Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. After a huge demand to send our team on the hardest trail in all Japan, the Omine-Okugake-Michi, we set a 5 day course through the mountains. Every other episode has been completed over 4 days, but with the advisory for the trail being 7-10 days, the extra day seemed very necessary! From the very beginning it was clear they had now embarked on something very special and extremely challenging. The first day alone hit them so hard that only Duncan and Dean decided to continue, and for the next 4 days, these two brave souls pushed on completely isolated, often lost, sleeping rough, and tested to the limit on this pilgrimage known to be the testing ground for wandering monks!
Watch on YouTube (Available from November 2019)
Watch on CATCH JAPAN (Available through NHK WORLD) (Available from October 2019)
Dean Newcombe, Duncan Buckley, Megan Page, Natali Jacobsen and Timothy Buerger
Wakayama and Nara Prefectures
Points of Interest
Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, Omine-Okugake-Michi, Mount Shakagatake, Mount Misen, Kinpu Shrine and Yoshino
The team return to the iconic ‘Kumano Hongo Taisha’ which is an important part of many of the ‘Kumano Kodo’ routes. Passing under the huge Japanese Torii gate begins the ‘Omine-Okugake-Michi’, a route used for centuries by monks to train their physical body and mental strength. For Megan, she would not take part in this 5 day adventure but would return now to Tokyo to support the team from there. For the rest of them, they packed for every eventuality, planned their mission on maps, and off they went into the forest and onto the ridge-line that they would follow for 5 days. Dean and Duncan set off at a quick pace and Tim struggles to keep up. The team tire quickly and having left so late on this first day, they fear the falling sun, and the coming of darkness. The remote route has various religious statues and shrines and they pray as they pass by. They break often, and drink water too fast, and soon the distant view of where they began on the valley floor slips into darkness. In the night they finally arrive at a huge temple complex where they look to seek shelter and rendezvous with a support team. Sadly, the priest won’t help them and they must make an important decision. With so little of the trail completed and so far still to go, with nights to be spent sleeping outdoors, in the wild, in cold conditions, the team decide to split, Duncan and Dean continuing the trail alone.
A Wrong Turn
To avoid the cold, Dean and Duncan wake up in a toilet block of the temple complex. Shelter is shelter. They eat breakfast, enjoying fresher foods while they last. The morning sky is beautiful as they pack the day’s gear and check today’s map. They walk through the temple complex, stopping to refill water bottles. Water is known to be scarce on the trail. Again they check their maps, fearing to make a mistake due to Japanese marker posts, and then they begin to climb the day’s first mountain. At the top they ring a type of religious bell and enjoy the views of endless mountain ranges. Fears become reality with a wrong turn, but less than an hour is lost, as the mistake is realized using the sun and a compass for navigation. The first walker they encounter deep in the mountains is not a monk, but a lone 72 year old Japanese man. Our adventurers are moved by his story. His courage and able body were far beyond his years. The last part of the day is marked by slow progress, at times climbing rocky outcrops with hanging chains as rope. Eventually they find a mountain hut which is surprisingly very comfortable. The one other climber staying overnight, gives advice on how to reach a road down in the valley below. Dean and Duncan head out at dusk to try and rendezvous with their team for food supplies, but head down completely the wrong trail, eventually scrambling to a hill top with steep sides down to a road far below. They are stuck and try pushing a huge fallen tree to the road as something to aid their climb down. The tree rushes past them and their hearts pound, but the drop is even further than the tree can help them to climb. Duncan talks Dean out of doing something stupid and extremely dangerous and they return the same way to the top of the mountain. With one last desperate effort they take another path, this time reaching a road and eventually finding the van with a plentiful supply of food. They decide after this experience that they will not try to reach the van again and leave with enough food for the next 3 days. After one more climb with heavy packs, they retire exhausted, but in one piece, with beef-jerky for dinner!
