Four snakes, a dozen pilgrims and a whole lot of temples – a complicated camping trip around the Kii peninsula

 

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End of the day in Nara.
We had a bit of a dip in Kyoto. Maybe it was the umpteenth typhoon bringing rain and more rain, maybe our host giving new meaning to the word annoying or possibly the suffocating tourist crowds. Our way of fixing this was to go on another road trip. We were getting used to a rather high degree of humidity but we figured the independence of a car and a tent would take care of our second issue while the region of southern Kansai would help with the third.

The first stop was Nara, another town that had been Japan’s capital many, many centuries ago. Now it’s famous for its temples and shrines (obviously) and its very tame deer. It’s not a place to avoid tourists, but it was thankfully quieter than Kyoto. In addition, we switched our busybody land lord for some laid-back and friendly youngsters. Oh, the joy of no longer having two daily forced and repetitive conversations about our plans and any rules we might be breaking. Plus, they had the best coffee I tasted so far in Japan. Heaven.

After two days, we picked up another Nissan – the exact same model as we had in Hokkaido, it must be the all-over cheap option – from the most darling location manager. Never mind polite, this guy was all genuine smiles and bows and he had an adorable nervous giggle.

We drove east to Ise, via Soni, then followed the coast down to the southernmost tip of Honshu, Shiono-misaki, headed northwest up to the beach of Shirahama, turned east to the centre of the peninsula around Hongu and topped it all off with a visit to Koya-san, before returning the car to the same wonderful guy who was exceedingly happy to see we had made it back despite the “tighto” roads of Kansai.

Kansai being Japan’s heart – and I think that’s a pretty fair statement – we of course saw plenty of temples and shrines. Most of them were beautiful, old things in lovely, damp forests, but the Shinto shrine Ise-jingu in Mie was an odd example. We went there because we had heard the Japanese consider it very special. The shrine is home of the sun goddess, the top god in the Shinto faith, and the deity the country’s imperial family is said to descend from. Only a few priests and said imperial family may enter the inner parts of the shrine, while the rest of us can walk around the grounds and peek through the wooden fences. We were told a visit is a formal occasion for many Japanese and we can report a lot of suits and sober, black dresses. The buildings are rebuilt every 20 years, most recently in 2013, which meant they looked very new. The bare wood and the serious dress code made me think of a funeral in a Lutheran church while Christophe thought the structures looked like they came from an Ikea set. I suppose the magic was a bit lost on us.

The rest of the region offered more typical temple and shrine fare. The big thing on the Kii peninsula is the Kumano Kodo, a network of pilgrimage routes devoted worshippers have used for over 1,000 years. The goal is to reach the three Kumano shrines – Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha – by land and by river, but for the pilgrims the route is as important as the destination. Back in the day, a round trip would take several weeks. Today, there are half-day, full-day and multi-day hikes available, depending on how much time and stamina you have. We did a one-day loop near Hongu, meeting some fellow hikers, most of them international. A few Japanese had the outfit of serious pilgrims, however, as well as the exhausted look to go with it.

The landscape is hilly and full of coniferous forests and the coastline features dark rocks that dramatically meet the vividly blue and unruly ocean. Maybe it’s the humidity that makes the forests look almost unnaturally green. We had several warm days with regular rain and a humid air that ensured that nothing ever really dried. When we arrived to Osaka afterwards, we turned our bags upside down and inside out. Everything was moist.

We logged a new type of wildlife on our to-see list: snakes. Travelling almost five months, we had spotted one old snake skin on Russia’s Olkhon island, but here we met four live specimens in two days. One, possibly two, of them were a “mamushi”, a Japanese pit viper, which you don’t want to get too close to as it can land you in the hospital for a week, with months required for full recovery (or you die, like some 10 people do annually in Japan). The one we could identify for sure was heading up a wall, showing off. Pretty and intimidating at the same time.

We got back on the tourist trail at the end of our drive when visiting Koya-san. The place was packed with elderly Asian tourists and the occasional French and American cluster. There wasn’t a camp site or a michi-no-eki to be found, so we broke the budget and stayed at one of the 50+ temples in town. This wasn’t a quiet and secluded temple stay somewhere in the Himalayas; quite the contrary, it was like staying in a nice, private Japanese home, only with chanting starting at 6:30 AM. The vegan food was great – simple and elaborate at the same time – and surprisingly filling.

It was a good week with lots of splendid views, some interesting encounters (like the two old ladies feeding us steamed sweet potatoes in Shima, discussing our marital status and car model) and we got to go off the beaten track a bit, but it still felt fine to hand over the car keys and move on. The camping in Kansai in autumn was trickier than it had been in Hokkaido. September is no longer camping season and that means little choice and surprisingly steep prices.

In Soni, we were told they were all out of free camp sites and could only offer us the spots with facilities for 40 euros. We haggled and were graciously shown an unattended bank by a ditch next to the neighbourhood rubbish dump. Near Ise, where absolutely everything was closed, we pitched our tent by the side of a dark forest track in the middle of nowhere and still got woken up by a hysterically angry local refusing to do anything but shout in Japanese.

The michi-no-ekis were also very different from the big and relatively quiet spaces in Hokkaido. In Kansai, we got to park in between of a highway and five truck drivers all leaving their engine on for the night in order to use the air conditioning. I’m not kidding. Environmental thinking won’t keep these guys up at night. So while we had the luxury of ignoring the bus timetable on this trip, we ran into more nos than ever before in a country known for its yeses.

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