Doing a solo hike had been on my 30-before-30 bucket list ever since I’d pored over the pages of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, the best-selling memoir about her 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave desert to the Oregon-Washington border. I’d clung to those lines, in particular, carrying them with me from university to graduation, traveling and then moving to Japan, twice. I’d always wanted to experience for myself the sense of empowerment that she describes; of finding redemption, of vanquishing my fears.
Except, over the years of building a routine of work, exercise, hobbies and socializing, I had also built a rack of convenient excuses for not starting the journey. There never seemed to be a right time or right place. Work was too busy. I had a relationship. I was too caught up in going through the motions. If I really thought about it, I was scared of what would happen if I went hiking alone as a woman, in rural Japan.
And now, about to turn 30 years old, I felt more afraid than ever.
Still, I kept thinking about it. I researched long-distance hikes in Japan, signed up to newsletters, watched TED talks. I’d even start planning but then would give up halfway through and instead spend time indulging my feeling of panic over how old I was getting.
But then, in an odd instance of universal intervention, I was asked to take on a project for work, covering one of the most well-known pilgrimage routes in Japan: the Kumano Kodo. In order to do it, I’d have to experience the hike for myself. They wanted me there in early December — one week before my 30th birthday.
The Kumano Kodo is a network of sacred pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai that links the religious centers of Mt. Koya, the Ise Jingu and the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha. Its designation as a World Heritage Site makes it one of only two Unesco-listed pilgrimages in the world — the other being the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, in Spain.
In the late Heian Era (794-1185), pilgrims began to engrave pathways linking these sites through the mountains as they traveled in search of divine providence — one of the paths to purification formed into the Iseji Route. This 170-kilometer pilgrimage traced the edge of the Kii Peninsula, beginning at the Ise Jingu and threading through mountains and coastal paths in the Higashi Kishu region in southern Mie Prefecture, ending up at the Hayatama Taisha in Wakayama Prefecture.
As industrialization took hold of Japan, the number of pilgrims declined and the