Over a long weekend my buddy Thomas had a mind about getting a bunch of us over to Wakayama prefecture for a bit a camping, sightseeing, and good times. I managed to squeeze myself onto a short list to enjoy the spoils of someone else’s elbow grease. Thomas is the expert of domestic travel here in Japan, so I was happy to turn over the reigns of my weekend to him. Sometimes not having to stress over details and just going with a plan that someone has already plotted can be a great thing – each day’s itinerary was both unknown and unsought until the day of.
The adventure started with a painfully early Takamatsu departure on Saturday morning from which we headed east to Tokushima. I came back into consciousness while in line for the ferry that would take us over to Wakayama. Unfortunately Saad got us miserably lost on the way and erased all of our buffer time. We had a reservation for the ferry of course, but it was only by the hair of our chinny chin chins that we even made it on the boat – probably one of the last five or so vehicles to do so.
The weather was wonderful and while cruising through the ocean waters all twelve of us basked in high spirits and talked of what fun this would all be. The voyage totaled two hours and after disembarking it was off to a supermarket to procure everything necessary for our blowout barbecue weekend. Finally after wasting far too much time there, we hit the road for a couple hours en route to Koya-san. Despite a cramped back seat I was able to continue my slumber, though I was abruptly jerked into the realm of consciousness by Thomas’s erratic driving.
Not long after arriving at Koya-san, we started our stroll through the massive temple complexes, all while shrouded by towering cedars. This mountain hosts the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and was established by Kukai. This is the same guy that was born in my prefecture and (among myriad other things) established the 88 temple pilgrimage. Headquarters for well over a thousand years, the sprawling temple complexes practically interwoven with the ancient trees were quite a sight. The vibrant blue skies and bleached cumulus only contributed to the natural beauty.
The first place that we went was Kongobujia, the capital of the 10 million member religion. Since we all arrived at different times and were thus at various car parks, we rendezvoused in the courtyard and then entered as a unit. We slipped off our shoes and then began our stroll through the amazing structure. Akin to the horizontally constructed castles like Nijo in Kyoto, there were numerous tatami rooms each adorned with unique paintings of animals and foliage. Walking quietly along the nightingale floorboards, we strode over to admire the largest rock garden in Japan. Designed to look like two dragons in the clouds, it was certainly befitting of this Buddhist scene. One other stop we made was in a large meeting hall were we enjoyed some complimentary tea and senbei.
After winding our way through the rest of the passages and exiting into the courtyard, we were made to wait quite some time while the slower Japanese crew sauntered on out. I know that getting twelve members of very different personalities all on the same page is impossible, and having planned none of this trip myself was content to wait. Watching the monks streaming to and from the temple helped to pass the time.
The next location was the Konpon Daito, a massive orange pagoda also built by Kukai that housed huge statues and religious artifacts. From the outside it was a really impressive structure and dwarfed those standing near it.
The temples were beginning to close and we were fiending for our barbecue, so we made returned to our cars and took off. One stop that I demanded before leaving the area though was at the Okunoin Cemetery. Though only Akane could be bothered to joined me for the walk, as Japan’s largest cemetery I was excited to take a peek. The place was as old as the hills and rife with the burial plots of feudal lords and samurai. The ancient stones, carved and covered in moss were everywhere, and again, being among such magnificent cedars really enhanced the aura of the place. Shortly thereafter, it was back into the car for another hour drive to our camping spot for the night.
Since were weren’t caravaning, we were able to drive at our own pace and enjoy some of the sights along the way. We traced a narrow mountain road that was perched high up on a mountain and occasionally offered spectacular views out over the rest of the wooded topography. Naturally we had to stop for pictures, and of course to heave boulders into a gorge.
Eventually we made it to where we thought was the hotel, but was actually some sort of large house. As soon as we realized we were unpacking in someone’s garden and using their bathroom, we got out of there as fast as we could and soon found the correct place. Having not eaten much of a lunch, we were all eager to get situated around our cabanas and start the BBQ. Our Japanese companions brought an incredible amount of stuff, and by the time everything was set up, we had nearly a full kitchen. We spent the night enjoying some meat and sake and eventually went to sleep.
Where we stayed our first night.
The next day we rose a bit [too] early to got everything packed up before hitting the road for a few more hours. The plan for the day was to hike a small portion of the Kumano-Kodo Pilgrimage Route and also to visit the largest torii gate in the world. After parking, we took a ridiculous amount of time to decide on a restaurant, but eventually we were all sated. The weather on this day wasn’t the best, but between torrents we were able to see what we came for.
