The Ogumotori-goe | Freed from My Curse by the Kumano Gods

For the past three years, Donny Kimball has struggled with nightly drinking but as managed to overcome it.

“I’m pretty sure that by now, I can hit the age verification button at every convenience store chain with my eyes closed…”

— Donny Kimball

Greetings dear readers! In a second, I’ll get to how Kumano Nachi Taisha and the gods of the Kumano region help me overcome my affliction with alcoholism. Before I tackle that though, I need to take a second to set the stage for you and explain how I found myself facing my own potential demise as I attempted to complete the Kumano Kodo’s Ogumotori-goe Pass. Though this article won’t be solely about travel, I’ll try to weave in some useful tactics for those attempting the ancient pilgrimage route.

Unbeknownst to many on the outside, I’ve actually been struggling with an ongoing addiction to alcohol for the past few years. Even back when I was DJing, I was never much of a big drinker (and certainly not one to be imbibing on a random Tuesday or Wednesday evening). Alas, a lot has happened in the past few years. Between going full time freelance and then the pandemic, I somehow found myself cracking open a few cold ones after a long day of working myself to the bone for Japan’ sake.

Now, I’ve most certainly tried to quit drinking before on countless occasions since it became a hellish habit. Time and time again, I’d somehow be successful in breaking the daily routine only to fall back into the trap due to an unplanned instance involving alcohol. Despite having penned a guide on how to be a teetotaler in an environment like Japan, where booze is literally everywhere, I’d just crack under the social pressure. As you can probably guess, this would set me right back on the path of alcoholism.

In all likelihood, I have a genetic disposition towards binge drinking. At least as far as my review of the scientific literature shows, there’s a certain subset of the population for which alcohol acts as a stimulant (see the above video for more info). These individuals can drink and drink and drink, all while showing no outward effects of the ethanol consumed. While I was never one to get rowdy, I am sure that I definitely fall into this camp. My hypothesis is only further supported by the fact that one sip for me inevitably always leads to fifty.

Of course, my cognitive mind has always known all about the deleterious effects that even small amounts of “the sauce” have on health long term. What’s more, I also was well aware that drinking was THE major limiting factor in me being of higher service to Japan — It’s not easy after all to be firing on all cylinders every morning when you’re hungover as hell. Too bad quitting cocktails isn’t as easy as just having a rational understanding of the downsides and adverse side effects!

Somewhere along the line, my nightly tipple had transformed into my mental off switch from work. Without a little bit of liquor flowing through my veins, I’d just keep working and working until next thing I knew, it would be 3 AM. Still, I knew I needed to change if I was going to live up to my potential and be of more aid to Japan. Knowing I couldn’t do it alone, I set out to make a pilgrimage to Kumano Nachi Taisha while en route to the beachside hot spring town of Shirahama.

You Don’t Deny a Deity

The famed Kumano Nachi Taisha pagoda and Nachi Falls as seen from Seianto-ji

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

— Matthew 7:7

I think I’ve noted this before elsewhere but I am pretty dense when it comes to the divine. Though there may be people who are adept at sensing the spiritual, I am not one of them. For me to actually “feel” something, it has to be an overwhelming sensation such as what one experiences when exploring Kyoto’s famed Fushimi Inari Taisha at night. Thus, I can’ really say I had my hopes up as I prayed to be forever free from intoxication at Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Despite my apparent lack of faith in the divine, I did go way out of my way to come back down to this rural part of southern Wakayama Prefecture for this pilgrimage. At the end of my rope and willing to look for help anywhere, I elected to entreat the 800-year-old camphor tree on the shrine grounds. Allegedly, by writing your prayers on a wooden stick and then entering the ancient timber, the powers that be will grant your wish.

As I exited the venerable camphor tree, I still really didn’t think much of the experience. Truth be told, I was actually looking at my phone and trying to figure out which bus would allow me to see Nachi Falls and then make it to Shirahama in time for sunset. It was then that I happened upon the staircase that leads to the Kumano Kodo trail head. Despite being to Kumano Nachi Taisha three times now, I never could figure out quite where this was.

