Day 1 – Hongu Taisha to Totsukawa Onsen, 17km
Accommodation: Minshuku Yamatoya, ¥7500 for dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch
I arranged with the owner of the minshuku for the earliest breakfast time (6.30am) so I could take the first bus at 7.03am back to Hongu to start today’s walk – I could’ve walked back along the Dainichi-goe path but I was a bit worried about the timings for the day and in hindsight, wished I’d stayed overnight in Hongu so that I could’ve started walking even earlier, sunrise is now 5am.
From Hongu Taisha, the Kohechi trail follows the Nakahechi uphill for the first 2.1km to the Sangen-jaya teahouse remains and then splits off, joining a road for the next 2.5km to the Hatenashi-toge trailhead. Walking along this road I passed a Michi-no-eki and as it was just a few minutes before 9am, I waited for it to open. I love Japan’s Michi-no-eki’s, as hard as they are to describe to non-Japanese people! The literal translation is “road station” and in England or Australia I think we would call them a service station along a highway but most of them in Japan aren’t attached to petrol stations; they usually have a shop selling local food & drink specialties from the area as well as toilets, rest huts, vending machines, wifi, payphones and tourist information maps etc… I camped in the carparks of a few on the Shikoku walk so I have fond memories of them. This one was just as great and had a terrific range of obentos, fresh food and Kumano beer which I hadn’t seen but unfortunately didn’t want to carry on this hike! I bought some ramen thinking ahead for tomorrow night’s accommodation where I have a room but no meals included and bought some more mochi and snacks. I didn’t buy any water though as my map showed a vending machine next to the trailhead (and the last opportunity for drinks all day).
When I arrived at the trailhead 1.3km later, the vending machine was no longer there and I was out of water! I started to walk up the road a little further wondering if there might be a vending machine further on when a man called out to me to say I was going the wrong way (because I’d passed the trailhead). I explained to him I was looking for a vending machine because the alternative was to walk back the 1.3km to the michi-no-eki. He lived at the house next to the trailhead and told me that the vending machine had been taken away because the road had been re-routed and not many cars drive past anymore, so there was no need for the vending machine (other than for thirsty hikers!) then he very kindly offered to fill up my water bottle. I was very grateful!
Within minutes of starting the climb up the forest path I passed a bear warning sign and wondered if I would see any over the coming days. I have a bell attached to my small white Henro shoulder bag (from Temple 1 on the Shikoku pilgrimage) that I wear in front with my map and snacks so I continued uphill with my bell jingling. The uphill was steep and slippery with leaves and rocks underfoot and many times I thought about how glad I was climbing this and not coming down it. The path was also quite narrow in parts and busier than I had expected (possibly because it’s a Saturday and the beginning of Golden week) and it was tricky to pass the people who were coming my way. The Kohechi route can be walked in either direction but the most popular direction (and the direction of the map) is from Koyasan to Hongu, opposite to what I’m doing. There are 33 Kannon statues along this section of the trail so there was lots to look at and photograph along the way as well as a few nice viewpoints. I ate my lunch of riceballs at the top of the pass (no view) and then started the descent.
Somewhere near the bottom I came very close to standing on a black snake which slithered a metre or so in front then raised its head and wouldn’t move. I took photos and a video and started thumping the ground with my hiking poles hoping the vibrations would make it move on but it wasn’t going anywhere. A few minutes later a Japanese man walked up behind me so I told him I was patiently waiting for the snake to move away… it eventually slithered away after some more encouragement from both of us stomping the ground. The trail passed through the picturesque and tiny Hatenashi settlement then continued steeply downhill along a stone path to a suspension bridge – and possibly the scariest suspension bridge I’ve ever crossed! Usually most things in Japan are over-engineered but this bridge could definitely do with a few more reinforcements!
There’s only one accommodation on the trail at the end of this stage and it’s the Subaru-no-Sato Onsen hotel, but it was full when I tried to book, so I was staying at a minshuku in Totsukawa Onsen which is 1.5-2.5km away, depending on the location. I walked along the road following the map that I’d picked up from the Hongu Heritage Centre yesterday and as I was about 5 minutes from arriving, the heavens opened up and there was an almighty downpour. I’m glad I wasn’t on the mountain or walking down the steep stone steps!
I checked in at Minshuku Yamatoya and was given a western-style room then went for a lovely soak in the natural onsen before dinner. There were about 30 people dining in the attached restaurant when I walked in and I was placed on a table with three solo Japanese people including Kakizoe-san who I met when the black snake was blocking our way on the path. It was a great dinner and lovely company. Kakizoe-san mentioned he’s taking the bus tomorrow morning to the trailhead which is 7.3km away, there’s only one morning bus and it leaves at 9.30am but I’m going to walk it and will hopefully arrive before the bus does!