A pilgrimage inspired by art

Inspired by the landscapes of 19th-century Japanese artist Hiroshige, I hike through deep cedar forest on the Kumano Kodo trail

My obsession with Japan began in 1979 when my parents took me from our house in Brooklyn to see a show of woodblock prints at the Cooper Hewitt museum in Manhattan featuring works by the great landscape artist Hiroshige.

The show featured prints from Hiroshige's first famous series, the 53 Stations Of The Tokaido, which chronicled life along the ancient coast highway that connected Edo, present-day Tokyo and Kyoto.

Travelling the road was an envied experience and those who got the chance availed themselves of spectacular views, local culinary delicacies and hot spring baths along the way. Those who couldn't go or wanted souvenirs to remember their journeys, bought prints such as Hiroshige's for roughly the price of a double serving of noodles.

The strikingly modern designs, the warm hues of the skies and trees, the towns nestled in the mountains or by the sea and the raucous joy of the travellers lit up something inside me - I stood there transfixed.

I was soon spending hours trying to draw like Hiroshige. I became obsessed by all things Japanese.

So in 2011, when my wife and two children had finally had enough - Why don't you just go? - I summoned up my courage and went, with one goal of recreating the Hiroshige experience.

The Tokaido is mostly built over, but portions of the Nakasendo, which connects Tokyo and Kyoto via the interior, and which Hiroshige had also chronicled, are still preserved.

Four years later, as I planned my return to Japan, I knew I had to travel beyond the populated heart of the country if I wanted to really replicate the world I had seen in those prints, going farther afield than Hiroshige himself.

And so I chose the Kumano Kodo, a series of trails through deep forest and small towns on the Kii Peninsula several hours south of Osaka. It's a religious pilgrimage that I came across in my reading. Pilgrims visit the numerous shrines along the way, worshipping the mountains themselves. It's said one can achieve spiritual powers by enduring the route's physical challenge.

Spirituality aside, this seemed to have everything I wanted: long walks deep in the woods, beautiful towns with little hotels promising hot baths, sake and great meals.

The idea of going alone was intimidating (I could only imagine how little English was spoken), but I hated the idea of being part of a group with a guide. My Japanese obsession is a very private thing.

And that's when I discovered Oku Japan and the self-guided tour.

For US$955 (S$1,289), Oku would book my hotels and provide me with a guide to the trail. I opted for a four-day, three-night hike.

At my inn in Kyoto, a package awaited from Oku Japan: my 12-page itinerary, a booklet detailing the Kumano Kodo with directions (I would be taking the Nakahechi route) and beautiful maps with height elevations. I was all set.

The next morning, having condensed my essentials and a few of my favourite books about Japan into a shoulder bag, I grabbed a boxed lunch at Kyoto Station and got on the Super Kuroshia No. 7 limited express, non-reserved car, as per my instructions.

I studied my itinerary and maps as the outskirts of Kyoto and then Osaka gave way to small towns and finally, the blue expanse of the Inland Sea, dotted with tiny islands as jagged and numerous as those portrayed by Hiroshige. The train hugged the west coast of the peninsula before arriving at Kii-Tanabe, where I got off and found the bus that would take me into the interior.

As I got on, I noticed a group of Westerners who seemed to be following the same instructions. This was something I had not considered: Others would be taking the same self-guided tour at the same time and I would be, by default, part of a group.

The bus climbed away from the cluttered coastline into rich green mountains and eventually along a wide river. Soon enough, we were in Takijiri, a tiny town in a deep ravine at the intersection of the Tonda and Ishifune rivers where the Kumano Kodo begins.

I paid the 960 yen (S$12) Oku had prepared me for and went into a shop to get water and a bamboo walking stick. I also wanted to let the others get ahead of me.

I followed my instructions. The first shrine, Takijiri oji, was just behind the shop. I walked to the left around it and saw the beginning of the trail, a sharply ascending ladder of logs and tangled tree roots beside a steep drop-off. Up I went.

I got into a rhythm, marking my progress on my map. Oku explained the history associated with shrines or landmarks, kept me from taking several wrong turns and warned me away from a detour that, while promising a great view, would have been exhausting.

And, anyway, there were already views at every break in the trees - layers of mountains, some smooth, others rough with treetops, their ridges meeting in diagonal lines, each a different shade of green-blue.

