allows non-Japanese speakers to mirror the journey. Detailed route notes are provided and advance bookings in traditional non-English speaking mountain guesthouses are also arranged, so visitors can walk the route without a guide.
By doing so you can experience this ancient ritual first-hand and discover a slice of rural Japanese life, seldom seen by outsiders. “Walk the route, breathe the air and make room in your heart to feel it,” is how Takagi describes it. If there is such a thing as hiking Nirvana, then the Kumano Kodo is surely the place to start looking.
Start the trail at Takijiri-oji, the gateway shrine to the sacred lands of Kumano which was once the site of great ritual offerings of poetry, dance and even sumo. From here, climb three steep miles to the mountain village of Takahara. In the evening, stay at the Kiri-no-sato guesthouse with a banquet of the traditional Japanese country cooking known as kaiseki – dozens of individually prepared, uniquely flavoured dishes – that would prove typical of the trip.
Then head for Chikatsuyu – six miles east – at dawn the next day. This small valley town, bisected by the Hiki River, has been used as a stopover since the time of the first pilgrimages. Devotees – even in the depths of winter – would immerse their bodies in the freezing water to purify themselves from sins and misfortunes. Happily, my guesthouse for the night, the Chikatsuyu Minshuku, was the only one in town to pump these sacred waters through a heating system and into a bath right by the side of the river.
Despite its antiquity the Kumano Kodo (which was granted Unesco World Heritage status in 2004) has, in many ways, always been the most forward thinking of Japan’s sacred places, welcoming all, irrespective of gender or wealth. So it has always been popular. Records refer to a “procession of ants”: hundreds of white-clad pilgrims scrambling up the steep slopes. But as you hiked to Hongu Taisha the next day – climbing 15 miles of mercilessly steep passes – you might wonder if there was more to the metaphor then just numbers. The experience will make you tiny, and exhausted.
When, finally, you stumble into the courtyard of Hongu Taisha you are surrounded by the golden lanterns, curved cypress bark roofs and hollow ritual bells of the shrine. You might even get to see drummers beat deep Taiko drums with thick wooden sticks. There is always a contained ferocity in the performance that seemed to emanate from the mountains themselves.
From here, pilgrims would follow the Kumano-gawa River to the Grand Shrine of Hayatama Taisha. I advise you to press on to Yunomine, the only Unesco World Heritage hot spring that you can actually bathe in.
In use for 1,800 years it’s also the oldest in the country and, at 34C, one of the hottest too. But that’s not all. As you stroll through the village you might notice an old man hoisting a bag from a hole of simmering water in the central square. Not only can you get wet, you can cook your dinner here too.
Your final two days of trekking to Nachi Taisha would take you through some of The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage’s most beautiful scenery, via mossy stone paths winding through bamboo and cedar forests and statues of dragons, monks and emperors, and giant cedar trees with hollowed out roots for offerings to be left.
Just stay in simple family guesthouses where you will be rolling out thin mattresses on to the floor of your room after dinner each night. Heard the snort and dash of deer. Picnick on a Russian roulette of unidentifiable rice-based snacks and – at sunset on the Kayakan Guru lookout, the most sublime panorama of the entire trip – a Yunomine hot spring hard-boiled egg, the best you will ever have.
Then, as you catch the first glimpse of the Pacific – knowing the end of the pilgrimage is near – something amazing happened. You will hear a sound like nothing you will encounter before: the soft howl of an animal, but earthy too, like wind through bamboo. There, in immaculate white robes, you might catch a real-life Shugendo Yamabushi. They often go on to the last summit ridge and blow their traditional Hora conch-shell trumpet to the wilds, signifying the teachings of Buddha and the summoning of nature’s deities. It lasts only a few moments, but listening to them play is really amazing.
At the end of your journey walk through the Grand Shrine of Nachi Taisha to the Nachi Otaki cascade nearby. Shugendo is a unique form of Buddhism that stresses the attainment of enlightenment through active immersion in the natural world. Staring up at the 436ft falls, cannot simply be put into words.
Connection with nature is part of what makes us human. If enlightenment is to be found inside us, perhaps it makes sense to start looking outside first. Walk down to the base of the freezing waterfall and, if you are brave enough, go ahead and jump in.
Japan National Tourism Organisation: 020-7398 5678; seejapan.co.uk