Revalorizing vibrant folk traditions on the trail to Kumano Kodo
According to authors J. Christian Greer and Michelle Oing, Kumano Kodo can be translated as “the ancient road of Kumano.” In actuality, the Kumano Kodo is less of a trail and more like a zone that stretches across the southeastern coast of the Kii peninsula on the island of Honshu.
Kumano Kodo: Pilgrimage to Powerspots narrates the otherworldly adventures of these scholars as they traverse the Kumano Kodo, one of two pilgrimage trails recognized by UNESCO. Self-described “suspicious agnostics,” the authors argue that pilgrimage is a means of sacramentalizing everyday life, as well as a tool of ego dissolution and spiritual rebirth.
Weaving together scholarship, traditional Japanese folklore, esoteric philosophy, and first-person accounts of life on the trail, Greer and Oing seek to reevaluate the role of pilgrimage in the 21st Century, asserting that the ancient tradition “represents a source of stability in a world increasingly more diseased.”
The zone includes three major temples dedicated to Japanese deities, as well as a number of other pawasuppotto (パワースポット), places imbued with supernatural forces. The authors repeatedly underscore the fact that the history of the Kumano Kodo is a history of multiplicity and entanglements in which traditional Japanese folk religion has blended with Buddhist divinities as well as spirits and gods from a variety of other sources.
In recent years, UNESCO and other institutions have attempted to construct a “master narrative” around the Kumano Kodo, streamlining its history and excluding a range of unofficial stories and traditions in an attempt to make it more marketable to tourists. One of the primary goals of this work is to reassert the value of heterodox knowledge in the story.
“By dismantling the dominant tourist narrative,” the authors argue, “we shall re-center the pervasive chaos that animates this otherworldly passageway.”
The first section of the book outlines the extensive preparations the authors made before disembarking. In addition to conducting a wide-ranging survey of scholarship on pilgrimage in general and the Kumano Kodo in particular, they underwent a number of DIY rites to prepare for the journey including acquiring official pilgrims’ passports and forging “mystical passports” to aid in their migration into the supernatural world. They also acquired magical journals to fill with accounts of their fantastic experiences, and even composed a last will and testament as an expression of their willingness to renounce their lives and material attachments until they returned.
The second section of the book narrates the authors’ subjective experiences on the pilgrimage, with each chapter beginning with documentation of the facts of a given day’s journey. In addition to expected metrics such as “Distance traveled” and “Foods consumed,” they also list the number of “Panic attacks, Shit blasts, Sock changes, and Surrenders.” Greer and Oing document every aspect of the journey, from their everyday interactions with fellow pilgrims and hotel patrons to encounters with kami and yokai (spirits) and pawasuppotto visits.
Considering that the trip took place at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the narration is often tinged with a sense of chaos and uncertainty, but it is always imbued with a sense of exploratory wonder. The entire book is interspersed with Greer’s artful and eclectic collages made up of materials taken from manga, comics, and Japanese tourist guides laid over images of Persian rugs.
Kumano Kodo is an engaging and enjoyable read spanning a variety of genres and literary modalities. When discussing scholarship, the authors are succinct and clear. Though they employ concepts from fields such as religious studies, anthropology, cultural criticism, and even esoteric tradition, the text is never bogged down by jargon or made overly academic. The narrations of their personal experiences are compelling, exciting, and raw. They are sincere and honest, even when writing about intensely personal experiences such as illness, bodily functions, and emotional outbursts.
The authors also employ a down-to-earth sense of humor throughout their narration. To some readers, their scatological and erotic references might come across as irreverent or even disrespectful, but that’s misguided. By treating the seemingly profane with the same level of respect and reverence as the obviously sacred, the authors are staying true to their mission of revalorizing the vibrant folk traditions which imbue the very landscape of the Kumano Kodo.
With this work, these rough-and-tumble scholars have shed a new light on the value of pilgrimage to the denizens of the 21st century. They assert that far from being a useless vestige of the past, pilgrimage is a way to reinvigorate the present and to reconnect with spirituality in an increasingly rationalistic world.
“Though some may dismiss our findings as the work of cranks,” they say, “recall that cranks make the wheels of the world go round.”