Somehow, curiosity got the better of me and I found myself already walking up the steep incline. Looking back at it all, I can only conclude that it was divine intervention. Time and time again on previous visits, I had waltzed right past that staircase. Distracted by the sight of Nachi Falls and the pagoda seen above, I simply never noticed the start of the Kumano Kodo. Before I knew it though, I was already hauling my sweaty arse up the hill…

A Wild Misogi Appears

The view of Kii-Katsuura from the Fumami-jaya Tea House on the Kumano Kodo’s Ogumotori-goe Path.

“What are you mentally and spiritually willing to put yourself through to become a better human?”

— Michael Easter

At the time, I didn’t realize what I was about to embark on was the absolute hardest section of the Kumano Kodo. Known as the Ogumotori-goe, this 14-kilometer-long segment is seriously challenging, even for the properly prepared. Of course, I was definitely not prepared — not by a long shot. Carrying a heavy backpack with my trusty MacBook Air, a handful of dongles and a few days of clothing, I was anything but adequately equipped for the arduous trail ahead.

In Japan, there is a concept known as misogi. Essentially a purification ritual whereby the participants cleanse themselves of evil, the notion has oddly been working its way into the world of metaphor and self-development. Here, it has been largely stripped of its religious roots and instead come to mean “doing something hard.” If you’re keen to see what the western version is, you can read a lot more about it in the book The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter.

In either the Japanese or the western model, the core premise of misogi is the difficulty. In overcoming it, you need to kill the weaker, prior version of yourself that would have buckled at the challenge. As I set out on the Ogumotori-goe, I didn’t know it but I was embarking on my own misogi and it would push me close to the point of breaking. Had I even taken a few seconds to do some research, I am sure that the “me of then” would have made a beeline for Shirahama.

At first, my motivation was merely inquisitive. I was going to work my way up to the former site of one of the many tea houses that lined the Kumano Kodo, the Funami-jaya, enjoy the view of Kii-Katsuura down below and then call it a day. When I reached my destination, I sat down for a second to take in the epic vista seen above. It was then that I heard it. The voice urge me to “go on to Koguchi,” the next town on the Kumano Kodo. Was it my own words reverberating in my head or something else…

The Abode of the Dead

The Moja-no-Deai is a part of the Kumano Kodo’s Ogumotori-goe path where pilgrims are said to encounter their dead relatives and aquaintances.

“According to the eighth-century chronicle, the Nihon-shoki, Kumano is where the deity Izanami was laid to rest, and where her husband, Izanagi, followed her into the Land of Yomi, where departed souls resided.”

— The Japan Tourism Agency

I still don’t know what happened while sitting on that bench at the remains of the Funami-jaya Tea House. What I can say is that something implored me to continue on the Ogumotori-goe all the way to Koguchi. The climb up to this elevated lookout was already quite challenging but I still had no idea what was in store for me. With an upbeat “uketamo, I set out towards the small village of Koguchi and unknowingly embarked on my unplanned misogi.

Soon after leaving the Funami-jaya Tea House, I arrived at the Moja-no-Deai. Literally translating to “the place where you can meet the dead,” this location is riddled with tales of the supernatural and the occult. According to local folk legends (and indeed, accounts from recent eyewitnesses on the Kumano Kodo), those who traverse this section are said to meet their deceased acquaintances and relatives coming from the opposite direction.

From the little information available online, I’ve been able to gather that typical encounters follow a peculiar pattern. As a pilgrim on the Kumano Kodo descends from the extremely steep Funami-toge Pass (where the tea house remains are located) to the more level Moja-no-Deai, the start to relax. Here, it is said the breeze may change or eerie mist may arise. Ahead on the path, they will often see another coming towards them, only to suddenly realize who it actually is.

In many accounts, the pilgrim in question is duped into believing that the person that they crossed paths withs at the Moja-no-Deai is actually still alive. However, when they come home, they realize that the being that they met was actually their acquaintance’s soul on its way to ring the temple bell at Amida-ji (the sources I could find note that this is where all spirits go before passing on to the next life). Keep this in mind if you ever find yourself on the Ogumotori-goe and meet someone you know…

By the way, for those of you who aren’t aware, the entire Kumano region has long been associated with death and the afterlife. Despite being located somewhat close to Japan’s former capital, the mountain core of the Kii Peninsula is home to terrain that is as inaccessible as it is mysterious. Just as is the case with the Dewa Sanzan, entering the mountains was thought to be akin to stepping into the other world where departed souls reside.

