The Omine mountains stretch over 80km through the heart of the Kii Peninsula, and they’ve been a center for esoteric Buddhism for centuries. While most attention is given to the rugged section between Mt. Sanjo and Mt. Shaka, an excursion into the southern part of the pilgrimage route was long overdue. It is said in the days of old, pilgrims started their journey from Hongu and made their way north, stopping along the way at Tamaki shrine which serves as the innermost sanctuary (oku-no-in) of the three great shrines of Hongu. It’s a considerable 1100 meters of cumulative elevation gain spread out over roughly 15 kilometers of precipitous terrain. Considering the distance from Osaka, it only seemed logical to do the route in reverse, starting out high at Tamaki and finishing in the coastal flatlands surrounding Hongu, but I would need a special support team for this mission. Enter Nara-based designer Andrew Thomas and his companion Rick. They agreed to drop me off on Tamaki and pick me up later in the day near the terminus of the Omine range.
I awoke in the pre-dawn blackness just before 5 in the morning. After a quick breakfast and double-checking of gear, I boarded the 6am train bound for Hashimoto, where a JR train shuttled me along to Gojo station, our rendezvous point for the important mission. I settled into the back seat while Andrew cruised steadily along route 168, a road known for its tight curves and narrow shoulders. It also garners the distinction of hosting the longest local bus route in Japan, a back-breaking, 167km ride through the backbone of Nara Prefecture. The full ride from Yagi to Shingu takes a staggering 6-and-a-half hours, a quest for only the most diehard bus nerds.
Route 168 itself is undergoing a major facelift, as the deep pockets from the prime minister’s controversial Abenomics policy sink money into massive public works projects. Tunnels are being bore into the neighboring hillsides in a effort to turn the tiny rural route into a major two-laned thoroughfare, perhaps in an effort to attract more bus coaches filled with affluent elderly pensioners.
After several hours on the serpent-like tarmac, we reached the turnoff for Tamaki shrine and began the long, curvy ascent on the narrow forest road to the entrance of the sacred grounds. Usually the upper reaches of the flank are sculpted in tufts of wintry white, but the unseasonably mild temperatures had completely obliterated the snow sans a few patches piled up on the sheltered northern shoulders of the one-lane road. We reached the gravel parking lot under blue skies tinged brown with a smoggy haze wafting over from the Yamato plain. The shrine itself was an easy 10-minute stroll along a level gravel road through a quiet forest dotted here and there with towering cryptomeria that have stood undisturbed for centuries.
Upon reaching the shrine, we had a quick look around before the abrupt climb to the high point of the mountain. The path grew steeper with each advancing step before leveling out on a broad ridge scarred by a duo of communication antenna. Perhaps this spectacle was kept out of sight from the UNESCO inspectors back in 2006 when the area was up for consideration as World Heritage status. But then again, criteria for Cultural heritage sites do not take into account disregard for environmental preservation.
The bald patch of the high point was marked by a concrete survey marker and battered signpost. Nearby stood one of the newer rectilinear markers set up all along the Kumano Kodo after being inscribed as a World Heritage site. These posts are apparently designed to withstand a nuclear holocaust and offer a good pacesetter for those trekkers committed for the long haul. From Mt. Shaka, you can set your next goal
while looking back and checking your progress.
With mountain number 88 checked off the list, it was time to retreat back to the shrine and continue along the ridge towards Mt. Godaison, peak #89 and my second target for the day.