An endless landscape: One of only two World Heritage paths in the world, and a pilgrimage of solitude.

puff, puff, puff...When did we get so out of breath? We climbed the simple stone and wood stairs of the steep mountain, suddenly and bitterly aware of our unhealthy, lazy lifestyles. We had stopped our car at the Totsukawa hot spring bath Subaru no Sato and started up the mountain trail to the Kumano Kodo, the ancient pilgrimage road of Kumano. Specifically, we had taken the Kohechi Road of the Kumano Kodo, on our way to Hatenashi Village at the top of the mountain ridge.

First, let me explain about the Kohechi Road. There are two collections of roads in the world that have been designated as World Heritage Sites. One is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which is a set of Christian pilgrimage routes that stretch over 800 kilometers between France and Spain. The other is a 200 kilometer path known as the Kumano Kodo, which passes through the Kumano Mountains.

Within the Kumano Kodo is the Kohechi Road, a 72-kilometer path that passes through the holy lands of Shingon Tantric Buddhism, from Mt. Kōya to Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine. Partway down this path, which also cuts through Totsukawa, is Hatenashi Village.

There’s a road that climbs up from the foot of the mountain to Hatenashi Village, so not many people actually go there via the Kohechi Road. But it’s really fun to imagine the lives of the people who lived in the Edo period or earlier as you walk along this mountain path. You might find yourself thinking about how people of the past walked this road in sandals, or wonder if the women who traveled this path wore kimono.

Lost in such daydreams, we walked along the road for about 30 minutes, and though it was winter we found ourselves sweating profusely. Suddenly we came upon a spacious open view. We walked a bit more, then turned to look back on the stone-paved road we had come up, only to see the beautiful sky stretched above, and mountains covered in thick green vegetation sprawling before us.

Why is the village called “Hatenashi”, or “endless”? We asked Shūichi Oka, Totsukawa native, retired town hall official, and local guide, what the origins of the name were, and he told us all kinds of theories.

“The one I think is most plausible is that it’s because the mountain range that runs through the Kii Peninsula from east to west seems endless. They even wrote in the Edo government’s historical geology records that, ‘The valleys appear dim and the peaks distant, therefore it’s said to be endless.’”

There’s another theory that comes from a historical folktale. It tells the story of Prince Moriyoshi, son of the Emperor Kodaigo, who tried to overthrow the Kamakura government in 1331. When he failed, he fled to Hatenashi Village, and it’s said that he ran and ran, but never found the end of the mountain range, and that’s where the name comes from.

“That story was told even in the Meiji Period. The famous botanist Kumagusu Minakata wrote about it in a letter to the folklorist Kunio Yanagida. He introduces Mt. Ando as a mountain in the middle of an endless mountain pass, and wrote that it’s where Prince Moriyoshi fled to, and that it was a safe place to retreat.”

There’s another theory put forth by a famous author. According to local legend, there’s a yōkai that lives in this region named “Ippon-datara”, which only attacks people on the “Final 20th of the year”, or “Hate no Hatsuka”. On that day, December 20th, people stay out of the woods and generally avoid going outside. So on the final 20th--”hate”--there are no people around--”nashi”, hence Hatenashi.

We have no way of knowing which of these is the real reason for the name, but once you step foot in Hatenashi Village, you’ll understand that it’s the perfect name for it.

At any rate, you won’t find another village like this in Japan, especially not one that has a World Heritage road crossing right through it. It’s a small village along a mountain ridge, so the Kohechi Road is its main road, with its houses and farm fields built around it. It’s strange to think that people have been walking this road since the Heian period. In fact, it’s probably fair to think that a lot of people used this path between the Edo and Meiji periods, too.

“In 1689, Kyorai Mukai, one of the ten great disciples of the famous poet Matsuo Basho, wrote a haiku called ‘Tsuzukuri mo Hatenashi Ita ya Samidare’, which describes an attempt to fix up the path, and how it never ends. According to the introduction to the poem, people who used the path collected donations for its repair, since it was on the border of the Kii and Yamato provinces. The paper that the money was wrapped in was where he wrote the poem. In short, he wrote that they raised as much money as there were people who walked the path.”

In the Meiji period, winter was a time of relative inactivity for farmers, so there are records of many farmers coming here to do an Ise pilgrimage from the northeast. Mr. Oka guessed that, after taking the Ise Road to the three main shrines of Kumano, they would go down the Kohechi towards Mt. Kōya.

However, over time the people stopped walking the path. “Fifty years ago, when I was a kid, there were zero tourists who took this path and visited Hatenashi Village. People only started coming again in 2004, when it was designated a World Heritage Site.”

Between 1950 and 2004, Hatenashi Village changed. When Mr. Oka was a child, there were about nine homes and 50 residents in the village, and the closest convenience store was about 60 kilometers away. If there was no water from the pipes, they would have to walk an hour through the mountains to a well to see what the problem was. Soon people started leaving in droves, and now there are only fourteen seniors living here. When we visited, there were no signs of people, and it felt like time had stopped.

But it doesn’t feel entirely abandoned. There’s not a single piece of litter on the Kohechi, and though it’s quiet there’s a vibrant beauty to the place. Mr. Oka told us that the townspeople are vigilant about keeping the path clean because they have so many visitors. To preserve the beautiful view, there are also no vending machines or anything like that in the village. That’s probably why going to this village feels like going back in time. In front of a beautiful old building believed to have once been an inn, there’s also a bamboo tube that gushes water for thirsty travelers. According to Mr. Oka, this isn’t actually something that has been here for a long time; it’s something that the people who live in this old building added for the tourists.

Perhaps this kind of consideration for the travelers, which you would never know about unless you asked, is, along with the nearby nature, a remnant of the Heian Period, when countless travelers would be welcomed here. This is a place where you can really feel the residents’ love--for the path, for people, and for the village.

When we asked Mr. Oka which season is best for visiting Hatenashi Village, he said spring. Looking at pictures of it in spring, we can see why. The weeping shidare cherry blossom trees of the village and the vibrant green crops make this little village look like an earthly paradise.
We’d be very interested in experiencing the silence of this village at night. Without any outdoor lights, this mountain ridge village must feel very close to the stars. How might it feel to gaze up at the twinkling stars in the total silence of a remote mountain village?

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