While I didn’t encounter anyone that I was familiar with at the Moja-no-Deai, it was around this time that it started to dawn on me. This trek was to be my penance. If I truly wanted my wish to be finally free from alcoholism to be granted by the gods, I was going to need to work for it, and work hard. As I exited the Moja-no-Deai, this constant chorus echoed in my mind. I had dropped the ball and this challenge was to be my first step towards atonement.

Looking back, I can only assume that this chanting was the work of the Kumano Sanzan gods urging me forward. While this is a bit too “woo-woo” even for me, I can think of no other plausible explanation here. Just an hour or so before, I had begged the deity enshrined at Kumano Nachi Taisha for a favor and here I was being presented with a chance to actually earn what I wanted. The lesson here folks is to be careful what you wish for…

A Battle Against Gravity

This chart by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau shows that the inner parts of the Ogumotori-goe are characterized by their constant ups and downs.

“What goes up, must come down.”

— Sir Isaac Newton

As can be seen in the above graph by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, there are a number of ups and downs between the Funami-jaya Tea House and the Echizen-toge Pass. By now, I was starting to get quite fatigued as every ascent felt like it came with a following descent. I’d struggle to drag my weighted-down behind down a backbreaker only to then have to do the opposite all over again. It was like willfully undoing your own work time and time again.

As anyone who has done any hiking knows, going up a slope taxes your cardiovascular system but going down is pure punishment on all of the myriad of little muscles that aid in stability. Around this part of the trek, I was starting to go a little “gumby leg” and it was harder to control the eccentric descent when going down. Suffice to say, it was clear why everyone else on the Kumano Kodo had walking sticks.

When I reached the Jizo-jaya, I knew it was time for a break. Up until this point, I had basically been soldiering through as I knew that stopping to rest would be a recipe for disaster. Just as when I did Tokyo’s Mt. Kumotori in a mere day, I was going to have to continue pushing to reach the goal before my stamina completely gave out and I was stuck on the Kumano Kodo. More than once, I found myself thinking of what I would do if the worst were to happen.

Luckily, the Jizo-jaya was blessed with both a vending machine and a toilet. By this time, I was long out of anything to hydrate on so you can imagine just how elated I was to find a vending machine way out here. There was also a little hut with tables too but unfortunately, pilgrims coming from the opposite direction had already snagged them for lunch. Hey, at least I was able to buy some water and take a leak!

With nowhere to really sit, I trudged on up towards the Echizen-toge Pass. This last stretch was to be the final ascent before I would arrive at the sleepy hamlet of Koguchi. Unlike when I started out on my unplanned misogi, my lack of preparation and added load were really starting to take their toll. In contrast to my spirited climb to the Funami-jaya Tea House, my steps were now labored but I somehow mustered the strength to go on.

Little did I know that all of the collective difficulties I faced up until the summit of the Echizen-toge Pass would pale in comparison to what was in store for me next…

Enter the “Body Breaker”

The hardest part of the Ogumotori-goe is the Dogiri-zaka Slope that descends over 800 meters from the Echizen-toge Pass.

“This route is very rough and difficult: it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.”

— Fujiwara Teika

It was then that I saw it — the Dogiri-zaka. Just seconds ago, I had seen a signboard with the above quote but it didn’t really register what type of hellish torture I would have waiting for me. Literally meaning “Body-breaking Slope,” the Dogiri-zaka is by far the most demanding part of the Ogumotori-goe. Beginning at the Echizen-toge Pass, the Dogiri-zaka descends over 800 meters down to the small village of Koguchi in the valley far below.

At least as I could tell by the number of people I met coming the opposite way, it seems that a plenty a pilgrim opt to do the reverse as I did. Coming from the main shrine of the Kumano trio, Kumano Hongu Taisha, they will work their way to Koguchi and then depart from the village fresh in the early morning. This way, they will have all of their strength in reserve for the Dogiri-zaka.

