I am a bit tired & confused, feeling like I’m in a surreal dream.
This week we’ve been trekking the Kumano Kodo on the mountainous Kii Peninsula in Japan. For over 1000 years people from all levels of society have made the arduous pilgrimage to Kumano. The walk itself was an integral part of the pilgrimage process through arduous religious rites of worship and purification. The last four days on the Kumano Kodo have been tough- some of the most challenging and technical hiking that I’ve ever done and we’ve seen many beautiful and scary things. Our time here has been challenging in ways that I don’t really like, but I can see the value in the experiences. We’ve stayed in places where the floor mats were thin and we were eaten by bugs. There were huge spiders in the bathroom, cockroaches peeked out when you turned the faucets on in the shared bath. But, as most times in life, things got better. The trails were more maintained as we continued on, and the ryokans got nicer. Last night we piled our futons like The Princess And The Pea and it finally felt like a a real bed. Today we were hiking on the easiest portion of the trail and felt more relaxed anticipating a calm day. It was rainy, slick and slimy on our trail. After these last few days, I’ll never hike without my trusty carbon hiking poles again.
We’ve hiked 4-5 hours every day with Luna, rain or shine, and it has been tough. We’ve been on a trail with unnerving creatures perhaps hovering just out of sight – deadly poisonous pit vipers, hornets that killed 14 people in Japan last year, foot long finger-thick worms (maybe not dangerous but gross), millipedes who hide in hiking boots and whose sting is like 10 bee stings – the list goes on and on… To be honest, after our first day on the trail I was ready to hang up my boots and take the train back to Kyoto… back to tea houses and sushi. Here, on the Kumano Kodo, things are rough. The people are older, the surroundings a bit beaten. All of the young people have moved into the cities and so these tiny towns are desolate and crumbling (Japan’s population is supposed to drop a dramatic 50% over the next 30 years). It’s sad that although the Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO trail, (the only other one being The Camino in Spain) it’s pretty empty. We are here during the rainy season, and the trails wash out and it’s difficult climbing. I’m tired, achy, in pain. I dreamt about my chiropractor the other night and Luna and Josh just laughed when I told them because we’re all feeling the need for an adjustment.
When we began our day today, it was supposed to be our easiest day, with only a few hours on the trail. It was raining, but we were okay. We walked through tea fields, which felt so perfect and I was so happy. We walked through teeny villages that wouldn’t make a map. We walked through forests thick with tall trees and carpet of ferns. We walked through tree roots, singing Christmas songs, or Minion songs or any other song we could think of to keep the vipers at bay and not startle them along our path. All in all, it began as a really good day and a turning point for all of us.
About 2/3 of the way into our hike, we saw a woman laying on the ground up ahead with a man at her side. My first thought was that she had been bitten by a snake, so when Josh ran up to her and her companion Luna and I stayed behind. Once we found out that there were no snakes involved in her troubles, we approached. We asked the man with her what had happened, but we had a fair amount of trouble getting anything out of him as he only spoke Japanese. She was hunched over, slumped like a rag doll and looked very dire. He had indicated that she had fallen, stumbled, but we were unsure. We tried to use google translate, but to no avail. He kept saying, “she’s okay, she’s okay” as I took oils out of my bag and tried to revive her (she wasn’t passed out, but she didn’t look good). He tried to pick her up and Josh saw and tried to assist but there was no way she could stand. The rain continued to fall and we wondered what to do. We were right by a marker on our path and I called the police but couldn’t get through. We called our self guided tour company and explained what was going on and asked them to call the police. They did and eventually her companion and the police talked and arranged them coming to help her. He assured us she would be alright and he had it under control. We asked if we should stay and gave them what he would take from our packs as it was rainy and we wanted their wait to be as comfortable as possible. We wished them well and as the gentleman propped her up we made our way down the rest of the mountain, past thick, slippery rocks. We wondered how difficult it was going to be for them to get her out. At the end of our trail, we went to the major Hongu shrine there, and heard sirens approaching. A little while later, we heard them again and hoped that she was zooming to seek medical attention. We said a little prayer and went on with our day, and made it to our ryokan for the night in a new tiny onsen town.
We went for a dip on the onsen, scalding our little tired bodies in the water that Luna said smells like rotten eggs. We dressed and came back to out room. There was a knock on our door. The police were on the phone and wanted to talk with me. I spoke with them for 20 minutes relaying details of our day and answering questions about the events on the trail. At the end of the call, I asked how she was doing, and they told me that she had died. Died. I cried. I didn’t know this woman, but I cried for the possibilities of her life, and how they dissolved so quickly. All this way, worries and little prayers for safety from vipers and hornets and scary creatures of the ancient Japanese woods and this woman slipped away from who knows what while walking the same trail we were on.
It’s all so precious, these lives of ours. My Grandpa Gordy used to love the song “Amazing Grace” and the other day Josh started singing it on the trail, and I thought of my Grandpa and how he was keeping us safe on our journey from far away, in some other place. The one thing that he told us before he passed, when he was heartbroken that my Grandmother had died just a year before, was that we should do it all. That if we have a dream, we should pursue it. That we shouldn’t hold back and then have regret. And all of this travel is a dream of ours, to hold onto the moment and hold one another close and create memories for future days, because life zooms by. The reality of facing death today was a good reminder that we need to hold each other close. That we need to love each other, be full of kindness and be gentle with each other’s hearts.
Tonight at dinner the three of us huddled together talking about you- all of those we miss and love and wish we could be with right now. Travel is fun but home is better. The unknown is fascinating but being known is better. Feeling lost is adventurous but knowing where you are and where you belong is better. We wander to find ourselves. We endure discomfort to be grateful for the simplest of comforts. We leave to treasure returning home. Here’s a little love from us to all of you reading this- thank you for being in our lives. We are grateful for you and happy we’ll see you again soon.
with love from Yunomine Onsen,