Riding the rails to Mie
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This article is unabashedly in favor of train travel! Trains provide stress-free transportation, no sudden stops, restful seats, large windows, no smoking, and the hypnotic drone of the conductor's voice (probably imparting valuable information). Riding the rails promotes a state of reverie unmatched by other modes of transportation.
Anticipation is palpable as the JR Limited Express Nanki arrives at Nagoya Station. Boarding time is limited, so be on the platform early. Regarding luggage, use a 'less is more' policy. A small snack and fruit stash is advisable. There is a food cart on the train, but choices are limited, and bento boxes are snapped up quickly. Beverages are in good supply.
Select a window seat, if possible, although almost all seats offer a decent view. After you stow your belongings overhead, sit back, relax, and savor the rhythmic rocking of the train. Nagoya to Kumano takes about three hours.
The elevated train bed affords a great overview of scenery, that whisks by like a flickering kaleidoscope of images. As the train accelerates, the city skyline recedes, replaced by suburbia and farming where no space is left vacant. Huge rectangular rice paddies span acre upon acre, while small, irregularly shaped paddies are wedged into residential areas. Filled with water and newly planted rice seedlings, the pools are a haven for the occasional snowy egret dipping for minnows.
The terrain soon evolves from flat farming to foothills, where rounded rows of dark green tea hedges score the hillsides. The abundant forest of bamboo, cyprus, maple, evergreens, and others, becomes more dominant as elevation increases.
The train climbs and winds in the majestic mountains and barrels through thirty tunnels (they're numbered). Tantalizing glimpses of the ocean flash by as the train nears Owase City and of course, arrives on time! A tour of the Doi Bamboo Forest is first on the agenda, then a brief saunter through Owase and finally, a short bus trip to Kumano Kodo Center. Lunch is also on the list.
Doi Bamboo Forest (Doi-chikurin)
20 minute walk from JR Owase Station
An asphalt parking lot seems an unlikely conduit to the well-worn grass and stone pathway leading uphill, past gnarled trees and lush vegetation, to Doi Bamboo Forest. Beside the entrance is the original country home (now a doll museum) of lumber magnate Hachiroubei Doi. Over 250 years ago, Doi imported several thousand moso bamboo from Kagoshima in the Satsuma region and replanted them on his property. They thrived in Owase's damp climate and grew into mystical towers. Their tubular spires display delicate, lime-green leaves that flutter lightly and let intermittent sunlight pass through. On the forest floor, young bamboo shoots emerge – their dark brown, cone-shapes pierce the mulch of dead leaves and bamboo husks. Camouflaged by the dense grove a solitary bird calls in a voice echoing between the hollow trunks. It is an unforgettable place!
After another brief walk down and back across the parking lot, a kaiten-zushi restaurant, Nigiri no Tokube, miraculously appears. The staff are gregarious and helpful, the food is moderately priced and looks tasty riding on the conveyor belt, and the place is air-conditioned. Talk about immediate gratification! Though not a quaint, traditional restaurant, the food is delicious, and the hot green tea is free. Warning: If you're a novice at kaiten-zushi, be aware, it doesn't take long to accumulate a sizable stack of multicolored plates to be tallied at lightning speed later. But never mind, you are on vacation.
There is time for a brief stroll in Owase. It is a small town with some interesting streets that are easy to explore on foot. Traditional Japanese homes, restaurants and shops with noren, and welcoming residents and shopkeepers were a low-key diversion.
Kumano Kodo Center
10 minute bus ride – (bus Stop across from Shufuno Mise Store)
The scent of freshly hewn cyprus greets visitors entering Mie Prefecture’s Kumano Kodo Center. This phenomenal, multidisciplinary Center opened in 2007 and is comprised of two, post-modern buildings constructed entirely of Owase cyprus. They sit side by side overlooking Owase-wan Bay and are marvelous examples of Japanese architectural design and craftsmanship.
Kumano Kodo Center celebrates the natural, cultural and spiritual richness that converges in the Kii Mountain Range, and specifically, the Kii Peninsula. It illuminates the historic, sacred sites and pilgrimage routes that stretch thoughout Wakayama, Nara, and Mie Prefectures. Superb nature and documentary videos, exhibits, illustrated displays, printed materials, including maps, and enthusiastic, English-speaking tour guides combine to bring this significant region to life. The center supports the concept of the “cultural Landscape” defined as the “interaction between humankind and its natural environment...inherited and nurtured from generation to generation.” World Heritage Site doctrine.
A short distance behind the Center is the Center's newly opened public onsen that provides bathers with a relaxing experience and a great view of the scenic vista. Just up the hill is a lovely coffee/teahouse that was converted from a 150 year old home moved to the site.
The Center's complex is a terrific attraction for young and old, and the surrounding scenery is breathtaking!
Kamponoyado Kumano Hotel
(On the hill above Kumano City)
Kamponoyado Kumano Hotel is a well-known, established inn in Kumano, and one of two that have onsen. Perched on a hill above the town, it offers a splendid view of the Kumanonada Sea in front and the Kii Mountains in back.
A hotel van picks you up at the train station – a nice service. The staff are absolutely zealous in their efforts to assist you. The room is spotless and cozy (traditional as well as western style rooms are available). After a delightful soak in the onsen (men and women have separate areas, having excellent amenities in the shower section), it is time to don a green and white yukata, sash and slippers, provided by the hotel, and head to dinner.