I, of course, was coming upon the horrible hill with knees and ankles that were as stable as an end game Jenga tower. While I had gravity on my side, I would soon learn that this would be anything but a blessing. If you’ll kindly remember, I was utterly unprepared for this impromptu misogi and that meant I was wearing my trusty Xero Prios. Though these minimalist shoes made it easy to feel the ground, each rogue rock that I stepped on was absolutely excruciating.

The Kumano Kodo is believed to have been established in the 5th century. Unfortunately, as I’ve often explained before, we don’t have many good historical records from this time because the written language only really entered Japan on the back of Buddhism. Despite the passage of many centuries now, the Kumano Kodo is still in very walkable condition. Sadly, this was not the case for the Dogiri-zaka; I had to literally inch my way down this final trial, lest I break a leg.

Despite my caution, there were many times that I almost keeled over. Had I hurt myself here, there is no way that anyone was going to find me. All of the travelers going the other way were already likely at the Moja-no-Deai by now and no one else would be coming up the path until tomorrow. Moreover, the only way for emergency services (assuming I had cell reception to phone them in the first place) were going to get to me was to walk up the damn Dogiri-zaka themselves.

There are only a few people onto whom I would wish a trip up the never-ending ascent that is Dogiri-zaka. At the same time there is quite literally no one that I would want to have to suffer through a descent like I did. It is nothing short of two to three hours of unending torment. Just as you think you’re almost there, the path will turn a corner revealing yet another, unbelievably long set of stairs (if you can even call this hodgepodge of rocks and pebbles that).

At least when you’re going up the Dogiri-zaka, you are only really worried about effort-induced exhaustion and you can always pause to take a breather. On the way down though, you have no such luxury. The footing is quite fickle and it’s easy to slip. Short of just planting your behind on the mossy slabs of stone that make up this part of the Kumano Kodo, there is no reprieve from the constant assault on the tendons and ligaments in your legs.

Here, I’ll come clean and say I did do just that at one point. I think it was halfway down or so but who can say how much time has passed when you’re in hell. At the end of my rope and starting to despair, I plopped down for some much needed rest. It was then that something caught my eye amidst the towering tree trunks on either side of the path. It was a long stick that was just the right height for me to be a walking aid.

Even as I write this a few days after having survived the ordeal, I cannot help but think that the makeshift staff that I found was put there by powers beyond me. Up until then, I was starting to lose all hope as it became painfully obvious why the thirty-something other pilgrims I met along the way ALL had expensive walking sticks with them. With that hearty twig in hand, I mustered up the strength and courage to continue on.

Even with my newly-found, natural-made equipment in hand, the journey down the rest of the Dogiri-zaka was not easy. There were times where I lost my footing and I was sure I was going to at least sprain an ankle. Somehow though, I made it through largely unscathed. That said, the Dogiri-zaka is by far one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my life and made my yamabushi training on the slopes of Mt. Haguro feel like a breeze.

The Waroda-ishi Rock is said to be a place where the gods of Kumano congregate to chat and drink tea. It is on the Dogiri-zaka slope.

Eventually, I was able to work my way down to the Waroda-ishi Rock. Here at this massive, Sanskrit-inscribed boulder, the deities of Kumano are said to gather and have a cup of tea. Not wanting to be ungrateful, I said my thanks to them for having helped to keep me safe until now. My appreciation was awarded with a renewed vigor to make it off of this slope alive. Not to sound all “woo-woo” again but I felt their watchful eye on me as I departed.

Soon after the Waroda-ishi Rock, I came across the remains of a number of small inns. During the days of yesteryear when the Kumano Sanzan shrines were at their zenith, pilgrims from all over would stop in here to recover before or after the daunting Dogiri-zaka. With bodies most certainly broken as per the endless incline’s name, I am sure they welcome the hot baths that some of these tiny inns offered.

The section from the former inns down to Koguchi was arguably the hardest of all. Far beyond my limit, I felt an ever-increasing sense of dread when I would learn that no, I still wasn’t there yet. After every twist or turn, my hopes that I was finally there were thrashed again and again. Had I not now felt like I was on a divine quest for atonement, I am sure my spirits would have been shattered.

