Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Ultimate in Recycling--on Japan's Kumano Kodo Pilgrim Trail

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Japan is big on recycling. From multiple bins and collection days (I have six bins in my kitchen, and take out various types of recycling three days a week) to recycling bins beside (almost) every vending machine,  for easy disposal of empty cans and bottles, it's a country that loves "reduce, reuse, recycle." 

But perhaps the most impressive example of recycling I've seen in Japan goes far beyond plastic and aluminum.

The village of Koguchi sits nestled in a narrow valley along the ancient Kumano Kodo Nakahechi, a pilgrim trail that winds through mountainous Wakayama Prefecture to the three Kumano Grand Shrines (Hongu, Shingu, and Hayatama Taisha).

It's difficult to photograph Koguchi from a distance, as the picture below demonstrates. The village sits between the Kogumotori-goe ("Small Cloud-Grasping Pass") and Ogumotori-goe ("Large Cloud-Grasping Pass") - two of the highest passes pilgrims encountered on the trail, and two of the last, for those who took the pilgrimage in a West-to-East direction.

I took the picture below standing atop the lower Kogumotori-goe, and the Ogumotori-goe passes over the mountains in the background. Koguchi lies far below the clouds, between them.

The Kumano Kodo, coming over Kogumotori-goe

For centuries, Koguchi (whose name translates "little mouth") was isolated by its mountain location, but also a vital link in the Kumano Kodo chain. The village inns hosted travelers, and its restaurants offered refreshment to hungry and thirsty pilgrims, who often stopped there for the night before attempting the trail's highest pass the following day. 

Entering Koguchi on the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi

The trail enters the village near the river that cuts Koguchi in two, and is home to the sweetfish that formed a primary part of the village's diet for centuries.

The bridge, entering Koguchi

Today, a bridge makes it easy to cross the river, but at the height of the pilgrimage's popularity during the 12th and 13th centuries, pilgrims had to cross the river on one of the flat-bottomed ferries operated by villagers.

The river runs lower than it used to, especially in winter.

On the far side of the river, and a small way up the road, stands the former Koguchi Middle School.

Formerly, Koguchi Middle School

Japan's declining population, combined with the tendency of young people to move to the cities in search of modern types of work, has sent many remote, traditional villages into decline. The smaller, aging population also meant that the middle school, once a necessity for the village children, closed from lack of need. (Today, the middle school children of Koguchi take the bus to schools in cities up to an hour away.)

However, instead of letting the school go derelict and decay, the residents of the village came together and came up with an intriguing plan: why not transform the school into a village-run ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for modern travelers hiking the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi? 

Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie

The plan succeeded, and the former school--now a ryokan called Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie--allows hikers on the Kumano Kodo to stay on the actual trail, in the village where pilgrims have sheltered for centuries. Each of the former classrooms has been converted to a Japanese-style guest room, complete with tatami floors and seating area. 

A guest room at Shizen-no-Ie

Residents of the village man the front desk, cook and serve the evening and morning meals (which are delicious), and handle all of the other tasks that go along with running a ryokan.

Another guest room, where I stayed in 2020

The inn is small, with only 11 rooms (each of which can accommodate 1-4 guests, depending on the number in your party), and often fills up far in advance year-round. It employs the local residents, and continues the centuries-old tradition of Koguchi playing host to travelers on the Kumano Kodo.

A beautiful morning in Koguchi.

An excellent example of recycling, indeed.