The first stop was at a large temple which, while beautiful, wasn’t so different from the hundreds of others that I’ve come across. After some time at there, we continued though it and up a path into the mountains. The Kumano-Kodo Pilgrimage Route is a network of really beautiful paths is widely considered to be one of the best in the world. This is only one of two paths to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fortunately the rain held off through most of it and when we reached the apex of the climb, we had quite a view out over the riverside town and the Hongu Taisha.
That view wasn’t enough to appreciate the scale of the structure though, so after a short break and a group photo we retraced our steps and went down to where it was located. Unfortunately, we were ambushed along the way by more rain and yielded to the futility of keeping dry. At 33 meters, the iron gate is the largest in the world and made for a good couple of pictures.
This is some stock photo from the springtime, but it does way more justice than did my dreary gray shot.
Once we had finished with the sightseeing itinerary, we had another drive to the next camping spot. Though the weather wasn’t really cooperating, the location was great and the proximity of our cabana to the facilities was excellent. Again, we had to painstakingly assemble the mobile kitchen before food could happen. While we were waiting on this part of the night to get going, a number of us took a dip in the onsen. This was a first time experience with onsens for the new crew, and we had certainly hyped how much they would enjoy it. Wakayama is famous for its hot springs, so that too helped to elevate our expectations…before dashing them completely. Once we men were inside a literal shack and stark nude, all that lie before us was an over-sized bathtub. I explained that this was probably one of the worst possible ways to first experience an onsen. Great memory in hindsight.
Feeling refreshed and revitalized, we recommenced with the food and relaxed into a more subdued evening than the last one. Together we enjoyed the same great food among the swirling aromas of both the meat and my frankincense. The rainy weather did nothing to diminish our good time, and even provided an excellent stage for the weekend’s theme song, Gungnam Style. We all worked on the dance, but I still lack the grace and finesse of the original. We turned in a bit early that night, and in our economizing efforts all twelve of us packed into the same lodge and passed out.
The next morning, the rift of cultural differences that had been slowly forming between the logical foreigners and the methodical Japanese widened widened as if a fault line. We were all itching to hit the road, but first needed to clean everything from the night before. Frustration was mounting over how slowly things progressed, and how our constant offers of assistance and evident desire to leave did nothing to hasten the process. This all came in the wake of some other isolated incidents, but it was clear that tension was beginning to mount.
Finally, FINALLY, we were on the road again and heading over to the west side of the prefecture were we had plans of checking out another onsen and some cliffs before going home. When we arrived though, we glimpsed an absolutely stunning beach being battered by some of the biggest waves in recent memory. It brought back fond recollections of summers in Ocean City, Maryland. We all thought it would be swell if rather than another onsen we could spend some time at the aptly named Shirohama shore instead. After parking, we got our clothes changed and dove into the nearly vacant ocean – the Japanese people were too scared to swim, or at least foolish enough to abide by the signs prohibiting it. I have a certain confidence about my ability in the water and the massive crests only grew my excitement.
Between waves, but a really beautiful beach indeed.
After the better part of an hour we were off to meet at the famed Senjo-jiki, which are are a beautiful formation of sandstone, carved out by eons of battering waves. The waves were even larger here and seeing the white spray erupting into the air as they crashed on the stone was wonderful. Japan is very mountainous and the beaches almost always carry this sort of dynamic nature to them, but the brown cliffs soaring as high as 50 meters were some of the best I’ve seen. From there, the Japanese crew was still hankering for another onsen, so a few people went in and the other enjoyed a complementary foot bath outside the place. It was definitely a nice way to relax, but I could sense that people were ready to go home. After sorting finances, we parted ways and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening driving home. On account of the typhoon, the return ferry to Tokushima was cancelled and we were forced to take the long way home. The drive passed quickly enough and before long we were back in Takamatsu.
At some point one of our crew realized that he had lost his house key. While unfortunate, it wasn’t until I recalled my having kept my car keys at his so as to avoid the same fate that my spirit was crushed. Despite the late hour, a determined me went to his neighbors below to ask permission to climb their veranda up to his balcony. The guy who answered the door was visibly annoyed, and while I explained the situation he asked if I was the guy living above. After explaining that it was actually my friend, the guy accused him of being really loud and annoying with his footsteps. That was an amusing bitto translate, and my friend definitely thought that I was joking. Once past that awkward moment, I did get the OK to defy death and climb the slick balcony. The hope was that either a window or door were unlocked. No good. Feigning death yet again to survive the climb down, good guy Thomas was there to bring me home and give the poor sap some shelter. A sour way to conclude a great trip, but by the next day were were able to get everything sorted.