Kumano Kodo Ohetchi (stage 2) – Ago to Susami

What a gift today was.

From the start, taking a cab from the eki for 30 minutes (and a lot more yen than I’d anticipated, but worth it), we headed through a few mountain tunnels, and our taxi driver had to stop once and ask for directions. He was lovely, chattering away with us only getting about 10%. When we finally got to the middle of nowhere, to a bus stop where only a pre-reserved-kinda-old-folks-type-bus (thank you Tomomi-san) stops occasionally, we had arrived at our start. He was so worried about us, he insisted on giving us the cab company number, just in case. I asked his name (weird foreigner that I am), and he pointed to his name card on the dash. Alas, kanji—and I did not grab a photo. But thank you, lovely gentleman cab driver. You were our guardian angel this morning.

We found the signs for the Kumano Kodo, and waited at the appointed spot to meet the ferrymen. A beautiful little rest hut, complete with a beautiful toilet (with bidet, mind you) and a charming little flower garden. While we waited, a little nervous about the mountains all around us, it rained softly, two big hawks circled, and I saw the oddest creature in the flowers. It was, to my eye, the tiniest little hummingbird I’d ever seen. I tried to catch a photo as it flitted between the flowers, but ugh—my camera was too slow. Magical mystery creature number one. (And yes, there were more.) I later found out, it was a special little moth – the Japanese Hummingbird Moth (or Sphinx Moth)! Flies and hovers just like a hummingbird, and goes after flower nectar.

Our ferrymen were also something out of a storybook. Remember, they agreed by phone the day before to meet us at the appointed place (middle of nowhere) between 10:30 and 11am. The first, dressed in a pink head-to-toe slicker, let us know it was time to go. The other, dressed in traditional wrap, shoes, and hat, waited for his fee (a whopping $5/person), gave us wooden tags with bells as proof of our journey, then held the tiny ferry while we stepped in. The river was only about 20 yards across, deep blue, and very quiet in the drizzle. We crossed over, suddenly both in love with this little ferry ride and making faces at each other. Our younger guide then led us up to the trailhead, wishing us caution and a happy journey. When I stepped back down the trail to take more photos of them crossing back, they looked genuinely concerned that I needed something, but resumed paddling when I assured them all was ok. Guardian angels two and three.

The way began with a steep climb up steps into an enchanted forest. No other good way to describe it. Steep, quiet, rainy, and light despite the denseness of the trees. The tall Katsura Pines (katsura = wig) had no low branches, and only foliage at the top, which was 40-50 feet up, creating a canopy. It all felt surreal, and despite our huffing and puffing up the steep first 1k, we kept saying to each other how amazing it all was. Until I came upon a 3-foot-long black iridescent worm, and then we were both a little freaked out. Magical mystery creature number two. Like a cross between a night crawler and a giant centipede, and we saw 3 or 4 more of his kin as we followed the steep trail up to the ridgeline. Oh, and when I gently touched his front end with my shoe toe, he started going the other way, leading with his back end. Like it was another head. (Kantaro) Whaaaa?

As we came up on the ridge, then worked our way down the other side, the sun shone while the rain drizzled on us. From nowhere appeared light blue butterflies (Asagi-madara) that followed us along, but would not hold still for a photo. Dagnabbit. Not until we came out of the forest, onto a road, did we find one fellow willing to pose while we both tiptoed up and grabbed his mugshot for posterity. Magical mystery creature three.

The next part of the day was a looooong downhill road through the woods, with a number of switchbacks, taking us back down to the level we started in the morning. Easy walking, excellent company, good conversation, punctuated by an uber-yummy onigiri snarf. (Of course Andrew must document the anal-retentive 3-step unwrapping, all designed to keep the rice and nori separated until consumption. The tenth wonder of the world – a feat of engineering brilliance built into this everyday snack.)

And then, WTF, Magical mystery creature number four: a crab.
On a stone wall. Up in the mountains. In the woods. He was red and about 3 inches from toe to toe, and what the hell was he doing there? And then, another. Scuttling across the road. Finally we came down to where the road parallels a creek, and yep, there were more of these little fellows, busily doing their thing on the roadside. From then we saw loads of them, and I decided they were my little friends, whose job was to entertain me on my walk. I mean really, what’s with red crabs hanging out in the woods on a mountainside?

Our walk took us through many small towns, and we started to see more and more signs for tsunami evacuation routes. At first, they were not particularly notable, but as we progressed, we saw 3, 4, 8 different stairways up hillsides, next to tsunami warning signs. This area must have been hit hard to have put in this much infrastructure to respond to tsunamis, and that was pretty chilling to us both.

As we came into Susami, our seaside destination for the evening, we stopped at a shrine to visit and get a stamp for the booklet we got at the start of the day (the first stamp being of the ferry). As we went to cleanse our hands at the spring next to the shrine, I lifted the water ladle and, surprise! Magical mystery creature number five. The tiniest little frog, just chillin’ under the overturned ladle. He was all squinched up in a little cube with his legs tucked under his sides, like a perfect little netsuke. Not at all alarmed by my presence or my huge black camera looming over him, he just sat patiently, only moved once, and let me return the ladle to cover him when we were done. I think he was my favorite magical creature of the day, somehow communicating the wisdom of the ages in his little 1-inch stillness. What an incredibly cool little dude.

We wrapped the magical walk day up at one of the odder places we’ve stayed. Our check in manager creeped me out something fierce (remember that girl climbing backwards down the stairs in The Grudge? This could have been her.) But after a warm soak (neither of us saw a soul in the bath or the hotel until dinner) in water that ‘leaves your skin feeling srippery’, we were treated to a wonderful mult-course shabu-shabu style meal. Sushi, tea, local pork and rice hand-washed by the manager each morning so ‘you can smell the sweet!’ And our server was so happy to see us that we were able to shake of the initial creepies. Off to sleep with tired bodies and full bellies. Tomorrow morning we’ll photograph the beautiful Tori gate in the bay and the one on the mountain above the train station. Then off to the second-to-last stage of the Ohetchi.

What a gift today was. Five magical mystery creatures, a few guardian angels, and an enchanted forest.

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