The first day was only 4.5km. Soon I descended into the tiny town of Takahara. Here two roads met and there were a few shops and one hotel, the Organic Hotel Takahara Kiri-no-sato.

I tossed my bag in my room and went to have a beer on the terrace. The instant the sun dipped behind the mountains, it felt as if the valley became air-conditioned.

I later went for a bath and enjoyed the view of the darkening mountains before getting dressed for dinner at 6.30pm.

One member of the group, Janet, invited me to sit with them and I liked the idea, but my hosts said this would be impossible: We were different parties, after all.

Sometimes in Japan, I've found, rules can be intractable. So I ate alone - pickles, beef I dipped in boiling water and several other items including a very Western avocado dish - at the next table over, my back to the others. It was equal parts awkward and comic.

The rules were relaxed as the meal ended and I shifted my chair around and joined the other table as I finished my sake (not included in Oku's fee).

There were five of them, all Canadian: Janet; her husband, Stan; her aunt Elvina; her colleague Pat; and Pat's friend, also named Pat.

The second day's hike was 10.4km, including 480m of ascent. I went down to the village to take in the view from there and to allow the Canadians to get a head start. I still envisioned my hike as a solitary adventure.

Soon enough, I was deep in the woods, marvelling at the towering and straight-up Japanese cedars and passing an abandoned house that looked like something out of a Japanese horror movie.

At one point, I paused beside an especially deep ravine. The cedars stood like an infinite army of stoic and towering sentries all around and above and below me, endless legions of them, falling away on my hill and then rising higher on the next one, their tops shimmering gently way, way up there in the occasional breeze. There wasn't a sound, not a bird, not a cricket. Even the branches swaying in the breeze could not be heard, as if they were in a silent movie.

My hiking senses sharpened. I came to learn that a glimpse of blue sky near the bottom of the trunks ahead meant I was reaching the crest of a mountain, just as the increasingly loud gurgle of a stream meant I was reaching the bottom.

Oku had warned that the Kii Peninsula could be rainy, but I never had anything but sun. My stamina followed an arc: I tired quickly, then got into a rhythm, magically energised. I felt my mind open up and go free - it wandered through time, over that print show at the Cooper Hewitt, my family, my first trip to Japan, even my job: Solutions to several vexing problems at work suddenly became clear.

I tired again as I approached my destination, the town of Chikatsuyu, where Oku had booked me at a minshuku, a guesthouse, more modest than a traditional Japanese inn.

I threw in once and for all with the Canadians at dinner. We agreed to stick together the next day. We started early the following morning.

We saw some wildlife. A snake zipped between the feet of one of the Pats. Three monkeys ruffled branches down a hill, warning us off with ghastly shrieks. And a deer with two short, single-pronged antlers and a straight-up white tail froze on the trail ahead of us.

The Canadians paid more attention to hiking times and progress than I did. I learnt a lot from them, like how each of the many shrines we passed had a small box containing a stamp and an ink pad. Or how I shouldn't swing my hands when I hiked because they could become swollen.

That day's hike was the longest at 14.5km with roughly 600m of ascent. Eventually, we came out of the forest and walked along paved roads in little farming towns. The hike ended in the magnificent Grand Shrine at Hongu, a key stop for many of those mountain- worshipping pilgrims. The shrine's low-slung wooden buildings sat atop a towering stone staircase lined by hundreds of white flags blazing with Japanese characters, a fittingly dramatic finale.

That night's accommodation was a modern hot springs hotel. I had a bottle of Kirin from the refrigerator in my room before sampling all the various sulphur-smelling baths. I bathed inside, I bathed outside and, after a farewell dinner with the Canadians, found one of two private baths unoccupied, so I bathed there, too, finally alone.

These baths were in a little house, the damp wood wall that separated them open near the ceiling. Two Japanese women - a mother and a daughter, I suspect - had gone into the other one as I went into mine and I listened groggily in the near darkness to their mellifluous words and laughter and occasional tiny splashes, as I sat in the steaming water up to my neck.

If Hiroshige could see me now.

He probably never visited the Kii Peninsula. In fact, recent scholarship suggests he never even travelled the length of the Tokaido, creating some of his most famous designs from guidebooks. I don't know and I don't care: I'm certain that in those solitary moments deep in the woods, my mind free, the cedars like endless rows of sentries, as I walked a path worn smooth by pilgrims 1,400 years ago, the silence complete, enveloping, I saw him.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'A pilgrimage inspired by art'. Print Edition | Subscribe