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The Naked Stranger – Episode 10: Kawayu Onsen

As the Crow Flies: Yatagarasu and the Kumano Kodo Trail

If you are finding it hard to get a sense of direction during these crazy times, perhaps a little confused or lacking in motivation, the doctors may try and prescribe you pills, counseling or life coaches. Fear not, you can forget all that psychobabble and new age mumbo jumbo because all you need is the counsel of a good, old-fashioned three-legged crow.

You read that right. If you really want to fill that cavernous void in your life then you need a crow, with an extra leg, preferably god-like, such as Yatagarasu (八咫烏).

The Naked Stranger was recently in Wakayama Prefecture at the behest of this ornithological scallywag, who coo-ed and caw-ed, luring him away from his comfortable materialistic malaise, down to the world heritage region of the Kumano Kodo Trail, to search for a good walk, a long soak and some well overdue spiritual awakening.

Yatagarasu. Crow-god, symbol of guidance, Shinto rock-star, avian freakshow and just an all round man-about-town. Yatagarasu. He who brought Emperor Jimmu out of his slump in 600 B.C., guiding him from obscurity in the rugged mountains of the Kii Peninsula to immortality as Japan’s first emperor. Yatagarasu. The symbol of the Japanese Football Association; the crafty crow coached the Japanese nadeshiko women’s soccer team to glory in the 2011 World Cup. Call him what you will, but he gets results and has the resume to back it up.

The Kumano Mountains are a place of beauty. Sacred cypress forests scarred by rivers and streams and the cumulative sandal-prints of nearly 2,000 years of bedraggled hiker-stumbling and toe stubbing, searching for an ascetic purity that only someone humping a pack over hundreds of kilometers of mountain terrain will ever understand.

The harder it is, the higher you will fly under the tutelage of your new, three-legged deity. He will be by your side, like a Pomeranian pooch, yappy and persistent and ever-present, caw-ing, coo-ing and cock-a-dooing you until eventually you arrive at a kind of Montbell-inspired version of Nirvana—a flatland heaven where your feet won’t ache, your Gore-Tex jacket will never crumple or smell even remotely of wet dog.

First, however, you will need to climb the stairs on the Kumano Kodo Trail. And many of them there are. Your feet will ache and your gear will smell like a wet dog.

But somewhere through the burning calf pain, the cankers between your thighs and the general delirium from eating convenience store sandwiches for too many days in a row, there is a spiritual awakening—a golden road. And at the end of this golden road lies an onsen as old as the Emperor Jimmu himself, still gurgling out a rusty pipe that looks like the exhaust of your first car and smells like a middle-school science experiment gone awry. It could well be the best bath you will ever have.

And that is the essence of the lesson of Yatagarasu. If he crows at you, you must go. All cankers will subside. Calf pain is transitory. Seven-eleven sandwiches will become palatable again. But the Kumano Kodo Trail will remain.

Sansuikan Kawayu Midoriya
Kawayu Onsen, Wakayama Prefecture
Address: Tanabe-shi, Wakayama 647-1717
Hours: Open daily from 5 a.m. till Midnight if you stay, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. for visitors.
Cost: ¥800 for outside visitors.
Tel: (0735) 42-1011
Web: kawayu-midoriya.jp
Rating: ♨️ ♨️ ♨️ ♨️

The Upside: Sit out in the open air by the river in a mixed bath with your family and then have the hotel drop you at one of the trailheads of the Kumano Kodo Trail the next day. Kawayu is a pure kakenagashi (natural hot spring from the original source) that comes out at 73 degrees. You can even bring a shovel and dig your own bath straight into the river, just make sure you mix a little cold water in with it!
The Downside: It’s pretty isolated, so don’t expect any nightclubbing.

The Bare Facts:

  • Kawayu Onsen is one of the three hot spring villages that make up the Hongu Onsen-kyo area. The other two are Yunomine and Watarase hot springs. It is close to the Kumano Kodo trails and there are many different trail heads that are easily reached by bus.
  • The senninburo is famous in the area. It is a large free open-air bath in the middle of the Oto River that is open from December to February. Other months, you can dig your own by the side of the river.
  • Juniyakushi is the guardian deity of Kawayu Onsen. It is said that praying to Juni-Yakushi while in the hot water helps cure nervous and internal disorders.
  • You can also drink the onsen water which is thought to be good for curing gout, diabetes and digestive disorders.
  • Yunomine Onsen Tsuboyu is close by and is considered to be Japan’s oldest hot spring. It was discovered 1,800 years ago and is registered as a World Heritage site. The water can change color up to seven times a day.

Nearby Attractions: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Kodo Nakahechi pilgrimage routes, Senninburo River Bath, Yunomine Onsen, Watarase Onsen, Nachi Waterfall, Nachi Taisha Shrine, Nachi-Katsuura Town.
Access: From Tokyo Station, take the Nozomi or Kodama Shinkansen to Nagoya. Change at Nagoya Station to the limited express Nanki to Shingu Station in Wakayama. From Shingu Station you can get an hourly bus to Hongu Taisha. Hongu Taisha Shrine is about a 10-minute taxi ride to Kawayu Onsen.

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