Dinner is served in a large dining room by attentive waiters. There are 11 courses, with a few exotic dishes, and all are delicious and delivered with flair. Being a relative novice to hot pot cooking, this writer inadvertently scoops out rice with baby bamboo shoots, only to notice the waiter (ever watchful) come scurrying across the room to rescue the nearly eaten, yet uncooked, dish. At the end of the meal, the entire kitchen and wait staff gather to bow and receive satisfied “arigato gozaimasu” from this grateful gaijin. Breakfast is quite good and includes some western dishes on the buffet menu, with a free glassed-in view of Kumano's beach and bay.
One of the hotel staff obligingly supplies directions and general information about the closest pass to hike - Matsumoto-toge Pass. He goes above and beyond by chauffering this author to the train station to drop off suitcases, then to the start point of the trail!
Old Kumano Road
Start point – 20 minute walk from Kumanoshi Station
Kumano City is 90% forest, so by 9 am, a morning haze has already reached the nearby mountain ridges, blurring them to monochromatic shades of slate gray. An otherwise azure sky, refreshing coastal breeze, and bright sun make this an ideal day to hike Matsumoto-toge Pass, one of many spiritual routes that spread throughout the Kii Mountain Range, ultimately funneling to the Kii Peninsula.
The beginning of the pass alternates between pavement and stone as it crosses city streets. Eventually, the trail sheds evidence of the modern world and retreat to its ancient history. The dense forest closes in, and the flat, moss-covered stones are revealed by filtered sunlight. Long ago the stones were placed on the route to prevent erosion and ease travel for the pilgrims. Imagine the thousands who passed this way, clothed in kimono, robes and sandals, walking for days to reach Sanzan (the three grand shrines of Kumano).
Plenty of photo opportunities can be found on this unique trail that changes with the seasons. Enjoy the clarity of bird songs untarnished by urban din. Revel in the mystical quality of the climb that transcends an individual's belief. Perhaps it is because the mountain holds memories of the past and whispers of them still.
Jizo (guardian deity of children) and several other statues, stand in perpetual vigil at the top of the pass. They are surrounded by a bamboo sentry. This is a perfect place to rest and reflect.
The pass continues, descending though the woods and leading eventually to Hana-no-iwaya Shrine. If you choose to retrace your steps, returning the way you came, you may discover a few surprises.
Maruyama Senmaida Paddy Fields
From Kumanoshi Station - 50 minute bus ride to Yanoko Stop, then 1 km walk up-hill
The afternoon is hot and humid, and ash gray clouds seem to be darkening. But nothing usually deters this intrepid traveler. After the city bus whizzes away from the bus stop, the 1.1 km climb begins. Fortunately, the road is shaded for much of the way, but the humidity is persistent. Bring plenty of water.
The Senmaida (1000 terraced paddy fields) are built on a steep mountainside. Four hundred years ago there were 2.200 paddies, but today, only 550. That number is increasing due to community involvement and the incentive of tourism.
The Rice Planting Festival is held in mid-May (May 18th - day of this writer's visit) and is very popular. Families and visitors are invited to try planting rice. Also, unique food such as pheasant eggs, pickled plum (umeboshi) and rice balls wrapped in mustard greens leaves (mehari sushi) are on offer. The festival and activities are a fine bonus.
Predominantly women tend the rice terraces. Several women, all senior citizens, wear knee-high rubber boots, long-sleeved dresses, aprons, and wide-brimmed bonnets, graciously granted this gaijin a photograph or three. It is an extraordinary sight - hundreds of paddies bristling with vibrant green, rice seedlings. Toiling on mountain terraces is not for the faint-hearted.
As the sky blackens to almost bursting, and a large gray faced buzzard (sashiba) glides overhead surveying the terraces, a city bus pulls in seeking passengers. You can guess the rest. A free ride all the way back to Kumano! Chalk it up to the luck of the Irish and a propitious gift from Senmaida.
Onigajo (Strange Rocks by the Sea)
5 minute city bus ride to Onigajo Higathigauchi Stop then a 2 minute walk
Onigajo, a designated national monument, is a fascinating walk on an ocean cliffside. A stone staircase and iron railings anchored in the rock allow you to wind your way around the jagged ledges for 1 km. The unusual formations were created by earthquake trauma, wave pounding, and wind erosion. Strange craters, weird profiles, explosive images, and moon-like surfaces give rare glimpses into the power of nature, while just below, the sea laps hungrily. To complete the hike one needs a steady step and bit of endurance. The invigorating sea air is encouraging.
Shichiri -mihama Shoreline
Shichiri -mihama Shoreline is first observed, by this author, from a lookout point beside a plum orchard while ascending Matsumoto-toge Pass. The serpentine beach is an amazing sight, with striking contrasts between gray sand (on closer inspections, smooth dark pebbles), cobalt blue ocean, and brilliant white waves that crash in intervals up and down the roughly 13 miles (22 km) shoreline.
On an afternoon stroll to the shore one encounters a looming, painted concrete sea wall and a sobering warning sign urging residents to evacuate to high ground in the event of a tsunami. Walking on the beach provides excellent exercise due to the sinking that occurs as one steps into the “billions and billions” of slippery, smooth gravel. Great place to hunt for souvenir pebbles! No swimmers in this section of the coast. Swimming beaches are indicated on tourist maps.
Mie Prefecture offers a myriad of natural and historic treasures to investigate during your precious vacation time. This writer hopes you will consider ‘Riding the Rails’ to your next destination!