Walking the Ridge-line
Dean and Duncan wake up in the hut, they eat breakfast and sign the guestbook just in case the worst does happen, and they get lost beyond return! They collect water naturally from a small spring not far from the trail and then go on, soon hitting a tarmac road to their surprise. They see it as an opportunity, and put a runAway sticker on a large rock, as a sign they passed by and leave a note also. They then climb back into the mountains and again follow the ridge-line. The terrain constantly changes and with it, the vegetation. Giant trees with huge fungi and then open mountain tops barren of life. Out of nowhere, a trail runner approaches them quickly, who tells them of his mission to run the route in only 3 days! They are envious of his light pack and impressed by his undertaking. Mountain top after mountain top pass by, and they shake ‘Shakujo’ or sounding staffs to pay their respects to the Gods. They reach a hut and a walker offers them coffee, but with only 5 days to complete this 11 day hike, they must quickly continue and turn down a comfortable shelter. They pass a huge tree, marked as one of the ancient 100 trees in Japan, and find edible wild berries. Around the corner, they sight a tribe of monkeys that reside high in these mountains. They are 1,500m in altitude and truly isolated now. After hearing the sound of what they believe to have been bear cubs, they make extra effort to yell, sing, clap and whistle often, in order to keep bears away! More chains await them as they climb further along the ridge-line. The route often proves confusing but they stay very positive, despite pain from their heavy packs, and their feet condition worsening in wet conditions. They constantly follow signs for ‘Shakagatake’, which seems to be the highest peak on their journey (later they find it’s only the 4th highest and bigger follow), but before this notorious peak they find a small tin hut just before darkness falls.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
It’s a tough night. Dean has run out of water and is kindly gifted just a few mouthfuls from the only man who shares their hut. In the morning they prepare for bad weather and leave a sticker on the hut in case they once again get lost. They chat over breakfast with their fellow climber, mark their map and then head off in search of water, which luckily is found soon after, just off the trail. They begin climbing ‘Shakagatake’ peak. Today their only company are huge toads along the trail, thriving in these wet and misty mountains. A poster of a missing hiker makes the dangers seem very real. At the top of the nearly 2,000m high Shakagatake they again shake the sounding staff to let the Gods know they have arrived. From here, the route becomes treacherous and they must clamber on rock-faces with sheer drops beside them. Conditions are bad and Dean slips falling onto his finger and seemly breaking it. They tape his little finger to his other fingers as support, and can do nothing more than push forward. At small altars along the route, hikers offer gifts to the Gods. Duncan piles banana chips as an unusual offering and around the corner they seem to be rewarded by a small trickle of water named ‘bird-water’, where they slowly but surely fill their water bottles once again. Inclines and declines are constant but, they remain at around 1,900m, and the only sign of life is a mud-pit used by wild boar. Wind is almost strong enough to blow them off their feet and the rain gets stronger! They seek refuge in a hut, and consider giving up on this 5 day challenge. If they stayed here on Mt. Misen, they would be safe but need an extra day to return to civilization. Not wanting to quit, but concerned deeply by the weather, the decision is made to push on. They tape plastic bags around their feet, and the steward of the hut helps them make jackets from garbage bags! It was the right decision to push on, and once off the peak, the weather calms slightly and they make it to the next shelter point. With it being their final night, they even defy possibility, creating a camp fire, while lashed by wind and rain!
The boys emerge from the hut to a brighter day, their final one on this route. There are still a few sections of chain climbing to conquer and few more giant toads to come face to face with, but soon enough they are progressively descending from the mountains. Winds are high, and there are still few walkers on the trail, in fact they generally have seen only 1 person in a day. They soon enter a final section on the trail which is marked for men only. This sacred part of the route is considered holy and is off limits for women. Inside this area of the trail, Dean and Duncan find what seems to be a abandoned temple complex, which they must pass through as they continue their decent. Even so close to the end, they lose the route again and move forward cautiously not knowing for hours which path is correct. Eventually the first walker of the day is spotted making a documentary about this first section of the trail, and his advice finally offers reassurance that they are on the right path. They continue down, out of the man-only section of the trail, and follow a steep ridge down, passing waterfalls and crossing streams. With time passing by, and spirits high, they even begin to now run sections, until they eventually hit a road after days in the mountains. Now they know they are near ‘Kimpu Shine’, which is their rendezvous point with the rest of the team. They arrive at the van, drop off their bags, and Duncan downs a beer! They have just a small decent to go now through ‘Yoshino Town’ to reach the official end point of the route. They again run sections with almost joy of having no packs to carry. The town is beautiful, with sounds of gongs from nearby shrines echoing out and Japanese donguri acorns being dried outside houses. Their path leads them over the ‘Yoshino River’ to where a launderette now sits on the historical end point. 5 days of adventure and 77km of hiking ridge-line, and they had made it. It was time to rest in a local guest house, because soon enough, they would be off again to see this new prefecture – Nara.