After one too many close calls where my semi-delirious self almost fell off the path into a ravine far below, I came across the first signs of Koguchi. While there were still more steps left than I would have otherwise liked, I rejoiced that I had managed to overcome the Dogiri-zaka without any serious injuries. Were this not a misogi entrusted to me by the gods, my actions would have been suicidally foolish but this was a mission from beyond our realm.

I honestly can say that I only made it safely down to Koguchi by the will of the Kumano deities. Were I not acting at their behest, I am sure that I would have given up sometime during the disheartening trip down the Dogiri-zaka. Not that doing so would have helped me; by that point, I was beyond any chance of backing out other than doing all of what I had already done in reverse (which, in my state, was of course out of the f@$#ing question).

By the Will of the Kami

The Akagi River runs through the hamlet of Koguchi as is the perfect way to cool off after doing the Kumano Kodo.

“God’s in His Heaven — All’s Right With the World.”

— Nerv’s Slogan in Evangelion

Upon arriving in Koguchi, I stumbled towards the nearest bus stop to see how much time I had to kill. Covered in sweat and reeking like something feral, I wanted nothing more than for one of the little inns for pilgrims here to open its doors for me to use their bath. While there were no such facilities to be found, the Akagi River was conveniently flowing below and I just happened to be wearing shorts that could double as a swimsuit.

Throwing all shame and shyness to the wind, I peeled my other garments off of my sweat-encrusted body and dove into the still-chilly waters of the Akagi River. Along the riverbank, I noticed a few other non-Japanese travelers as well who were likely pilgrims waiting for their own body-breaking trials on the Dogiri-zaka on the following morning. “Good, they won’t have to do the same descent I did at least…” I thought to myself as I submerged my body in the cool waters of the river.

From what I remember, I got to the Akagi River around 3:20 PM and the bus wasn’t coming until 4:10 PM. With plenty of time, I just relaxed and soothed my agonized-limbs in the cold of the stream. As I floated on my back, I thought I saw a crow fly overhead and look down on me. Call me crazy, but I will forever think that the figure was that of the Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow that was sent by the sun goddess Amaterasu to guide Japan’s first emperor through Kumano.

While I know that I’ll always have to deal with the insidious temptation to drink, this adventure along the Ogumotori-goe path has since helped me beat my addiction to “shutting down” with alcohol. Though I am sure that I’ll let some people down when I tell them I am not imbibing anymore, the upsides of complete abstinence far outweigh the possibilities of any faux pas. Besides, I’ll assuredly have to answer to the gods of the Kumano region if I mess up!

So, to all of the people’s whose proverbial butts I may hurt in the near future, I am sorry I can’t drink with you. Were it just one or two, I’d totally be game but that simply isn’t in the cards for me. After all, that “just live a little” drink to you ends up being weeks if not months of nightly boozing for me. With the mission that Japan has entrusted to me, I can’t afford to not be functioning at my absolute best if I am to achieve what I must.

Oh, and if you still don’t believe that this spontaneous misogi was something that was ordained by the gods, allow me to end with this anecdote. Somewhere along the Ogumotori-goe, a flash of gold caught my eye. When I bent down to inspect it, the shiny object in question turned out to be a 500 yen coin. Lucky day! Given the location, one thing I knew was whoever dropped it wasn’t coming back to get it so I pocketed it and kept on trudging on.

Where this gets really spooky is on the way back. Seeing as I only had 10,000 yen bills (which can’t be exchanged on the bus), it was this random finding that allowed me to take the last bus of the day towards Shirahama. Had I not found that damn stick or that 500 yen coin, I likely would have been stranded somewhere on the Kumano Kodo with no way of getting back to civilization. #RIPDonny.

Anyway, I hope you liked this one-off account of my experience tackling the hardest part of the Kumano Kodo and overcoming my pernicious penchant for nightly drinking. Apparently, it’s a trend right now in the daikon cult to be completely vulnerable in a public place. While my struggles have been of my own making, I am glad to now finally have this demon locked away for good thanks to the gods of Kumano.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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